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Persian Gulf

Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution made them exiles, the Persian Jews of Los Angeles are split in new ways by an old question: how much to hold on to religious and cultural traditions forged in a country that now hates them

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Sharona Nazarian and her family celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and Purim, in Los Angeles. (Photographs by Daryl Peveto/LUCEO)

Nessah Synagogue, the most prominent Persian synagogue in Beverly Hills, was founded in 1980 as a congregation in exile led by the son of Hakham Yedidia Shofet, the chief rabbi of Tehran and scion of a rabbinic dynasty that stretches back 12 generations. As the name Nessah—eternal in Hebrew—suggests, the congregation’s purpose was to pick up in California where Iran’s Jewish community had left off amid the chaos of the 1979 Islamic revolution, maintaining a clear, unbroken line to a set of traditions and practices that date back more than 2,500 years. “You can take the Jew out of Iran,” the synagogue’s website announces, “but you can’t take Iran out of the Jew!”

The Iranian Jews spent two decades as the Cubans of Los Angeles: a tight-knit community living in exile, in many cases fabulously wealthy or entrepreneurial or both, plopped down not in some far, unseen corner of the city but right at its commercial and cultural heart, resisting any move toward assimilation while they waited for the tide to turn back home. Jimmy Delshad, the former mayor of Beverly Hills and an unofficial spokesman of the Persian Jewish community, refers to it as “the suitcase mentality”—as in, ready to go at any time. But that fantasy of return is long gone. Now, within a few miles of Nessah, there is a Chabad Persian Youth center, an Orthodox synagogue and school called Ohr HaEmet, and the Iranian Jewish Senior Center, all featuring prominent multi-lingual signage. “Their kids have grown up here,” Delshad says. “They know the kids would never go back to Iran.”

Nessah today occupies a 60,000-square-foot neoclassical temple a few blocks east of Rodeo Drive, where Yedidia Shofet’s son and successor, David Shofet, conducts services in Hebrew and Farsi, from a bimah in the middle of a high-ceilinged thousand-seat main sanctuary. Aging men in charcoal gray suits with white shirts fill the east side of the room, while their wives sit to the west. That is the part of Nessah that its members describe as “traditional Persian.”

No one knows what to call the services in the event hall on the other end of the block-long campus, where on Saturdays a charismatic young Lubavitch rabbi from Miami Beach named Menachem Weiss leads prayers in English from a standard Modern Orthodox text. Here, the worshippers are Jews who identify as Persian but are also unequivocally American. His congregants are the children and grandchildren of Shofet’s original flock, people who grew up in the United States, who live their daily lives in English, and who don’t want to or simply can’t follow services in Farsi. Even in the ladies’ room, where mothers whisper to their toddlers, the lingua franca is English.

Now adults, they are the first generation of Persian Jews to come of age outside their country since the time of the Babylonian exile. More Persian Jews live in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the world—an estimated 45,000, roughly twice the number remaining in Iran. They have homes in Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, and Encino; they have Ivy League degrees and work as doctors, lawyers, producers, and bankers. The names of the community’s most successful members, the brothers Parviz and Younes Nazarian, adorn the city’s major synagogues and centers at USC and UCLA; Younes’ youngest son, Sam, is a nightlife impresario who has been profiled in The New Yorker and who made the Los Angeles Times power list in 2006 at 31. There is even a Persian “Bernie Madoff”: Ezri Namvar, a real-estate investor who owned everything from a Marriott downtown to a resort in Lake Tahoe and was indicted last fall on charges he stole $23 million from investors in his collapsed fund.

Marked by their complicated surnames and close family ties, the Persian Jews are—willingly or not—responsible for determining how much of the old language and customs will survive after their transplantation to Southern California. Many of Nessah’s members, including its board officers, have what they jokingly refer to as “dual citizenship”: membership at Nessah as well as at one of the large, mainstream synagogues nearby, like the Conservative Sinai Temple or Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple, where their children attend day or Hebrew school and have their bar or bat mitzvahs.

The community’s arrival exerts a profound influence on the Jewish culture and politics of Los Angeles, even as the Persian Jews themselves reshape their traditions to fit the American mold. “Persian, Jewish, American,” says Zvi Dershowitz, a rabbi who was instrumental in welcoming Persian Jews to his synagogue, Sinai Temple, one of the largest Conservative congregations in West Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the revolution. “It’s the three-legged stool.”

***

It’s hard, these days, to remember that there was a time when Iran was cool, a place where Elizabeth Taylor went to recover from her split from Richard Burton and before embarking on her political life with Virginia Sen. John Warner. In an American context, the Persians remained foreign and exotic even after they began arriving in large numbers. Their American pop-culture debut was in the 1995 movie Clueless, the writer and director of which, Amy Heckerling, spent months sitting in on classes at Beverly Hills High School. “That’s the Persian mafia,” went one line in Heckerling’s screenplay. “You can’t hang with them unless you own a BMW.” To people in Beverly Hills, the joke was funny because it was true, and because it lampooned both Persians’ extravagant materialism and their American counterparts’ disdainful fascination. The joke still plays: A lavish feature in W magazine accompanied by a Larry Sultan photo essay depicted a bejeweled L.A. Persian old guard in faux-Versailles mansions—the Shah Reza Pahlavi crowd—giving way to a generation of rich, nubile proto-Kardashians posing in their clothes in the rooftop hotel pool.

When the Persians began emigrating from Iran in the late 1970s, they encountered an established American Jewish community that was prepared to assist penniless Soviet defectors but utterly confused by the sudden arrival of self-sufficient and self-directed Jews who were relatively wealthy—wealthy enough to inspire genuine jealousy, the kind of jealousy that led parents to say nasty things in front of their kids and their kids to distill that into playground rejection. In Tehran, the wealthiest Jews had lived in the same neighborhood as the Pahlavis, down the road from the Shah’s new international ski resort; arriving in Beverly Hills at the height of the hostage crisis, they were treated like they had cooties. Sam Nazarian has recounted being called a “camel jockey”; his older sister, Sharon Baradaran, says one of her earliest memories in California is of being rejected in her seventh-grade folk-dancing class because she was from Iran. “Kids would say they wouldn’t hold hands with me,” said Baradaran, who now oversees strategic investments as president of the $30 million family foundation created by her parents, from an office in Century City where the parking lot is filled with Rolls-Royces and Maybachs. “Kids can be really mean at that age.”

It was a time of anti-Iranian violence and boycotts directed at Iranian businesses, and Jews—many of whom had been as unobservant and monarchist as their Muslim neighbors—found that being seen publicly in established synagogues helped them establish anti-Islamist bona fides, like wearing oversized chai necklaces or Americanizing their first names. “We were treated like terrorists,” says Ron Mehrdad, a 1980 graduate of Iowa State’s engineering program, who stopped using his Farsi name, Mehran, after sending out more than a thousand job applications and not getting a single positive response. Going to American synagogues was a way to signal they were Jews first and unwilling to be associated with the Islamic Republic.

Continue reading: strangers fitting in, fundraising, and “No, we are not Jewish.” Or view as a single page.

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Great story, Allison.

shushan says:

america hates jews more than iran does. just american goyerment is smarter at hating Jews.

Dr. Michael Zidonov says:

“Six Days Shall You Labor … On the Seventh Day Shall You REST …”

A cessation of work, a Gathering, a Shared Meal, Prayerful recognition of all Ha’Shem has done, Thankfulness for a day off from work, to recreate and enjoy Family and Friends … That is Shabbat … We worship G_D EVERY day, not just one day a week … “Shabbat was created for Man, Man was not created for Shabbat …” Of course we worship on Shabbat, but Shabbt was made for REST … How people prefer to Rest may be a little different from place to place, but obedience to The Word with the proper Attitude, Willingness to be Observant, is every bit as Worshipful no matter where one might be or what Customs are followed … May Our Rest Be Pleasing Unto The Lord …

Rebecca says:

I’m so sad to hear about the encroachment of chabad and yidishkeit into a community that is older than Chabad by at least 2000 years. Is the Persian community so desperate to fit in that they are willing to throw out their incredible traditions? So what if shabbat just means dinner? It’s more than I can point to in any other american families, jewish or non.
This was a great window into a very closed community. I wish that that the community would try to focus on the destruction of jewish places in Iran but on the other hand, at least they are starting to get active about “the Jewish communuty” as a whole. Having met many Persian Armenians and Muslim Iranians, as well as Jewish Iraninas, there are many similarities. Mainly, and I don’t know why, the ability to complain about just about everything and how nothing is good enough or easy enough.

A remarkable essay. Thanks for posting.

Hadi Yamin says:

Good article.
One question / comment. The article indicates that presents Iran hates the California Jews. I dont think so. I am a moslem Iranian-American and from what I know of Iranian people; the positive acceptance Jewish people continues.

I lived in Tehran for a brief time in 1977-78. I met a family there whose son I had met here in the states and who coached my then husband in Farsi. He was Jewish and we visited his family in Tehran for dinner. I have always wished I could contact him. I know he lived in LA last I heard. Very bright young man, Albert Maghbouli. Anyway, thought if I published this someone might of him or his family. Always wondered if they survived after the shah left power. My name was Jean Copping Wilkins at the time. In Iran I ate the best food I have ever eaten and will always remember Albert and his family.

Nancy says:

I agree with Rebecca. I wish that the Iranian-Jewish community would perpetuate and immerse themselves in their wonderful customs and traditions rather than getting swept away with the ways of Chabad. Chabad is very effective with the uninitiated, but for a community as ancient and respected as were and are the Persian Jews, Chabad needn’t be an option.

toph says:

Very good story. thanks

AFTER PURSUING AN INTERVIEW WITH ME FOR THE ARTICLE, YOU SIMPLY OMITTED BETH – BEVERLY AND HILLEL HEBREW ACADEMY. WHY DID YOU NOT CHECK WITH RABBI DAVID SHOFET, WHOSE FATHER WE BROUGHT FROM IRAN, MY PEOPLE ARE LAUGHING (SNEERING) AT YOUR CHOICE OF WORDS, AND CREATING A NEW HISTORY.

RABBI LAMM

Albert says:

I agree with Rebecca and Nancy, what Chabbad has to do with Persian Jews? is just another intent to destroy another tradition as they are doing with Syrian Jews (my own community), Bukharian, Moroccan, etc in 10 years, Persian Jews in L.A. will be like Syrian Jews in N.Y., Black hats, with any knowledge of their own traditions. PERSIAN JEWS wake up and say NO to the evil chabadniks!!!! PRESERVE your beautiful and ancient traditions, get your own rabbis now that still time, before you start to worship the “Rebbe”

LA Jew says:

I live in Beverly Hills and can attest to the fact that this community is filled with some of the worst criminals in Los Angeles. Fraud and racketeering are there stock-in-trade. Of course not all are dishonest, but I can say in general, I have found them to have very questionable ethics. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, car dealers, politicians, rabbis, business people in this community in general have words that are not their bonds. Namvar and Farahi are just identifiable examples. European Jews know this and stay clear of this community whenever possible and the LA community should know this is true. If they want to change peoples perceptions of them then start dealing honestly. This is only an indictment of dishonest business practices, not the community or individuals in general.

Orly Setareh says:

Allison, I adore you. However, as a Persian Jew living in LA, born in Israel to Iranian parents, I feel a few things should be addressed:
1. Your subheading states that the country of Iran now hates Persian Jews. This is incorrect. The country of Iran doesn’t hate Iranian Jews, the regime in power does. Your subheading should have read: “..:how much to hold on to religious and cultural traditions forged in a country that has been taken over by a radical Islamic regime who hates them”.
2. You should have included the emphatic concluding point that ultimately culture effects the way one practices religion. Everyone practices in their own way, and thats ok. The Persian Jews decided to build their own temple not for the reason of being pretentious and offend the American community, but to feel comfortable praying the way they were taught in their own culture and to make sure they don’t unintentionally disrespect another congregant who was taught to practice the same religion differently. Without this crucial point, the reader is left with a false feeling of a more widened gap between the Persian and American Jews.
3. The whole paragraph that mentions the “Clueless” movie should have been omitted. It has a negative connotation, stemming back to the materialistic depiction of Persian Jews which is completely irrelevant to the article.
4. Lastly, my quote in your article was written a bit out of context. Yes, Nessah Synagogue is interested in having its young, single congregants socialize and potentially hit it off. However this was not the overall point! Nessah creates these events to emphasize the importance of community building. Whether it’s a lecture or mixer, all events have this same goal and I think its wonderful! This is how a community grows and all types of relationships are made. Every religion does it. The Jews have just been the most successful at it. They have been persecuted throughout history but due to their strong community they have persevered!

Allison,

I enjoyed reading your beautifully written and thoughtful article.

My family and I live in a large Persian Jewish community in Great Neck, New York. Notwithstanding the great distance between the West Coast and East Coast, the similarities and parallels in the two communities are remarkable, including but not limited to the presence of Chabad / increasing orthodox practice, and the reaction of the Ashkenazim to newcomers.

Most significant is the very special and enduring Persian Jewish traditions in virtually every household, which make me feel proud to be a member of this community and this country.

There is always a problem in having a non-Iranian write an article like this. The writer simply doesn’t “get” the cultural traditions and the history.
It is easier to spotlight materialism (the same lifestyle was common in Teheran when we lived there, pre-Revolution) than cultural traditions developed over centuries. The non-Iranian simply doesn’t understand what words or activites are negatives as he or she doesn’t understand why certain traditions are still important.
It would have been interesting to note that Rabbi David Shofet is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical seminary in New York (the Conservative seminary).
It was a nice surprise to see our uncle Atollah featured in a slideshow photo.
The “cookie” comment was the same as those made at Valley Beth Shalom (Encino), at the time of the large Persian wave of immigrants. At that time, there were also problems at the VBS Day School as “American” parents did not want their children in the same classrooms as the newcomer “foreigners.”
As a genealogist, journalist and blogger (focusing on Jewish genealogy), it is obvious to me that everyone – except Native Americans – in the US is either an immigrant or a descendant of one. In fact, when the descendants of Iberian Sephardim in New York were the majority, they fought against open immigration by those whom they considered lowly Eastern European Ashkenazim.
And, as the descendant of a Spanish Sephardic family that wound up in Mogilev, Belarus, married to a Persian Jew for many decades and who lived in Teheran for nearly a decade before the Revolution, it is worth noting that culture and traditions are important and should be passed on to the younger generations.
But, all-in-all, a good story!

anonymous says:

Aish HaTorah is a religious outreach group but I don’t believe it is a Hassidic one. Check out aish.com and see for yourself

dina adler says:

The Iranian jewish community (like the local Iranian non-Jewish community–consists of people who came here with pockets full of money, settled in the most posh areas of town and basically do not interact with the rest of the LA Jews.

I say let them enjjoy their Beverly Hills and Brentwood mansions and interractions with eachother. I am not more interested in them than they are in me with my Eastern European roots.

Richard Howard says:

I enjoyed your article Allison. As an Ashkenazic American and former Executive Director of the Southern California Nessah Education and Cultural Center, I think you captured the family oriented community that actively seeks to bridge to the wider Jewish community while maintaining their rich Persian traditions.

I think their internal struggle to maintain the cherished aspects of their culture and traditions while being a part of greater Southern California society is a balancing act that is unique, but not unfamiliar to every other ethnic community in Los Angeles.

It was an honor getting to know the community while at Nessah and I see similarities between their building a place in L.A. with my own grandparent’s generation of builders. My grandparents and to a lesser degree, my parents, certainly experienced a great deal of difficulty & hostility interacting with the wider community. Today, my children attend a shul built by my grandparents generation and sadly some of my grandparent’s culture are lost to me (Yiddish). I wish the Jewish Persian community success in the building a home within our Jewish community home. Their success is our success.

Marty Janner says:

The essence of tbhe article implied that the Jews of Iran were by virtue of their religion were hated. The issue is their Zionism. support of Israel.

One can understand the country’s feeling, relative to their nation’s relationship with Israel! In no way do I condone this! Their vitriolic orations are such that this small community is threatened, and as a result must shelter their true feelings, whatever they may be! This is called survival!

When the Shah was deposed, large numbers of the Jews left. They settled not in Israel, but rather in the Western Democracies. Most of these were people whom were blessed with wealth or professionals. They were fearful of their future, due to their relationship with the Pahlevi Government!

My hope that these people retain their customs! Their’s is one that relates to a proud Persian History, not a relationship with the current government!

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Allison Hoffman:

Thank you for the great article! I enjoyed the slide show as well. It is this type of article that makes the Tablet interesting, and I hope that you will write more articles like this.

Your Iranian Jew says:

This is a Response to LA Jew: As a 29 year old Iranian Jew whose familly emigrated here 27 years ago, I cannot agree with you more. I am thoroughly disgusted by how money motivated we have become as a community and how many of our businessman, proffesionals (Doctors, dentists, lawyers, car dealers, politicians, rabbis, business people) have abadoned passion or pride in the work and have become so money motivated. I have allways been a believer that if you stay true to your craft and be the best at what you do, money will follow. I believe that there are several reasons our proffesionals have become this way. They include the rampant jealousy, and competition that has plagued our community. While it sadly keeps the youth to stay motivated and be ambitious, it plagues the youth with the pressue of having to gougue, cheat and steal to advance financially in our society. The pressure to advance financially comes in part, from the notion that you have to be able to “afford” to get married and have a lavish weddings and the finest jewelry. I would like to challenge families like the Nazarians (among other affluent Iranian Jewish Families) , who are always exemplified in the media as what persian jewish is, create a new trend in the community where it is acceptable to have a wedding with 100 people and a DJ , so that some of these norms can be changed. We as a community have lost all the virtuous qualities that we once enjoyed in Iran. Our daughters have one night stands with other persian jews or non-jews, our sons wait in line at the bathroom of the local night clubs to do drugs with other persian jews and non-jews. WHY SHOULD WE STICK TOGETHER? WHAT MAKES US BETTER THAN ANY ONE ELSE?

Fascinating article.

Orly, I disagree that the Clueless reference didn’t belong. I had an acquaintance in LA who really fit the portrait Rabbi David Wolpe painted of an Ashkenazi Jew who loathes Persian Jews: He sounded shockingly racist as he talked about “their” values and insularity and business practices and loudness and wealth and selfishness. It was like listening to a Venetian Christian talking about Shylock and his clan! And some of the other commenters have spoken of the perceived materialism of Persian Jews. So I think that reference was relevant, and I don’t think it was out of place in a story about how the community acculturates (and doesn’t) as Jews within a larger Jewish community in LA.

Morris says:

I agree with those above bemoaning the incursion of 250 year old Chassidic tradition and ritual into a 3000 year old community using the excuse that they’re ignorant of Jewish Law. If true, there must be a way to educate the community without having to add a “chassidic twist”.

Most ironic is that Lubavitch as well as other Chasidic sects are fanatical in their scrupulous adherence to each and every custom, tradition and ritual that has been passed down from the founding Rebbes of the respective sects to its current adherents yet have little concern regarding altering the same in other communal groups when it suits their religious agenda.

The future image of a Persian Jew wearing the de rigeuer Lubavitch half-flattened black fedora is sadder than the real life images of the Ultra Orthodox Israeli Sephardim dressed as if their families emigrated from the Pale of Settlement. Nevertheless, as in any business, and Chabad certainly is one, there wouldn’t be any if there weren’t any customers.

Also, while Aish HaTorah is not Chassidic it’s Rabbinic authorities and Rabbis are all ideologically Ultra Orthodox.

Raymond in DC says:

I had the distinct experience of visiting Iran in 1976. I’d been studying International Politics and happened to be at Hebrew U when I and some friends met a group of Iranian Jewish students on a pilgrimage to Israel. (Yes, back then there were direct flights between Tel Aviv and Teheran.) I spent several days with the family of one of those students, and spent the holidays of Sukkot and Simhat Torah at the synagogue headed by a JTS-trained rabbi (probably Shofet). The two college-age boys were both active in the Jewish Students group and, as such, took me along to the Israeli “embassy” for a holiday gathering. (That building after the Revolution was turned over to the PLO.) And though I didn’t speak Farsi, I ventured off on my own to visit Esfahan and Shiraz.

I found the Persian Jews to be warm and hospitable, and can only look askance at my fellow American Jews who weren’t more welcoming to our Persian brethren.

Nifty says:

We all know how insidious Chabad is and we must all be protected from being ensnared by those guys with their questionable Jewish practices (sarcasm intended)…but most of you (especially those indignant ones above) probably don’t know that Chabad, Satmar and other ultra-orthodox/chassidic groups were active in extracting Persian Jewish youth from Iran in the early 1980s.

This is possibly a completely different conversation, but if the Persian (and most other Jewish) communities encouraged their youth to go into the Rabbinate and other religious service then there would not be the vacuum that groups like Chabad and Aish need to fill.

As a Persian Jew living in L.A. I would call the number of Persian Jews that have turned out full-fledged “chabadnicks” fairly samll, probably less than 1%.

I would also add that even if it were to be true that our community was more Chabad-like, that would still be more alike to our ancient traditions than anything found at the Reform temples found in America.

I find it interesting the number posts bemoaning the “loss” and “exchange” of ancient Persian-Jewish traditions, while villifying groups like Chabad and Aish.

If you commentors are really honest with yourself and want us to keep our ancient traditions than I guess you would promote the following which were found at every single Jewish house-of-worship in Iran for the past 2,000 years:
- Seperate Seating
- No Musical Instruments on Shabbat
- Strictly Glatt Kosher Food (including our burnt rice :)

But somehow, I have a hunch, that your “passion” for the preservation of OUR herritage is only with cultural customs, but not the preservation of religious customs. Just a huntch :)

benj says:

@ Morris
Haredim Sefaradim in Israel do not dress as if they came from Poland. They dress with regular suits (they love Armani when they can afford it), and they have a hat – more or less like the “Lithuanians”. The only one to dress like they are still in the 18th century are Hassidim.

@ Eman
Your are 100% right and the funny thing is that the same people who want the Persian to keep their traditions are the same who do not want to keep their own traditions and created the weird Reform/ liberal / whatever “Judaism”.

Mike says:

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Read all about it here:

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debra says:

Fascinating peek into varied aspects of the Persian Jewish community… and the comments have provided more insights… Thank you and chag sameach veshaket to all Jews wherever they are…

Persian Poppy says:

Allison,

I am an Iranian American Jewish woman currently living here in Los Angeles. I have worked within publishing for many years and have read most of the articles that have been written about this community.

I have to tell you that i had high hopes for your article, being that you are a writer for Tablet. However, I was unfortunately quite disappointed for a few reasons. One being that you have followed the same template every other writer has followed when covering this community and therefore not able to find and convey the many complexities that exist — but rather you have painted a very simplistic view for outsiders. You seem to have had an agenda and a very apparent biased point of view. At the same time, like every other article, you too have focused in on the Nazarian family, singling them out to be the shepherds of this community, which is not how most within our community would see it, but a prophecy being made up by articles such as this. In short, it seems you were not able to go very deep, which is unfortunate.

I look forward to future articles about this community that are able to go deeper and find the many faces and complexities that exist and that make up this very colorful group of people.

Thank you.

Cathymadeson@yahoo.com says:

I am jannet,from what I can read. It has been sad news and scam to everyone about Voodoo casters or so. But to me they are so real cause one worked for me not quite two weeks. I traveled down to where his shrine his and we both did the ritual and sacrifice. and now me and my ex are living very ok now.I don’t know about you but Voodoo is real;love marriage,finance, job promotion ,lottery Voodoo,poker voodoo,golf Voodoo,Law & Court case Spells,money voodoo,weigh loss voodoo,diabetic voodoo,hypertensive voodoo,high cholesterol voodoo,Trouble in marriage,Barrenness(need a child),Luck, Money Spells,it’s all he does. I used my money to purchase everything he used he never collected a dime from. He told me I can repay him anytime with anything from my heart. Now I don’t know how to do that. If you can help or you need his help write him on (nativedoctor101@live.com) Thank you.

Kewl you should come up with that. Exelclent!

FATIMA says:

as a real iranian im sorry for this people… i am 16 years old …i live in iran,i know the history of iran very well…i know the Judaism very well too.

judaism has good Religious orders In some cases .

how these iranians celebrate purim??? they are celebrating Massacre of 77,800 iranian people……..???

im sorry for them…

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Persian Gulf

Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution made them exiles, the Persian Jews of Los Angeles are split in new ways by an old question: how much to hold on to religious and cultural traditions forged in a country that now hates them