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
Many Persian families found their way to Sinai Temple, on Wilshire Boulevard, a popular stop for many Persian Jews arriving in Los Angeles after the revolution. By then, the Conservative synagogue had migrated from its original home near downtown to a modern building equidistant between Beverly Hills and Westwood. From the start, there were culture clashes between the Americans and the Persians. “They were breast-feeding their children in shul, during davening, and that was disturbing to a lot of people,” says Maurice Lamm, the rabbi emeritus of Beth Jacob, an Orthodox congregation in Beverly Hills. “So, Hillel Silverman, the rabbi there, was talking to me about how to handle it, and I said, don’t worry about it, let them come here.” Lamm offered David Shofet a room where he could hold a minyan and encouraged him to bring his father to Los Angeles. But Sinai’s associate rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, whose family fled Czechoslovakia a month before the Nazi invasion, campaigned to give his new congregants a home. “All I knew was that they were Jews, and we had to help,” Dershowitz explains now, waving away questions. But the clashes went on, growing almost senselessly petty. There were people upset that families were coming in late to services, that people were talking to each other in Farsi rather than English, that women were ululating at bar mitzvahs and weddings, and most infamously, that Persian regulars who were not synagogue members were taking home cookies after Friday night Oneg Shabbat services. Longstanding members resented the fact that the strangers weren’t trying to fit in.
“It never felt like ‘our’ synagogue,” said Sam Yebri, a 30-year-old lawyer who was bar mitzvahed at Sinai. “It was convenient, and we left after my bar mitzvah.” Eventually, Yebri found an American Jewish place that he could make his own: the world of Israel activism. In 2007, he founded a political-action group called 30 Years After, which engages young Persian Jews in local politics and holds Israel advocacy training workshops. Trim and dark-haired and good-looking in a pink button-down, Yebri has the bright white smile of a dentist’s son, which he is—or of a politician, which he seems intent on becoming. He has discovered that his background gives him added stature. “I use ‘Iranian’ when I’m talking in a political context, when I want credibility as an ‘Iranian-Jewish’ activist,” he says. The eldest of three boys, he was the only one born in Iran, a fact he carries like a burden. “My brothers remind me that I can’t be president, because I have ‘Iran’ stamped in my passport,” Yebri says, only half-joking. He left with his mother via Pakistan and Turkey; as a kid, he lived in a succession of houses as his parents’ fortunes improved, finally landing in Beverly Hills.
Unlike his brothers, who went to Beverly Hills High, Yebri stayed at Brentwood, a posh private school where he got the idea that he’d like to go to Yale rather than stay closer to home like most Persian Jews he knew. He went on a Birthright trip to Israel and became head of Yale’s Hillel chapter just before the outbreak of the Second Intifada. What he saw then inspired him to switch from pre-med to political science. “If my parents had gone right instead of left, I’d have grown up there,” Yebri says of Israel. “So, for me, the safety and security of Israel are issue one, two, and three. It’s more than a place where Jews live—it’s our homeland.”
The flurry of emergency fundraising in the wake of the intifada also, eventually, provided an avenue for healing some of the longstanding rifts at Sinai. In 1999, former Beverly Hills mayor Delshad—who came to the United States in the 1960s as a student, stayed, and married an American—became president of the synagogue. “I was for so many years the token Persian,” Delshad says in his mayoral office in Beverly Hills City Hall, a few days before his term ended last month. “All I wanted to do was say, ‘Now the door is open to you. It’s your turn.’ ”
In 2000, Sinai’s current rabbi, David Wolpe, gave a startling Purim sermon in which he confronted the ongoing tsuris. “Some of the most disturbing, prejudiced, and even racist remarks I have heard in the past several years of my life have been directed against the Persian community by the Ashkenazi community,” he declared from the pulpit. “Every time I hear about how they do business, I think, ‘That’s what people used to say about Jews.’ ” To the Persians, he said: “When I say I want one community I mean it so much that I am ready to tell you this: If you, or your children, or your grandchildren, are not prepared to marry a member of the other community, then you don’t belong in my synagogue.” The underlying message amounted to this: If you want the American Jews to be nice to you, you have to at least try to play by American Jewish rules. The crisis in Israel helped open the floodgates: After one Shabbat morning appeal, the synagogue raised $4 million for Israel, $3 million of it, Wolpe estimated, from Persian congregants. “I was there,” says Sharona Nazarian, a psychologist who has sat on several synagogue committees. “It was amazing. People were standing up and pledging. But there were lives on the line, and people had a cause they could believe in.” Today, a decade later, the synagogue’s capital-campaign plaques are filled with Persian names. “It’s changed now,” shrugged Yebri, who has become a young-adult member.
The heart of the neighborhood known as Tehrangeles lies a mile or so west of Sinai, along Westwood Boulevard, a busy commercial thoroughfare that runs south from the UCLA campus toward the Santa Monica Freeway. It is dotted with chelo-kebab joints, Farsi bookshops, and a place called the Music Box that stocks CDs and cassette tapes from popular Iranian singers and does a brisk business in concert ticket sales. The best-trafficked place on the street is the Jordan Market, a tiny storefront bodega that sells bulk pistachios and imported dry goods and has a butcher counter. It is the most convenient Persian market west of Beverly Hills for Jews and Muslims alike, but this is the kind of story Jews recount about it: “I saw an American woman walk up to the butcher and ask if they had kosher meat, and the butcher said to her, so disgusted, ‘No, we are not Jewish.’ ”
Over the past 10 years, an equally vibrant Persian shopping area has emerged in what might be called the mahaleh, or Persian Jewish ghetto: a mile-long stretch of blocks along Pico Boulevard from La Cienega Boulevard to Beverly Drive. It’s a traditionally Orthodox neighborhood, with a dense concentration of shteibls, glatt kosher markets, and long black skirts. Now, in addition, there is the Elat Market, which has an aisle devoted to kosher rosewater, a restaurant called Kolah Farangi that sells glatt kosher kebab and Chinese food, and even a Farsi-speaking orthotics specialist.
The Chabad Persian Youth center—CPY for short—occupies a small one-story building directly across Pico from an imposing block-long replica of the Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn. It opened nine years ago under the auspices of Hertzel Peer, a rabbi who was born in Shiraz and moved to Israel as a child. “We do Sephardic davening with a Chabad twist,” Peer’s 21-year-old daughter, Simcha, told me. We met at a megillah reading at the center on the first night of Purim; she was dressed like a hippie and dancing with her mother, who was dressed in a white wool Chanel-style suit on the women’s side of the room, blocked off from the band set up on the men’s side by a fabric hung in between columns painted with grapevines. Simcha Peer said her parents hadn’t taught her Farsi. “I have more than enough Persian culture—it’s all over Pico, it’s like Persianville over here,” she laughed. Unlike most of her peers, she has no extended family in Los Angeles—they are in Israel and New York—so while she works with young Persian Jews alongside her parents, her life is defined by the distinctly Ashkenazic rhythms of Chabad Hasidism. “We’re just trying to bring yiddishkeit to everybody,” she told me.
In March, the ultra-Orthodox religious-outreach group Aish HaTorah opened a new lounge and learning center called Morry’s Fireplace in the neighborhood. Its aesthetic is best described as Bachelor-contemporary: red walls, oversized iron chandeliers, overstuffed wing chairs, a faux fireplace stacked with split logs. On Wednesdays, a young-adult group that started at Nessah meets there, led by Eman Esmailzadeh, a 28-year-old Persian who, like Sam Yebri, the young lawyer-turned-activist, found Israel. But Esmailzadeh, who wears rimless glasses and has an easy smile, went another step and found religion. Esmailzadeh was at Morry’s Fireplace with his wife, Jessica, and their infant daughter, Rachel. When we spoke on the phone, earlier in the week, his number came up marked Santa Monica; when I asked whether that was where he lived, he retorted, “Why don’t you think I live in Beverly Hills?”
It turned out there were reasons for his class anxiety. Esmailzadeh’s family comes from Yazd, a small city in the middle of Iran that is a Zoroastrian hub, where his father had been a mechanical engineer. “Here,” Esmailzadeh told me, gesturing toward the door, “he was a day laborer, one of those guys on the street.” Eventually, he started a light-fixtures business in Culver City, a middle-class neighborhood, and sent Esmailzadeh to L.A. public schools. Esmailzadeh went on to the University of California, Irvine, where he got involved with pro-Israel advocacy. “But then I decided to start learning about Judaism,” he told me. “Israel is the Jewish state, and I felt like I needed to know about religion, because if you’re pro-Israel but don’t know anything about the religious side, then it’s just empty nationalism.”
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