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
The Judaism Esmailzadeh is learning is not the religion his parents practiced, which was deeply cultural, uniformly Orthodox, transmitted by force of habit rather than by formal education. The Persian community’s early decision to engage with established, overwhelmingly Ashkenazic American congregations and, in increasing numbers, to send their children to Reform and Conservative day and religious schools accelerated their adoption of American Jewish staples like elaborate bar and bat mitzvahs. But the engagement of Hasidic outreach groups with younger Persian Jews has created something altogether new: a group of observant young people who have exchanged the ancient Jewish customs of their ancestors for those of 19th-century Eastern Europeans. “Kids are getting more religious than their parents, and it’s causing a lot of trouble,” said Saba Soomekh, a Harvard-trained sociologist who grew up in Beverly Hills and has a forthcoming book on Iranian Jewish women. “What do you mean you can’t go to your aunt’s house for Shabbat because you can’t walk that far? Get in the car!” To some degree, Soomekh said, observance has become a way to fit in for young Persians who aren’t politically inclined enough for Israel activism or rich enough to run in moneyed circles. “For people who couldn’t find financial wealth, it’s a way to compete,” Soomekh said. “They just become more religious.”
At the Aish HaTorah lounge, a group of five guys, all Persian, turned up to join Esmailzadeh for a men’s talk about Purim. At the end of the session, one of them stood up and told the others, “As they say in Yiddish—a freilichen Purim!”
Morry’s Fireplace was the brainchild of Yitz Jacobs, the rabbi who runs Aish’s young professionals group in Los Angeles. “My population is at least 50 percent Persian,” he told me. “I find that people in America who care about Judaism are immigrants.” But, Jacobs went on, he found that his Persian students were “incredibly ignorant of the religion. They’ll do Friday night dinners—you might call it Shabbat, but it’s Shabbat in name only. It’s texting under the table and watching TV”—by which he means lacking in halachic purity. He added, “It’s pure traditionalism at this point.”
The weekly family dinner is the essence of how most younger Persians define their Jewish tradition, because it is the single most obvious way in which they are different from their “American” friends. It is also the central vehicle for keeping extended families connected to each other. People talk about Shabbat dinners reverently, citing how much it meant to them as children that this or that man-about-town uncle would take the time to be with them on Fridays, even if he went out later on the same night. It is frequently cited as the main reason Persians often squeeze large houses onto small urban lots—the infamous “Persian palaces”—to accommodate 50 or 60 relatives on a regular basis.
“We have a whole culture,” says Ben Maddahi, a 27-year-old A&R man for Atlantic Records. “There are foods that are significant to us and not shared by other Jews, and it’s what we have that Persian Muslims don’t have.” Maddahi went to heavily Persian Jewish day schools all the way through high school—Conservative, at Sinai, where his parents’ names are on the capital campaign wall, and Reform, at Stephen S. Wise Temple’s Milken School—and this is what he came out with: dinner. But Maddahi, who with his babyfaced smile and perfect hair looks a little like Ricky Martin, comes from the Persian Jewish elite; he is a cousin by marriage to Sam Nazarian twice over. Consciously or not, he channels a strain of easy secularism that was the norm in Tehran, mixed with homegrown ethnic pride. He is unapologetic about the much-bemoaned materialism of the Persian community, which in the Real Housewives era is anyway nearly impossible to distinguish from generic L.A. materialism; while other people still fret about the community’s negative portrayal in a W magazine story a couple of years ago, Maddahi bragged to me that his sister was in the shoot and that he was cut at the last minute. We met in his office in Hollywood, in a nondescript building that houses a handful of production studios; when I asked whether he’d provided the Persian rug in David Guetta’s studio, he shook his head. “Everyone asks me that,” he said. He paused and then added, “But honestly? I’d have gotten a much nicer rug than that.”
The one thing that upset him was the idea that an Ashkenazic rabbi would suggest that his family’s Friday night rituals might not be good enough to be called Shabbat. “The extremists who take the time to pick on fellow Jews about how they observe the traditions should be ashamed of themselves,” he said, leaning forward. “We get together, we cook, we have hamotzi, we have wine—that’s Shabbat” Later, he emailed me again about it, with a one-word comment: “Sad.”
This is the gap that Nessah was in part intended to bridge: It’s not an accident that its board chose a permanent home within walking distance of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood and an easy drive down the hill from the wealthier precincts of Beverly Hills. It is designed to channel the energy that drives younger people to find religion outside the Persian community to find it inside instead. “My intent has never been to recreate what existed in Iran,” said Morgan Hakimi, a 45-year-old organizational psychologist who recently finished her term as board president. “The goal was integration—a lack of anxiety, a lack of guilt for the kids who went home and had to be ‘Persian’ and then in the morning went back to UCLA or Beverly High where they could be ‘American.’ ”
But the new Nessah is also, by design, a gathering place as much as a religious enterprise. “One of their goals is to match-make,” explained Orly Setareh, a bubbly 31-year-old redhead who teaches Israeli dance at a nearby Reform synagogue. “And there’s nothing wrong with that—especially if you’re at the age where you don’t go to clubs anymore, because otherwise you have your relatives approaching each other” elsewhere to make arrangements. Hakimi shrugged when I asked her about it. “I’ve been accused of turning a small synagogue into a community center,” she said. “If that’s what I did, fine—we have the first Persian JCC.”
Nessah’s symbol is Queen Esther, whose tomb in Hamadan was a popular pilgrimage destination for Persian Jews. In the foyer hangs a large painting depicting Esther’s triumph over Haman in the style of an annunciation portrait of the Madonna: virginal figure at center, hand guided by God to the side. Accordingly, Purim at Nessah is a raucous affair: Every mention of Haman’s name drew a cacophony of air-horns and foot-stamping. Whereas at Sinai almost all the children were in costumes, from Persian Harry Potters to ladybugs and would-be Kobe Bryants, at Nessah very few were wearing anything but their Shabbat best. Among the adults, only one person dressed up: the English-speaking rabbi, Weiss, who was in a Beverly Hillbilly getup of coveralls and a red kerchief finished with a pair of fake buck teeth.
It also happens that this year, Purim coincided with Nowruz, the vernal equinox that marks the traditional start of the Persian New Year. For the estimated 160,000 people of Iranian descent—Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Bahai, Zoroastrian—living in Southern California, Nowruz is the equivalent of both Passover and Thanksgiving, with a firmly established ritual table covered in symbols of spring and lavish spreads of pomegranate stews and rice pilafs standing in for turkey and stuffing. It’s an ecumenical celebration that predates the birth of Mohammed by several millennia, and under the Shah it became a vehicle for drawing Iran’s diverse population together under a nationalist umbrella—which has now made it a vehicle for expressing polite, nonpolitical opposition to the existence of the Islamic Republic. But while there were public Nowruz displays all over Los Angeles—including banners flown from streetlamps along Wilshire Boulevard, right outside Sinai’s front door—there was no sign of it inside any of the synagogues I visited. “Nowruz is not a date I circle in my calendar,” Sam Yebri told me with a shrug. “My grandparents do, but I have no interest in passing it down. Nowruz to me is Iranian.”
But Purim is among the holidays some Persians choose to observe at home, with a modified version of a Friday night Shabbat, and merging the two is a simple matter. On Purim Sunday, Sharona Nazarian braved a deluge to take her middle son to a soccer tournament; in the afternoon, she returned home and began setting up an elaborate display for two dozen siblings, in-laws, nieces, and nephews. A megillah reader, hired via a Chabad rabbi, arrived at about 5 o’clock; Nazarian’s husband, Danny, read the blessings off his iPhone, and the younger kids started their stopwatches to see how fast the reader could go. Sixteen minutes later, he was done, and after a swig of vodka, he went on to his next appointment. The family gathered around the dining room table, where Nazarian laid out an elaborate feast of grilled snapper, chicken, and two kinds of rice. Her father-in-law, Nasser, gave Danny a gold chai necklace he had brought from Tehran. “We used to wear it inside, then we came here and because of Carter we wore it outside,” Nasser Nazarian told his son. His wife, Parvin, offered a toast in Farsi to Nowruz Mubarak—happy new year—that ended, “Inshallah.”
CORRECTION, April 18: An earlier version of this article inaccurately noted that Eman Esmailzadeh was born in Yazd, Iran, and raised in Culver City, Calif. In fact, while Esmailzadeh’s family comes from Yazd, he was born in Tehran; his father’s business is in Culver City.
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