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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.
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.”

Continue reading: Morry’s Fireplace, a much nicer rug, and Nowruz. Or view as a single page.
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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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:

Learn about Israel’s most important strategic asset – SAMARIA (SHOMRON).

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

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