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

By Allison Hoffman|April 6, 2011 7:00 AM


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 [1] 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 [2] in The New Yorker and who made the Los Angeles Times power list [3] 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 [4] 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 [5],” 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 [6] 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 [7]: strangers fitting in, fundraising, and “No, we are not Jewish.” Or view as a single page [8].
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 [9], 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 [10]: Morry’s Fireplace, a much nicer rug, and Nowruz. Or view as a single page [8].
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” [11]—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 [12] 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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