Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Persian path through Los Angeles

The Persian path through LA

The Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles, the largest outside Israel, is in the midst of a transition, from odd and somewhat suspect outsiders to integral - though still distinctive - members of the larger civic and Jewish entities.

A little historical anecdote illustrates the change since the first large-scale arrival of Persian Jews in the late 1970s and early 1980s, following the fall of the shah's regime and the takeover by the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution.

Without their own places of worship, many of the new immigrants chose Sinai Temple, a Conservative synagogue on the city's affluent Westside, as their Shabbat gathering place. Soon their large, extended families, all speaking Farsi, socialized in the lobby on Friday evenings while munching oneg Shabbat cookies, and attended services the following morning.

Ashkenazi old-timers started grumbling about "free rides" for the newcomers, naturally unaware that, to the Persians, dues-paying membership in synagogues was an unknown concept and that it was considered a blessing for guests to take home some cookies and candy after a bar mitzva or wedding.

Tensions reached a point where a new and inexperienced temple president "solved" the cookie confrontation by canceling oneg Shabbat refreshments after Friday evening services.

Eventually, cooler and more perceptive heads prevailed as both sides came to understand each other's backgrounds and customs. These days, Sinai Temple is a model of "integration," with Persians representing about half of the membership, some 40 percent of the board of directors and even a former president.

There is no detailed demographic study of the Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles, though its size is generally given as 30,000, including the American-born children of the original immigrants. This figure is well below the 200,000 in Israel, but ahead of New York City's 12,000 - the only other large concentration in the US - and bigger than the 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran itself.

There is no single Persian enclave in Los Angeles, but the main concentrations are in the Westside and Beverly Hills, and the more middle-class San Fernando Valley. Their combined presence and impact are frequently dubbed "Irangeles," or more popularly "Teherangeles." The network of institutions in Teherangeles now consists of some 40 organizations (including the multiservice Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in the San Fernando Valley), 19 synagogues, ranging from small prayer rooms to mega-centers, six magazines and one television station.

A word about the terms "Persian" and "Iranian," which are largely interchangeable, with the chief umbrella organization going by the name of Iranian American Jewish Federation. Among the younger generation, "Persian" is finding greater favor, to distance itself from the misdeeds of the present Iranian regime and from the roughly 500,000 Iranian immigrants in Southern California, made up of Shi'ite Muslims, Armenians, Assyrian Christians, Baha'is, Kurds and Zoroastrians, who are generally on good terms with their Jewish compatriots.

The Persian Jews of Beverly Hills, some 8,000 strong, tend to get special international media attention, due to the name recognition of the golden enclave embedded within the city of Los Angeles, as well as their wealth - ostentatious wealth, say detractors - and their "palaces." In recent months, these residents have had cause to celebrate the victory of one of their own and mourn the disgrace of another.

The good news was the inauguration of Jimmy (Jamshid) Delshad as mayor of Beverly Hills, hailed as the top Iranian-born public official in the United States. "As a Jewish youngster in Iran, I was a second-class citizen and kept running into closed doors," Delshad told The Jerusalem Post. "Through my example, I hope to open the doors in America for other people like me."

The bad news was the downfall of Israel's president Moshe Katsav, who resigned after pleading guilty to charges of repeated sexual harassment of female employees. Katsav, born in Iran, had been a special hero to his landsmen here, who saw in him the incarnation of the Iranian Jewish success story.

The letdown has been correspondingly hard. One local businessman, who tried to set up a legal defense fund for Katsav, told journalist Karmel Melamed, "I was surprised that after members of our own community were once fighting to be photographed with Moshe Katsav and shake his hand [during a visit to Los Angeles in 2001] - but now that he has fallen, no one was willing to come to his aid."

THE FIRST identifiable Jew arrived in Los Angeles a mere 160 years ago, so the city's newcomers take a certain pride in their 2,500-year history in Persia as the world's oldest Diaspora community.

Though treated as second-class, ghetto-bound citizens throughout much of that history, Persian Jews enjoyed considerable prosperity under the shah's rule. They were deeply attached to their lifestyle and homeland, and their flight after the Islamic Revolution left no family unscarred.

Reversing the traditional patterns of immigration to the US, in which the poor and proverbial "huddled masses" came first, the initial Persian Jewish influx to Los Angeles between 1979 and 1984 was spearheaded by the wealthiest members, who had the liquid cash and foresight to get out early. The middle class and the poor followed later.

In the early years, widely circulated anecdotes and urban legends told of the new immigrants ringing the doorbells of million-dollar Beverly Hills mansions, asking the price of the house, and then opening dollar-stuffed suitcases to pay the entire cost in cash.

This stereotype of Iranian Jews survives to some extent, as do tales of their legendary bargaining power and persistence. No reliable income statistics exist, but the generally understated Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, describes his constituency as economically "extremely successful." Some 80% of Persian Jews are self-employed, from billionaires ruling over real estate and financial empires, to affluent professionals and small businessmen working in the downtown jewelry and textile districts, where they compete fiercely with Israeli expatriates.

There are, indeed, poor Iranian Jews, especially among more recent immigrants. But they are not publicly visible, because they are generally kept afloat through an extended and extremely tight-knit family structure, one of the chief hallmarks of the community.

One such family network is the Nazarian clan, in which the accomplishments and wealth of individual brothers, sons, daughters, in-laws, nephews and cousins combine to make the overall family clout and assets bigger than the sum of its parts.

The family patriarch is Izak Parvis Nazarian, who was born in Teheran 78 years ago into an impoverished family and went to work as a youngster after his father died when Nazarian was five years old. Arriving in Israel in time to fight, and suffer serious wounds, in the War of Independence, he spent the next 30 years establishing enterprises in the construction equipment, electronic and sheet metal industries in both Israel and Iran.

In 1979, Nazarian, his wife Pouran and their three daughters and one son left for the US, settled in Los Angeles, and, hardly pausing for breath, he resumed his business career. He took over, expanded and still chairs Stadco, a leading producer of high-precision tooling and parts for the aerospace industry. In 1985, Nazarian founded Omninet to develop the first satellite-based data communication system, and when Omninet merged with Qualcomm in San Diego, Nazarian became a major stockholder in the pioneering cellphone company. Currently, Nazarian chairs Omninet Capital, a diversified investment firm in the fields of private equity, real estate and venture capital.

As a community activist and philanthropist, he helped organize the secret emigration of Soviet Jews through Armenia to Israel. He co-founded the Magbit Foundation, which has provided $6.5 million to more than 5,000 students in Israel. He is a supporter of Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, the Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The total wealth of Nazarian and his extended family is estimated at $1.5 billion to $2b. Typically, Nazarian does not figure his wealth in personal terms but as the total of his extended family's holdings, including his brother Younes Nazarian, son-in-law Neil Kadisha and nephew Sam Nazarian, Tinseltown's leading nightclub impresario.

Currently, Nazarian is focusing much of his considerable energy on the Citizen Empowerment Center in Israel, which seeks to educate the country's citizens toward the goal of adopting a more functional electoral system.

Holidays are celebrated by the entire clan, with Parvis and Pouran Nazarian hosting around 50 family members for Pessah Seders, and 25 for Shabbat, including 10 grandchildren.

While in their occupations Iranian Jews are full participants in the business and professional life of this city, in their private social lives the Iranians form pretty much a self-contained circle. Even as worldly a man as the 50-year-old Kermanian said that among his close friends, two-thirds are Iranian, and the proportion is higher among other families.

In social groupings including English-only speakers, Iranians tend to talk in Farsi, to the annoyance of Gina Nahai. The Iran-born author of three English-language novels, which have enjoyed impressive critical and commercial success, recalled an occasion when she approached a group of Farsi-speaking women, one accompanied by her American husband. Nahai pointed out that her husband couldn't follow the conversation, at which the woman shrugged and replied, "Oh, he's used to it."

THE PERSIAN Jewish community in Los Angeles is now some 28 years old and analysts of its evolution, such as organization development psychologist Dr. Morgan Hakimi, speak of three different generations. The first consists of the founding fathers and mothers, who came here as adults in the 1970s and '80s and are now the community elders. The second generation is represented by those who were born in Iran but arrived as children or teenagers, and are now in their 40s and 50s. Their children, born in Los Angeles, and now in their teens and 20s, make up the third generation.

There are, of course, generational differences and varying degrees of assimilation, but what is remarkable is the cohesion of family life and loyalty to traditions, even into the third generation. This is in sharp contrast to, say, the descendants of East European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, who have filled American bookshelves with traumatic recollections of suffocating Jewish mothers and meaningless religious rituals.

Persian Jewish parents may no longer have the unquestioned authority to determine the choice of marriage partners for their offspring, but in talking to some 40 members of the community, spanning all ages, we heard no stories of outright rebellion against parental guidance or their religious faith and ardent support for Israel.

This ethnic and familial togetherness has its downside and upside. Parents tend to send their children to private Jewish day schools or top public schools in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, and their "old" American classmates frequently complain about the self-segregation of the Iranian kids, who tend to socialize in self-contained, Farsi-speaking groups.

Kermanian notes that the problem cuts two ways and that the Iranian students are sometimes put down by their classmates for their darker skin and hairiness.

The upside of this social semi-isolation, combined with the religious solidarity and social conservatism of the community, is that intermarriage, once all but unknown, is still a rarity. Rabbi David Shofet, the community's most prominent spiritual leader and son of Teheran's last chief rabbi, estimates that about 5% of marriages are with non-Jewish partners, compared to 50% or higher in the general Jewish community.

Until about 10 years ago, the term "intermarriage" included unions with non-Persian partners from the "outside" Jewish community, but that social barrier, at least, seems to be gradually disappearing.

Perhaps no transition within the community has been more marked than in the role and standing of women over the last three decades. The early immigrants brought with them the old country's social standards that wives did not work outside the home. If the rule was broken, "it proved a great embarrassment to the husband, because it meant that he couldn't support, or control, his wife," said novelist Gina Nahai, the 46-year old mother of three children.

With shifting economic and social times, this attitude is changing, though a wife's desire to work can still cause family friction, said Nahai. "You still have some men grumbling about women getting too uppity, but more and more of us are becoming empowered."

Psychologist Morgan Hakimi has achieved the previously unthinkable by becoming the first woman president of the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center in Beverly Hills - with 1,000 families, the largest Persian synagogue in the US, if not the world.

"When I was elected for the first time in 2004, it was a revolution," Hakimi said. One of the strongest points in her favor, she believes, is that through her professional work she had established many ties with the general Jewish community, at a time when both sides were trying to reach out to each other.

Hakimi came to Los Angeles in 1979, when she was 14, received an American college education, married a fellow Iranian Jew, and is the mother of two sons. "We have reduced the level of machismo and patriarchal prerogative in our community, which has brought about a more balanced attitude toward our children," she said.

Now in her second two-year term as president, Hakimi has introduced such innovations as women's participation in prayer services, support groups for single mothers, who were previously shunned, and programs for young parents to show that child raising is also the father's responsibility. Still, Hakimi acknowledged, she has some way to go. "There remains a duality, a sense that a woman must choose between being a wife or having a career, there are still serious identity struggles among our young women and girls."

Relations between the Los Angeles expatriates and the remnants of the Jewish community in Iran remain very close, and following the show trials and imprisonment of Jews under the ayatollahs, advocates of two different responses have vied for community support. The "establishment," represented mainly by the Iranian American Jewish Federation, has generally opted for behind-the-scenes, low-profile diplomacy to avoid worsening the situation for their brethren in Iran.

Smaller opposition groups have advocated a more militant, public protest approach. In the face of the blatant Holocaust denial and threats against Israel by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the whole community is shifting toward a more outspoken opposition, said Frank Nikbakht, one of the early "militants."

Having achieved economic security and increased social acceptance in the general community, some Persian Jews now want to translate these strengths into political clout, said H. David Nahai. A lawyer and husband of Gina Nahai, he is an ardent environmentalist, serves as president of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners, and is a member of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, both powerful entities in Southern California.

A longtime Democratic Party stalwart, Nahai said that in the early years the Iranian Jewish community was largely Republican, based on its inherent social conservatism and overwhelming antipathy to president Jimmy Carter for his failed policy during the Islamic Revolution.

Nahai had some success in organizing support for Al Gore and John Kerry in the last two presidential elections, "something that would have been impossible 20 years earlier," he said.

Now, with its considerable wealth, the community is becoming a tempting target for political candidates on the local, state and national levels eager to till the "virgin territory," but, Nahai believes, "the impetus for political action has to come from within the community."

He does not rule out a future run for political office, and, with Beverly Hills Mayor Delshad as the pathbreaker, Nahai has no doubt that "the community will become politically powerful in the future."

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