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How Iranian Jews Shaped Modern Los Angeles

Image by Kurt hoffman

In no time at all, we went from being unknown to notorious. When I moved to Los Angeles in August 1977, perfectly intelligent, well-meaning Americans would ask me if we had roads and automobiles in Tehran, or if I had taken a camel to elementary school every day. The ones who did know Iran wanted to talk only about the ruins in Persepolis or Queen Farah’s jewels. Most people just couldn’t tell Iran from Iraq, Arab from Iranian, Shiite from Sunni. And they certainly couldn’t fathom such a thing as an Iranian Jew.

Oh, what a difference a year can make. By the summer of 1978, the high-rise condominium buildings in Westwood were filled to capacity with Iranians, and the kosher businesses in Pico-Robertson were tending to ever-increasing numbers of new customers. You would think this was a good thing.

Say what you will (and believe me, people do) about the way Iranian Jews have changed the social and economic landscape of Los Angeles; the place is a hell of a lot more interesting because of it. I know because I was here for the “before” pictures. My parents had a house in Trousdale since 1976; they had family in Pasadena and Beverly Hills. That’s how I learned about cream cheese, broccoli and “All in the Family” — we spent summers here, watched a lot of TV, and ate McDonalds a few times a week.

Before the Iranians came, Beverly Hills was a sleepy little village populated by cranky Eastern European Jews and polyester-clad Episcopalians from the Midwest. Hollywood was an embarrassing slum. Santa Monica was a communist enclave, downtown one large skid row. The food was rich, heavy and unsophisticated, fancy department stores catered to 80-year-olds, and you couldn’t breathe the air without risking lung cancer on any day of the week.

We can’t take credit for cleaning up the air, but with everything else, the sudden rush of a largely educated, well-off, and worldly people was a spark that lit up the region with much needed verve and color. The Muslims, who far outnumbered other Iranian immigrants, scattered across the state, from San Diego to Irvine to Palo Alto, from JPL to Google. The Armenians rebuilt Glendale. But, as for the Jews…

Not that the Ashkenazim see it this way, but Iranian Jews just about saved Jewish LA from the slow, quiet decline into which it had been pushed by increasing assimilation and growing indifference on the part of younger generations. In the early and mid-1970s in LA, the major synagogues on the West Side and in the Valley were beset by shrinking memberships, their day schools half full; Shabbat dinner was something you ate at Junior’s Deli on Pico or Nate ’n’ Al’s on Beverly Drive, and you had to be seriously observant to fast on Yom Kippur or eschew leavened bread on Passover. I exaggerate, of course, though not by much. And I generalize, but only to make a point.

Iranian Jews are the oldest population in the Diaspora. Neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazi, they’re correctly referred to as Mizrahi, or easterner. Iranian Jewish history dates back to 587 B.C.E, when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the First Temple and brought the Jews as slaves into the area that was then Babylon and that, in time, became the great Persian Empire. When, in 539 B.C.E, Cyrus the Great issued the first declaration of human rights, giving the Jews freedom to return to Palestine and rebuild the temple, about half took his offer. The rest scattered across the empire, to the lands we know today as Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan and many, many more.

Welcome Home: Gina Nahai moved to L.A. in 1977. Image by Courtesy of Gina Nahai

Most of the Jews in Arab countries were forced out by their governments at some time between 1920 and 1970. By contrast, the lot of Iranian Jews improved greatly in that period. Protected from the mullahs by the Shah’s father and later the Shah himself, they were, for the first time in 1,400 years, allowed to live freely and to prosper alongside other Iranians. Their exodus occurred in 1978; their chosen places of exile were New York and Los Angeles. You would think this was a good thing.

It was. For most of us Iranian Jews. It saved us once and for all from an existence that had been precarious from the start and remained so, even during the best of times — the reign of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi — because even then, we were dependent for our safety on the good graces of one man. The Iranian Jewish migration came at an exorbitant cost — emotional and otherwise — to the first generation, and though that’s not to be taken lightly, in the long run we are all better off for it.

For us it was a blessing in disguise. We would hear many Ashkenazim say:

There’s too many of them, they have too many relatives, their kids are spoiled, their wives too entitled, the men are too competitive in business, they’re all looking for a bargain and when they get one, they ask for even bigger discounts and concessions.

There’s too many of them and they’ve taken over Beverly Hills and Brentwood and Encino and Sherman Oaks and all the schools and synagogues, they turn up in the hundreds every time one of them dies and clog up the parking lot at the mortuary then they sit shiva for a week and receive hundreds more every day and clog up the street with their Bentleys and Maybachs.

There’s too many of them and they know they’re not liked so they pretend they’re anything but Iranian, they started out telling us they were Greek or Italian and some still do but the rest have moved on to claiming they’re Persian as if that’s different, but it’s like saying you served sausage for dinner instead of hotdog.

Note, please, that I said “many,” not “all” Ashkenazim feel this way. I know because they’ve told me, more than once, that this is how they feel. They usually start it with, “Don’t take this the wrong way but…”

So what if every other physician in LA happens to be Iranian, they say, when I try to point out some of our better qualities, and that many of them are world famous for their contributions to research and treatment in their field; most of them are useless to the larger Jewish community because they marry Iranian girls and boys. So what if these doctors’ kids ace the SAT’s and land in the top universities of this country without the benefit of parents who are big donors or legacies; they’re dark skinned, their mothers speak Persian to each other, they eat dinner late, and have too many parties. So what if Sunset Plaza was just a few dry and dilapidated blocks east of the Roxy and the Rainbow until some Iranians developed the area and filled it with sidewalk cafes and shops; the place is crawling with sleazy old American sugar daddies and their young, blonde, Christian Louboutin-wearing Russian protégés.

For the record, I do believe we eat dinner late, and that our parties are too noisy and would go on till 3 or 4 in the morning if the cops didn’t come. Then again, the same natives who complain about Iranians having too many relatives and throwing too many large parties count on these traits in all their fundraising efforts. They’re always “honoring” one Iranian Jew or other, regardless of the real qualifications of the “honorees” because, wouldn’t you know it? You’ll fill up half the ballroom with his or her cousins, and the other half with his or her party friends.

The fact is, few people like having their backyards suddenly occupied by throngs of strangers, and all the more so if these newcomers look and act like nothing the locals have seen before. In the case of LA’s Iranian Jews, the culture shock to the natives was greater because the newcomers were unlike any previous group of immigrants: They weren’t poor, uneducated, lost and ashamed. If anything, they were too assertive, too proud of their cultural heritage, too determined to remain distinct and separate from the rest.

There were other differences, too: American Jews showed up on time for an invitation; anything else was considered rude. Iranians expected the guests to start arriving at least one hour late; they deemed being on time an imposition at best, irksome and inconsiderate under any circumstances. Americans ate dinner at 6 or 7 p.m.; Iranians started at 9 p.m. on a weeknight and 11 p.m. or later on weekends. So American guests left Iranian dinner parties hungry, and Iranian guests showed up when everyone else was on their way out.

And there were more serious grumblings: that Iranian Jews are cunning, sneaky, materialistic, vain, rude, intolerant and unwilling to assimilate.

I will say right now that some of us are those things.

I’m painfully aware that I’m about to raise the ire of many an Iranian Jew by merely admitting the obvious — that we are not individually, or as a community, perfect in any way — but that’s only because they know what I’m saying is true. You become like this — reluctant to show the laundry — when you’ve lived in hostile territory for 1,400 years. The world judges us harshly enough, you think, without one of our own giving it reason to. Except of course in this case, “the world” whose judgment we fear is other Jews.

So Iranians don’t talk about themselves in public unless the news is good, and Americans shy away from going on record with their feelings about Iranians for fear of appearing intolerant. At the risk of offending both sides at once I will go ahead and say that some Iranian Jews are deeply flawed, but so are some Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, and some Catholics and Protestants and Baptists and Unitarians.

What are the ultra-Orthodox, if not unwilling to assimilate? The bankers on Wall Street if not greedy and dishonest? All the East Coast “old money” if not vain, the West Coast “new money” if not materialistic?

You would think Jews know better than to condemn an entire community for the sins of one member. You would think Americans realize that, as with most things — good and bad — they do greed, dishonesty, and intolerance bigger, better, more spectacularly than anyone else.

“All the trouble in this town started,” an American Jewish woman said to me one night before a packed crowd, “when the Iranians came and started to build those big houses.”

The person who said this was hosting a literary event at which I was the speaker. We were at her house in Brentwood Park, one of those neighborhoods where zoning laws require that every lot be at least an acre in size. The house itself was easily 10,000 square feet. I asked her if it was built by an Iranian. It wasn’t. I asked if Brentwood Park was developed by Iranians. It wasn’t. I asked if it wouldn’t be fair to say that the natives like big houses as much as the newcomers.

“But they’re buying everything up and down the street,” the lady said.

Not all native Angelenos are as provincial as this person, of course. Many are warm and welcoming and eager to find common ground with newcomers. There are a number of good and wise Ashkenazi and Sephardic rabbis in this town, as well as a number of fair and tolerant Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, who have made it a mission to help the natives understand and accept the Iranians. I think their efforts have yielded results. Progress has been made; peace and reconciliation are within the realm of possibility. But it’s slow going — like the traffic in LA and, come to think of it, in Tehran.

The truth is, the Ashkenazim and Sephardim who dislike the Iranians do so not because of our differences, but because of our commonalities. We, Jews of all backgrounds, are not the easiest people in the world to live with. Many a Jewish comedian has made a living by pointing that out to us. We scramble and strive and aspire and resist. We’re resourceful and resilient. That’s the key to our survival and, often, our accomplishments. For whatever reason, the world has always held that against us and we, in turn, have held it against each other.

I don’t happen to care much for the entirety of the sentence, ”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” of that very famous novel. It’s much longer and less elegant than these few words would have you believe, and the more it goes on, the less interesting it becomes. Dickens would have done well to stop at a good thing but he got paid by the word. Nevertheless I do appreciate the universal truth in the opening salvo — that good and bad, triumph and dejection, joy and heartbreak all exist within the same moment in every one of our lives. And I especially like the book’s title, “A Tale of Two Cities.” It reminds me of Jewish LA — the way I know it, and the way it must seem to the natives.

Gina Nahai’s newest novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”


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