Wild Wild West: A History of the Jewish Iranian Migration to Los Angeles

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Wild Wild West: A History of the Jewish Iranian Migration to Los Angeles

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By Bracha Turner

It was February 1979. At first, the Iranian Jewish population didn’t take the revolution seriously—most chose to stay in Iran unfettered by the unrest in the streets. The seemingly close ties between Iranian Jews and the Royal Court gave them confidence that all would be well and that the political unrest would soon be quelled. The secret police told them that all was under control in order to keep the masses calm. It goes without saying that all this was a lie. By now, it was too late.

The Shah fled Iran and the rest is history. Just like our ancestors in Egypt who were forbidden to leave Egypt with their entire families as a political stratagem to make them return, the Shah’s regime acted similarly to prevent Jewish families from leaving Iran with all their wealth. The logic behind this immigration system was that as long as someone in the family was held within the country, then the individuals had compelling reason to return. A small percentage of Jews left Iran during the time of the Shah. The majority of Jews left Iran beginning in 1980, once the revolution was well under way.

Families left Iran in stages—half the family taking the ordinary route and waiting to sell their homes and businesses and subsequently traveling by plane, and the other half fleeing the border for their lives. After the embassy had been raided and closed down, all Green cards had to be processed in U.S. Consulates outside of Iran. For the latter group who fled the Southern border into Pakistan, the danger of gunfire, malaria, being lost in the desert wilderness were risks that the refugees were willing to take to escape the increasing oppression in Iran due to the Islamic Revolution. Even before the Revolution, many tried to hide their Jewishness in order to avoid being treated as second-class citizens.

Leaving Iran was a perilous journey fraught with danger: when visas were denied or prohibited, many Jews fled the border with the assistance of smugglers across desert wilderness into Pakistan, flying into Vienna, Austria where they awaited a visa to the US in a heavily anti-semitic country. Some chose to flee to Israel but Israeli immigration officers strictly questioned incoming goods and hoped to make money off of the items that Iranians brought into the country. America on the other hand closed its eyes and not only allowed the Persian refugees to come as businessmen but allowed them to bring all their wealth with them—suitcases of silver, jewelry, and carpets— without taxation.

Prior to the Revolution, the Chief Rabbi of Iran Yedidia Shofet already started suggesting that the Jewish people ought to consider leaving the country. However, it was never an organized, planned venture to bring the majority of Jewish Iranians to Los Angeles. There was no organized leadership that rallied together throngs of immigrants to join a mass immigration—it is a phenomenon that is a mystery how it just came to be. Los Angeles harbors the largest population of Persian Jews in America, with figures estimated at 50-55,000. Some say the reason for it is as simple as the good weather; others would argue that it was due to a pre-existing network of several thousand Iranians here prior to the Revolution. Considering this, it was already a relatively large community compared to elsewhere even before 1980. Despite this, when Iranian Jews travelled to Los Angeles, there were no Iranian organizations to assist them. Those individuals who were once leaders in Iran unofficially took upon themselves the responsibility of Iranian Jews who were displaced by the revolution. Eventually, they also turned to the US government for support. A delegation of Iranian Jews arrived to the White House and addressed the Cabinet. It was then that the Iranian hostage crisis was stalemating and the US government were displeased with Iranians as a whole and threatened to bar all entry of Iranians into the country. The delegation received special approval so that Iranian Jews were exempted and received refugee status and granted asylum in the US. All religious minorities in Iran—Bahai, Christian, and Jewish—were granted this special status.

The American Jewish Federation’s Jewish Vocational Services (JVS) partnered with the American Joint Distribution Committee, who had the financial system to make things turn, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a refugee rescue organization that had its branches in Vienna and Italy, to coordinate visas to the US. They were also committed to taking care of the Persian Jewish refugees after they landed in Los Angeles. The three organizations’ combined efforts were tremendously successful. Funds of $2 million dollars were allocated from Joint to HIAS (who charged for their services) to assist Iranian Jews who already managed to escape the Iranian borders. With the formation of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, a committee of Iranian Jews met together weekly to screen applications before they were processed in Vienna. Problems such as determining which applicants were truly Jewish or how to deal with interfaith couples had to be addressed because the venture focused specifically on assisting Jews. There was a rise in fraudulent applicants who pretended to be Jewish in order to receive the federations’ support in immigrating to the US.

Rav David Shofet, son of the former chief rabbi of Iran and founder of Nessah Synagogue, was appointed as a representative of the rabbanut in order to create a planned course of action in how to handle such cases. It was a time-consuming and laborious process to which he was ardently committed. Once a week the IAJF committee met for a few hours to review applicants, their financial statuses, and their income, in order to determine their ability to support themselves and review their need for assistance.

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Mr. Solomon Rastegar, one of the co-founders of the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) describes the process of screening applications for assistance in immigrating to the US. Though many asked for personal favors to get a relative or friend into the country sooner, hastening someone’s application through a connection with the screening committee did not exist in the slightest. There was a standard procedure that no individual could bypass that varied from four months to a couple of years.

Once they landed in Los Angeles, JVS took over to orient the Persian Jews to the city. They took groups of Iranian Jews around the city and showed them where to find basic amenities, where supermarkets were located and the like, and explained to them the difference between life in Iran and life in the US. Other ways JVS would assist the newcomers was covering their health insurance for some time, supporting them in their search for a job, and well as providing counseling for incidents of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse was not rare to see when fathers with status left their home country and lost their reputation, status and wealth; when they failed in their ability to provide an income, their self esteem was often shattered and the bitter rage of their situation was released at home.

Despite the troubles that the new communities faced, there was also tremendous support from the American Jewish communities in Los Angeles. American Jews welcomed their Iranian counterparts with open arms and open hearts. They opened doors to different organizations to help integrate the Iranian Jews and make them feel a sense of belonging. While some Iranians did join, some were reluctant to integrate with Americans and chose to intermingle only amongst themselves. To this day, there is a general discomfort amongst many Iranians to integrate with communities other than their own; it is a community that is reluctant to melt down. This resistance, as it were, translates into Iranians avoiding ‘mixed marriages’ with non-Iranians. However, as the contemporary generation adapts to American culture, there is a generational shift in this regard and a greater willingness to integrate with the wider Jewish community.

For the generation of Persian who first arrived here, they maintain their own societies by having their own cluster of common activities, sometimes called ‘doreh’s where they meet other Persians for afternoon tea and entertainment. It helps that they have their own theatre, nightclubs, restaurants and bookstores to generate a tendency to associate exclusively with other Persians. Furthermore, Iranian Jews have successfully set up their own synagogues where services are in Farsi and Hebrew. Because of the sheer demand for Persian minyanim, they even have established their own minyanim within Ashkenazi synagogues, such as Nessah which was originally founded in the basement of Beth Jacob. What is uniquely intriguing about Persian synagogues is that they are not overtly defined by denomination like other synagogues and seem to attract Persians of all levels of observance.

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The Westernization of Iran prior to the Revolution caused a certain cynicism with regard to religion. Despite the fact that Persians adhere strongly to tradition, there is often a resistance that is fashionable, as it were. With this trend comes a desire to give an impression of being like European enlightened thinkers (what Persians call “roshan fekhr”), wearing designer clothing, and a deeply entrenched regard for honor and status that such impressions entail. The desire for creating and perpetuating one’s honor and status is something derived from Iranian society and is a phenomenon that has yet to be evinced from Persian Jewish culture. The local kosher Persian cuisine on Pico Boulevard, called Kolah Farangi translates as “European hat” because Persians are of the persuasion to do just that—put on the appearance and guise of European sophistication. The homes, the luxury vehicles, the elaborate weddings are often gimmicks of wealth status. It is for this very reason that from the generation of Persian Jews who were born here or came here when they were very young there is a wide pool of unmarried singles. If they choose to marry other Persians, these adults are frequently challenged with finding a partner who has realistic expectations beyond income and status symbols.

Iranian Jews have brought nonetheless brought a vigor and flavor to Jewish life in Los Angeles. Los Angeles in turn has bred a new generation of Persian Jews who celebrate their yiddishkeit in a way that is different from their parents who left Iran. It is increasingly common to find in the past decade a growing number of Persian Jewish adults who cover their hair in observance of Jewish marital laws and who wear kippot. The vibrancy and tenacity of a tradition of 2700 years is lived on through musical revelry and dance, a strong adherence to holiday and Shabbat gatherings, and a traditionalism that is in many ways stronger than their American Jewish counterparts.

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While Iranian Jews have used their exclusive isolationism in many instances in positive ways, a letter issued by the Persian Rabbinical Council points out that they have failed in one aspect—with all their wealth that they have amassed in Iran and in the US, they have had little interest in investing and perpetuating their own traditions by means of setting up their own establishments for Jewish education (especially Persian Jewish education). There is wide lacuna in setting up their own Jewish institutions of learning that match Ashkenazi educational institutions. Persian Jews often do not even know that they are not Sephardi Jews but rather Mizrachi Jews and have unique traditions that differ from those inherited by the Jews of Western Europe. Instead of founding Persian Jewish schools, they have a tendency to send their children to other educational institutions and thus the traditions are being lost to an entire generation. This apathetic attitude towards Jewish education could be a factor influencing assimilation into American culture in places such as Beverly Hills High School and the like where Jewish Persian students are abound.

Where there once was an upholding of the values of chastity and respect for the elderly and a strong significance for family and the like, with every new generation this heritage is being watered down. By the third and fourth generations of descendants of Iranian Jews, the children have adopted the habits of the place they are raised. The strong faith of the elderly generation, who has a deep appreciation and reverence for the Torah that is visibly perceptible, is something that needs to be passed on to oncoming generations. To combat the influence of assimilation into American culture, the Jewish Educational Movement (JEM) operates at Beverly Hills High School to promote Jewish educational programs within a public school system that are engaging and fun for youth. Founded and tirelessly operated by the Illulian family, the events allow the students to own their Yiddishkeit and collectively celebrate it by learning things they perhaps were not taught at home.

While there has been a relative dearth of spiritual advancement and educational investment, on the flip-side Persians have enjoyed tremendous financial success in Los Angeles. Even those who had wealth in Iran cannot compare with the success rate experienced by Iranian American Jews. According to Rastegar, this remarkable degree of success in their business ventures stems from a business-mindedness bred through discriminatory laws against Persian Jews in Iran. Because Persian Jews were barred from holding government positions and could not hold high positions in the Iranian army, consequently Iranian Jews tended towards business. Rastegar further explains reasons for this high degree of financial success: “We learned to live as a minority in Iran. Getting here we used the same technique, the same way of thinking and way of life. We brought our culture and our way of running a business here. Other non-Jewish Iranians would amass their wealth by basing their enterprises on their social capital and knowledge of contacts. They could easily depend on their father-in-law in government for an exemption or assistance or rely on a cousin for help. Persian Jews had to be more cautious, more thoughtful, more resourceful.” Rastegar suggests that this tendency in making less risky business investments allowed greater and greater capital yields.

The current political situation in Iran is a poignantly personal topic for some Persians who feel strong ties to Iran but denounce the Islamic Republic of Iran. Elham Yaghoubian, author and political activist, describes the U.N.’s eased attitudes regarding sanctions on the country as signaling trouble ahead. “It is shocking to many that the Obama administration trusted the Islamic Republic of Iran’s regime, a government who wanted to wipe Israel from the map, a government which is the top violator of human rights and a main supporter of terrorist organizations,” says Yaghoubian. She speaks on behalf of many Persian Jews in the belief that Iran as a nation has a right to nuclear power although Persian Jews here are against the Islamic Republic of Iran obtaining this power.

Among the next generation of Persian Jews, ties with the mother country and with the Persian community at large are dwindling. Though they may identify ethnically as Persian, as they are American by birth, Farsi is being lost as a spoken language. Even so, the cultural values and traditions can be kept alive by those who choose to embrace them. The value of family, a profound sense of spirituality (whether or not they appear observant) and love for Hashem and the Torah, the loving, warm home that never turns you away, the generous helpings of food and the lively cheer, and a thriving entrepreneurial spirit are things with which the Persian community can take great pride. This new generation bears the weight of a great tradition and keeping it alive is something that will take active effort. Educationally, socially and politically, Jews of Persian descent need to be involved in the Jewish community as Persians, to recall their history and to represent their forebears in the perpetuation of the heritage that is remarkably distinctive and historically valued if it will be eternalized by those who bear its name.

Words to impress your Iranian neighbors

Salaam: Hello

Chet-o-ree: How are you?

Moat-cha-keram: Thank you.

Merci: Thank you.

Bokhor!: Eat!

Cha-yee Mee-khai: Would you like some tea?

Ne-mee-cham: I don’t want.

Bee-yoh een-ja: Come here.

Mee-doo-nee: You get it?

Farsi Mee-doo-nam: I know Farsi.

Pa-sho Be-reem: Let’s go!

Jaan?: Pardon me, I didn’t catch that?

Taarof: A rule in which you must refuse something that’s offered to you at least three times before you accept it in order to prove that you are not needy or desperate

Be-rakhz!: dance!

Shey-toon: Rascal

Be-farmayin: Please help yourselves.

Interview with Mr. Houman Sarshar, editor of Esther’s Children A Portrait of Iranian Jews

What separates Mizrachi from Sephardi Jews?

Mizrachi means Eastern Jews which generally means Jewish populations that are East of Babylonian communities of Jews. We have a slightly different tradition in terms of liturgy; we are not that far from the Sephardim but we are a completely different branch of Judaism. For the most part, Iranian Jews have been living in Iran for 2700 years and we have developed our own culture, languages, social habits, rituals around life events that are pretty different from that of the Sephardim—especially from the Sephardim of the United States. We may have similarities with the Iraqi Jews or the Syrian Jews or even Turkish Jews. These similarities goes back to the fact that we are from the same part of the world—we have the same kinds of food, the same social values, and we have the same cultural values to some extent. But the American Sephardic community has a different way of being in the world, a different value systems, a liturgical process that is very different and the Iranians have fully assimilated into that. European French and Spanish Jews are about as far from Iranian Jews as any Jewish community could be and they are solidly Sephardi.

How has Iranian Islamic culture impacted the way Persian Jews practice Judaism today?

A lot of the traditions that we have are directly influenced by Islamic rituals. Iranian Jews that their morning rituals are very much closer to Muslim Iranian morning rituals than anything. Our way of singing liturgical music in shul is strongly and undeniably rooted in the classic Persian system of notes, or the daska system. Certain Jewish holidays, predominantly Passover have taken particular significance because they coincide with Iranian cultural holidays. This affects the way Iranian Jews define themselves. I think that our wedding ceremonies and our celebrations of life events—all these things are a lot closer to the way Muslims do it than the way a French Jew would do it. The way a young couple meets each other, the way a weddings used to be once upon a time, all our behaviors and cultural practices and social norms and values are very much in line with the Iranian Muslim community that will in many ways clash with a European Sephardic one. In the same way that a Jewish American will find themselves very different from a Moroccan Jew or a Jewish community of Afghanistan or a Russian community or of the Caucuses, everyone will find they are Jewish but they will find at their ceremonies something different than what they expected at an American Jewish wedding in Connecticut.

Were there any leaders who precipitated the mass migration of Jews to Los Angeles?

I don’t know if the decision for Iranian Jews, or Iranians in general, to end up in Southern California is a little bit of a mystery of migration of the monarch butterfly. No one knows why it happened—it is just somewhat of a collective thing that picked up its own momentum. It was never an organized process; certainly in the beginning for the first four or five years, it was never a conscious process or a movement that was led by any leader or foundation. The sheer numbers saw it build its own momentum and gravitational pull. To my knowledge there really was never any organized plan for Iranian Jews or any Iranians to move to Los Angeles. After the community has been there and established there the Jewish Federation, the Iranian chapter of Bnei Brith and Nessah started doing their work there. When they started to organize and pick leaders out of the community to manage community affairs it just became a matter of course that any Jewish Iranian who needed help to immigrate out of Iran and come to the United States to come to establish their families and start a life naturally came to where these organizations were. But that is just kind of more of a logical conclusion of how things developed. It was never a targeted thing.

What do you see as some of the successes of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles?

I think that they were able to continue beyond their own wildest dreams the astronomical rise to power that they saw in Iran in the last 25 to 30 years prior to the Revolution in Iran. I think that they were able to achieve a level of financial success that none of them could have even dreamt of. I think that they were able to establish or raise a generation of children who are by far so much more educated than their own parents as a collective I think it would be be hard-pressed to knock on the home of an Iranian Jew and not find at least 50 percent, if not 75 to 80 percent, to find children to have a university degree that is of a master’s level or higher. The number of doctors or lawyers that the community has raised is just disproportionate on a level that you couldn’t have even imagined. I think that they have succeeded phenomenally in remaining a closely knit community, even at certain times and ways more tightly knit than they were in Iran. I think that they have succeeded wonderfully in making a life for themselves in a country where most survived without knowing the language or the way of living here or knowing what to do. I think as a community of immigrants we are probably among the rare few who to this day support itself and take care of its own without having to rely on the generosity and kindness of the American government. And I think we have done pretty well for ourselves.

Do you see the new generation as being different from the generation that grew up in Iran?

Yes, absolutely. The traditional Iranian values are inapplicable to the American way of life and that is probably going to be the most blaring and the most drastic difference you will find between the generation who came here and the generation who was born here. I think that they find themselves—the ones who came here younger or who were born soon thereafter, essentially, people who are now in their thirties—are finding themselves at a huge tug-of-war and invariably the Iranian side will lose when it comes to social values. It is not an easy thing to live in an Iranian way in the United States. This is biggest thing that is probably going to get lost. It’s hard, it’s something that is unfortunately going to get lost and in my opinion the value of which they are never really going to understand and so they’re never really going to get to benefit from it because it’s a culture and tradition that’s hard to live under and live by but it’s a tradition and a culture and a value system that really set up by the elders for the elderly so you kind of need to live within it and by it for the majority of your life and hope that you live long enough. I suppose it’s Iran’s moral social security if you die before you’re 65 you don’t really benefit from it but if you live long enough you really do profit from it. We don’t put our elders in nursing homes; we kind of take care of our own. Not that putting people in a nursing home is a bad thing—sometimes it’s physically impossible to provide them the medical attention that they need but our elders do not end up in a nursing home only because they’re old and no one wants to cook for them or clean their house.

What else do you mean by Persian values?

The way we care for ourselves, the way we remain tight-knit within each other. Listen, my father grew up in a world where he was a very successful businessman and I think to this day, honest to G-d, I don’t think my father ever signed a single partnership contract or agreement until years after he came to the United States. And when he was proportionately or comparatively speaking infinitely more successful in Iran than he was here even though he has done pretty well for himself here, but you know the kind of world where two gentlemen when two families see each other and know who they are and decide to go into a business on the basis of a handshake and the partnership lasts for generations on a handshake is never going to come back certainly never in this business world in the United States. The sense of honor and how you treat your in-laws and the family ties you marry into, and the dos and the don’ts are simply lost. An American man or woman of Iranian descent is not going to show the same level of respect or deference to an in-law as a matter of course as an Iranian would—it’s just not going to happen.

Do you see this evolution of values as the cause of the increasing divorce rates among Persians?

Yes. And I say this with a caveat that I don’t think that divorces are necessarily bad. Marriage is a contract that is not exclusively based on love and lifetime movie stories. People get together get married and stick it out because hopefully they’re going to live a long life and they’re going to want the companionship. People lose track of that and they forget that. What the real institution of marriage is about gets confused with the values of romantic and neo-nineteenth century values of love and romance and movies and all of that sort of stuff and they fall apart more quickly. There may have been some women of the generation who left Iran perhaps feel they have the freedom to divorce in a way that they feel they did not have in Iran but I think it terms of proportionately speaking divorce remains more scarce in that generation than the younger generation that’s now getting married. My parents’ entire generation would’ve been surrounded by divorced couples. Even the values with which they got married and the changes that came on with their life. Even looking at their situations the way they are with each other, you would think the most logical thing would be divorce but when you understand that the institution of marriage for them has a different meaning then you would understand why they tough it out…it’s about building a community of your own, a social structure that provides the benefits of caretaking and supporting and watching each others’ backs and caring for each others’ stresses and doing things the right way which are all benefits within that value system and social structure in a way that pleasure and vacations and roses and Valentine cards cannot compare.