February 22, 2007
Iranian Jews struggle with segregation, presumption and assimilation -- how the stranger became the Angeleno
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"We work much closer with the Jewish establishment here than does the Israeli community," Nazarian commented.
By contrast, in their private social lives the Iranians form pretty much of a self-contained circle.
Even as worldly a man as the 50-year-old Sam Kermanian said that among his close friends, two-thirds are Iranian, and the proportion is higher among other families.
In social groupings, including those that include English-only speakers, many Iranians tend to talk in Persian, to the annoyance of some among them, including Gina Nahai. The Iran-born, Jewish author of three novels, which have enjoyed impressive critical and commercial success, recalled an occasion when she approached a group of Persian-speaking women, one accompanied by her American husband.
When Nahai remarked upon the fact that the woman's husband couldn't follow the conversation, the woman shrugged and replied, "Oh, he's used to it."
Perhaps more surprising, the American-born children of Iranian parents, largely share the same habit.
According to widespread anecdotal evidence, American students at the Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Milken Community high schools frequently complain about the self-segregation of their fellow Iranian students.
Nahai believes that the close and intense generational family ties of the Iranian students may account for the Persian preference, adding that their parents "can live here and never have to speak a word of English. You can dial 411 for information and get a Farsi-speaking operator."
Kermanian notes that the problem cuts two ways, and that in school Iranian students are sometimes put down for their darker skin color and hairiness. One not unwelcome result of this social semi-isolation, combined with the social conservatism of the Iranian Jewish community, is that intermarriage is still an unusual occurrence, and that phenomenon includes marriage to Jewish, but non-Iranian, spouses.
Marrying outside the faith used to be all but unheard of, though Dora Kadisha estimates that now 2 percent to 3 percent of Iranian Jews marry non-Jews (compared to around 50 percent in the general Jewish community).
The mother of three girls said that women in her circle try to "educate" their children to marry Jews by sending them to Jewish day schools and Jewish camps.
But should her own children marry non-Jews, "I won't kill them," Kadisha said, but neither will she publicize the matter. "In this community, we don't wash our dirty laundry in public."
Religious differences within the generally tolerant community are minor, and politics tend to lean toward the conservative side. In Iran, Jews stayed out of politics, but this reluctance is fading. Currently, three Iranian Jewish candidates are running for the Beverly Hills City Council, and present Councilman Jimmy Delshad has good shot at becoming mayor of Beverly Hills.
But there is a sharp division of opinion on how to confront the present anti-Semitic and anti-Israel regime in Tehran. The majority view, personified by Kermanian, leans toward behind-the-scenes pressure and lobbying, from the concern that the remaining Jews in Iran are living as hostages to the regime.
A smaller, but vocal faction, represented by such spokesmen as George Haroonian and Pooya Dayanim, advocate a more vocal and demonstrative approach as the only way to move authorities in Tehran.
Given the emotional and sentimental ties that still bind the Jewish emigrants to the good life under the shah, the question remains as to how many might go back if the Islamic regime were replaced by a benevolent monarch or functioning democracy.
Almost all Jewish émigrés lost their property and businesses when they left Iran, and Nazarian estimates that between 50 percent and 60 percent might return to try to recover some of their assets.
Nahai and Kermanian put the figure much lower, at around 20 percent, and then mainly among the older people, who grew to adulthood under the shah.
"I would never go back," said Nahai, the 46-year-old writer. "My children would never go, and I wouldn't go without my children. Besides everything is different now. I have lots of Muslim friends who have tried to return to Iran, but after a few months there they've had enough."
Coming up is the third generation, now in its childhood or yet unborn. Following the assimilation process of earlier immigrant groups, these boys and girls "will be more American and less Persian," Nahai predicted.
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