September 4, 2008
Escape, exile, rebirth: Iranian Jewish diaspora alive and well in Los Angeles
30 years after the revolution, upheaval still haunts those who got out
(Page 3 - Previous Page)Eventually, Askari fled illegally, like thousands of other Jews who initially stayed on in their homeland during the early years of the revolution -- during the 1980s and 1990s, most escaped across the borders of Pakistan or Turkey. These Jews typically paid smugglers to transport them out of the country, a risky move because the punishment for illegally leaving Iran was imprisonment. After escaping, many of the Iranian Jewish refugees were helped by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and given safe haven in Austria while waiting for visas to immigrate to Israel or the United States.
The terror Jews experienced in Iran had a ripple effect on family members living in the United States during the revolution. In the spring of 1980, Kaveh Lahijani was a high school student living in Orange County when he learned that his father, Isaac Lahijani, who was still in Iran, had been kidnapped and held for ransom by unknown armed government thugs.
For the next 26 years, the family heard nothing of Isaac Lahijani's fate. Kaveh Lahijani's mother, Farzaneh, and her three children wept for months, unable to hold a memorial because they had no information on whether Isaac was dead or alive. The family continued living in grief until September 2007, when Farzaneh Lahijani finally received an official letter from the Iranian government informing her of her husband's death.
"After agonizing searching and denials from the Iranian authorities telling my mother to go and come [from Iran] for 26 years, she found out from a two-sentence letter that they indeed had killed my father and that they wanted to pay restitution for his blood," said Kaveh Lahijani, who, out of a sense of family privacy, would not reveal further details of the resolution.
As sometimes happen during a revolution, not everyone initially believed that the new government would be as destructive and hostile as it turned out to be. While the vast majority of Iranian Jews in Southern California say they opposed the Iranian revolutionaries at the outset, a small minority admit that they initially supported the overriding objectives of greater freedom that were promised at the beginning of the revolution.
Said Banayan, now a Los Angeles accountant in his late 60s, was among the minority. He co-founded the Enlightened Thinkers, a Jewish group that initially advocated support for the revolution against what he saw as an oppressive monarchy.
"We formed this group in order to show the rest of the people in Iran that we Jews were not woven from a different fabric of society than other Iranians, but that we also supported [the new government's professed] goals for democracy and freedom," Banayan said. "We hoped that we may be able to enjoy new freedoms under the new regime, but at that time, we could not foresee how the new government, run by the mullahs, would mistreat the people of Iran for their own economic gain."
Banayan said the Enlightened Thinkers was not popular among the majority of Iran's Jewish community at first but later received wide support within the community, faced with the fact that Iran's majority Muslim population had felt oppressed by the shah's reign and largely supported the revolution.
"This was a movement that we supported because we honestly believed in its principles of greater freedom and democracy," Banayan remembered.
The conflicted feelings among older Iranian Jews here also include a great deal of nostalgia and love for their former homeland, despite the difficulties and pain they endured as a result of the revolution.
"I miss Iran very much," said professor Nahid Pirnazar, who teaches Judeo-Persian studies at UCLA. "I miss my college days there. I enjoyed Iran very much, and I never personally experienced any persecutions, but I don't think they didn't exist."
According to various estimates, today somewhere between 40,000 and 45,000 Iranian Jews live in Southern California and between 10,000 and 15,000 in New York. Roughly 20,000 Jews are believed to be living in Iran, and 150,000 Jews of direct or mixed Iranian descent live in Israel. Approximately 3,000 to 5,000 Iranian Jews live elsewhere in the United States and 5,000 in Canada.
Some local Iranian Jews say the long-term impact of the Iranian revolution has proven beneficial for them. Despite their losses, many community members who resettled in Southern California and New York have regained their prosperity, benefited from greater educational opportunity and enjoyed far more religious freedom, while still retaining their sense of a tight-knit community that upholds many of the ancient Iranian Jewish traditions.
"After 30 years, I think we're doing very well as far as keeping our identity, and there is no reason we should lose our identity as Iranian Jews while we are becoming acculturated here," Pirnazar said. "For an immigrant community that has only been here for a short time, we have done very well, and I'm very proud to say that I'm an Iranian Jew."
So where are we today?
Some -- a very small minority -- of Iranian Jews were able to extract their wealth from Iran before the revolution, but the majority were forced to rebuild their lives and new businesses in the United States, Israel and Europe. During the last 30 years, the community in Los Angeles has established more than two dozen Jewish schools and synagogues. In 2002, one of the most prominent community organizations, Nessah Synagogue, acquired a location in Beverly Hills for more than $10 million.
As a result of their hard work, savvy business sense and their valuing higher education, a number of families in the community today have become very successful. Specifically, members of the Nazarian family are major shareholders in the telecommunications giant Qualcomm, along with ownership in hotels and nightclubs in the L.A. area. Other local Iranian Jewish families, including the Namvars and Delijanis, generated their substantial wealth as a result of their extensive real estate holdings in downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere.
In 2002, the Iranian Jewish Merage family sold their privately held corporation, Chef America, which manufactured the popular Hot Pockets frozen foods, for $2.6 billion to Nestle. Iranian Jewish businessman Isaac Larian heads MGA Entertainment, producers of the popular Bratz dolls, which since their introduction in June 2001 have grown into a billion-dollar franchise.
Iranian Jews in Southern California have also ventured into politics and fully embraced America's democracy since their exile. Most notable is Jimmy Delshad, a businessman in the computer products industry, who was elected a Beverly Hills councilman and then made national news when he became mayor of the city for one term in 2007.
Last January, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa named Iranian Jewish attorney H. David Nahai general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, overseeing one of the largest public utilities in the country.
Local Iranian Jewish leaders are optimistic about the community's future, despite having encountered difficulties in acculturation in America during the 30 years since the revolution.
"I believe a healthy integration, in which we are an active part of the American Jewry, will not eradicate a 2,500-year-old identity," said Dr. Morgan Hakimi, president of Nessah Synagogue. "On the contrary, I believe this will enable our younger generation to develop a stronger Jewish identity, as well as self esteem."
Visit Karmel Melamed's blog about Iranian American Jews at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.