Jewish Journal


February 22, 2007

Iranian Jews struggle with segregation, presumption and assimilation -- how the stranger became the Angeleno


Izak Parviz Nazarian, and his daughter, Dora Kadisha. Photo by Tom Tugend

Izak Parviz Nazarian, and his daughter, Dora Kadisha. Photo by Tom Tugend

A little historical anecdote tells much about the transition of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles over a 25-year span, from strangers to integral -- though distinctive -- members of the larger Jewish community.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, following Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution, the first sizeable wave of Iranian Jews arrived in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.

Many chose the conveniently located Sinai Temple in Westwood, a prominent Conservative synagogue, as their Shabbat gathering place.

Soon their large, extended families, speaking Persian, socialized in the lobby on Friday evenings, ate oneg Shabbat cookies, and attended services the following morning.

Ashkenazi old-timers started grumbling about "free rides" for the newcomers, quite unaware that to the Iranians, paying membership dues to a synagogue was a foreign concept and that it was considered a blessing for guests to take home some cookies and candy after a bar mitzvah or wedding.

Things actually came to the point where a new Sinai Temple president "solved" the cookie problem by canceling oneg Shabbat refreshments after Friday evening services altogether.

Eventually, cooler and more perceptive heads prevailed as both sides came to understand each other's background and customs.

Today, Sinai Temple is a model of "integration," with Iranians representing about half of the membership, some 40 percent of the board of directors and even a president emeritus.

There is no demographic study of the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, although its size is generally given as 30,000, including the American-born children of the original immigrants.

This figure is well below the 100,000 in Israel but ahead of New York City's 12,000 -- the only other large concentration in the United States -- and bigger than the some 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran itself.

In a thumbnail overview, Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, describes his constituency as economically "extremely successful," though, despite urban legend, there are poor Iranians, especially in the San Fernando Valley and the Pico-Robertson area.

However, the poor are not publicly visible, mainly because they are generally kept afloat through an extended and extremely tight-knit family structure, one of the 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 Journal recently met with the family patriarch, Izak Parviz Nazarian, and his daughter, Dora Kadisha, to listen to an up-to-date version of the Horatio Alger story.

Nazarian was born in Tehran 77 years ago into an impoverished family and went to work at an early age after his father died when Parviz was 5.

In 1948, he arrived in Israel three days after the country declared its independence and immediately joined a tank brigade, was seriously injured in a mine explosion and spent five months in a hospital.

After the war, he bought a truck for construction work, but soon advanced from driver to contractor. Over the next 30 years, he launched a remarkable entrepreneurial career, shuttling between Israel and Iran, and establishing joint enterprises in construction equipment, electronics and sheet metal production.

At the same time, he took an active role in the Tehran Jewish community, campaigned for women's rights, aided Jewish refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, and helped Israeli diplomats escape the country when the Islamic Revolution broke out.

In June 1979, Nazarian and his wife, Pouran, along with their three daughters and one son left Iran for good and settled in Los Angeles.

"We were attracted by the climate, which is similar to Tehran's, and we were readily accepted by the Jewish community, which wasn't the case in other American cities," Nazarian said.

Arriving in the new country and city, Nazarian hit the ground running.

He took over, expanded and still chairs Stadco, a leading producer of high-precision tooling and parts for the aerospace industry. In 1985, he 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, Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The total wealth of Nazarian and his extended family, which includes his brother, Younes Nazarian, and son-in-law, Neil Kadisha, is estimated at between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

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 Parviz and Pouran Nazarian hosting around 50 family members for Passover seders, and 25 for Shabbat, including 10 grandchildren.

The Nazarian family tends to be very private and, for the most part, has avoided the media spotlight afforded some of this city's prominent families. Nevertheless, some scrutiny is impossible to forgo.

According to a recent front-page report in the Los Angeles Times, son-in-law Neil Kadisha has been ordered to pay $100 million in damages following a four-year civil trial in which the judge ruled that Kadisha, as a trustee for a young widow, had taken large sums from her account.

Kadisha has asked for a new trial and a spokesperson said he was eager to refute the charges in public as soon as he is legally able to do so.

In their occupations, Iranian Jews are full participants in the business and professional life of this city, and they support the work of established American Jewish organizations. "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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