September 3, 2008
For as long as I've worked in the Jewish community -- 14 years -- I've heard insults leveled at Iranian Jews.
They're pushy, acquisitive, flashy, nouveau riche, cheap. They're grasping, insincere, clannish, suspicious, old-fashioned. "They've ruined Beverly Hills High." "They've invaded Milken High." "They've taken over Sinai Temple."
I repeat the invectives by way of making one point: Enough already.
This week marks the 30-year anniversary of the beginning of the Iranian Revolution. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the ascent of the mullahs led to the exodus of thousands of Iranian Jews.
Within months, one of the world's oldest and most vital Jewish communities had fled and scattered across the globe: Europe, Israel, the United States. It was the Jewish Diaspora, Take 392.
The bulk of the Iranian Jewish Diaspora ended up in Los Angeles. By some estimates, there are between 40,000 to 45,000 Jews of Iranian descent living in Los Angeles today, almost 10 percent of the entire Jewish population.
As these Jews integrated into American society, they also had to integrate into a Jewish community whose roots go back to the 19th century, and whose ethnic makeup was (and is) largely Ashkenazic.
On the surface, the differences are charming, but barely enough to sustain a good sitcom episode. We eat roast chicken, they eat fesenjan. We eat matzo brei, they eat kookoo sabzi (kookoo, by the way, is better). We finish dinner at 8 p.m. They start dinner at 11 p.m. (Granted, there are enough hors d'oeuvres beforehand to stuff Michael Phelps.) We honor the Torah as it passes us in synagogue by discretely touching our prayer books to it. They embrace it like a life preserver, and kiss it like a long-lost friend.
We say sweetheart. They say joon.
I learned joon at the bat mitzvah of my daughter's close friend Daniella, whose parents came from Tehran. On the pulpit, they kept referring to their daughter as Daniella-joon. They called their rabbi, Rabbi-joon. And when Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben got up to bless the family, he called everyone joon, as well. There were titters at that one, so at dinner -- around 11 p.m. -- I asked what the word means.
Joon means "darling" or "sweetheart" in the Persian language, as in, "Rabbi darling." You get the Yiddish equivalent by adding a -le at the end of a name, though I can't imagine many rabbis adjusting to being called, "Rabbi-le."
The sheer quantity of joons in Iranian Jewish speech points to some of the deeper differences between Los Angeles' Iranian and non-Iranian Jewish communities. The obvious one is language, which can reinforce a sense of separateness and strangeness.
There are strong cultural preferences that easily breed conflict. There is the battle within Iranian Jewish culture to preserve traditions and mores, even if that means appearing insular, or worse, to your new Jewish neighbors.
As one jilted Jewish woman told me of her ex-boyfriend, who came from a traditional Iranian home: "I was Jewish enough to date, but not Persian enough to marry."
For three decades now, Sinai Temple has functioned as our own laboratory for this historical moment of Iranian-Ashkenazi contact. The old, established synagogue in Westwood experienced a steady influx of Iranian Jews, who eventually comprised 30 percent to 40 percent of membership. Sinai Temple became our very own Jewish Cultural Supercollider.
Tensions rose until Rabbi David Wolpe delivered a sermon in 2001 that called on each group to do the hard work of integration and compromise.
"In order for us to be a community--not an 'us' and a 'them'-- we have to recognize certain things," Wolpe intoned. "When two communities merge, there is enough pain to go around. Nobody gets everything they want. It is not only called a synagogue. It is called life. Here is the crucial point: When I say I want one community, I mean it so much I am ready to tell you this: If you or your children or your grandchildren are not prepared to marry a member of the other community, then you do not belong in this synagogue. I do not want an 'us' and a 'them.'"
The sermon went a long way toward cooling the reactions in the Supercollider. An Iranian Jew, Jimmy Delshad, went on to become president of Sinai Temple (and eventually mayor of Beverly Hills), and from what I understand the synagogue has no more tension, infighting, gossiping and name-calling than is absolutely necessary in Jewish life.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Los Angeles, there are signs the worst of the nastiness is ebbing. The younger generation has integrated into both the Jewish and larger society with astonishing speed and success. America is the Land of Hyphenated Identities, and young Iranian Jews will no doubt succeed in navigating it as have previous tribes.
As for the established Jewish community, I'd like to believe we have become 100 percent accepting. I'd like to believe that on the occasion of this 30-year anniversary, those of us who still default to -- I'll be blunt -- racist generalizations, take the time to learn the remarkable recent history of Iranian Jewry -- a story as compelling, frightening and death-defying for those who lived it as any our own relatives experienced.
I'd like to believe we'll come to understand that there was exactly no -- zero -- difference between our antagonism of this greenhorn community and the cold-shoulder with which established German Jewish communities in America greeted the waves of our Eastern European ancestors 100 years ago.
"Many of these new arrivals . . . have brought with them unfamiliar customs, strange tongues, and ideas which are the product of centuries of unexampled persecution," wrote Louis B. Marshall in 1904 of your bubbe and zayde. "But what of that! They have come to this country with the pious purpose of making it their home; of identifying themselves and their children with its future; of worshipping under its protection, according to their consciences; of becoming its citizens; of loving it; of giving to it their energies, their intelligence, their persistent industry."
"The Russian Jew is rapidly becoming the American Jew," he continued, "and we shall live to see the time when [they] will step into the very forefront of the great army of American citizenship."
That process is well under way here in Los Angeles. Since 1978, Iranian Jews have injected into a stable, maybe even staid Jewish community talent, industry, a profound connection to their Jewish roots and a desire to have a positive political and social impact on the city. They have energized a Jewish community that could always use invigorating.
More than L.A. Jewry saved the Iranian Jews, the Iranian Jews saved L.A. Jewry.
They are, in a word, joon.