April 4, 2012
The myth of the Iranian-American Jew
This one’s for our children — the teens and 20-somethings who were born in this country or who’ve lived here most of their life, who have no memory of Iran except what’s been passed on to them or what they’ve constructed with their imagination. The kids who speak Persian with an accent or not at all, crack up at the way their parents pronounce their w’s and th’s, become wide-eyed and incredulous when they discover that we grew up without frozen yogurt, nonfat milk and broccoli. And who, more and more these days, find themselves having to define and defend that tangled nexus of nationality and religion, of likeness and singularity, of being and becoming that is their Iranian heritage.
I am speaking, of course, of the uproar within the Iranian community in reaction to a certain reality show over the past few weeks. I don’t know about everyone else, but it pains me to see our young people cringe and shudder at the thought of what the rest of the country is going to think of us after having seen this show. They’re in a strange predicament, these children of hyphenated parents. Iranian-American. Iranian-Jew. Iranian-American-Jew. Already, they’ve had to walk the tightrope from one component to the other every hour of every day. But for too long they’ve also had to endure the harsh judgment of Los Angeles’ larger society, fight negative misconceptions, shrug off the myth of what Iranian-Americans are like because they feel they have little power to change it. Why else would they be so hurt and offended by the pitiful portrayal of a handful of Iranians on a less-than-second-rate television show?
Once upon a time, an army of rich, spoiled and ill-mannered Jews, having exhausted all the sources of glee and merriment in Iran, sat around and hatched a plan to conquer the idyllic city of Beverly Hills, destroy its library and public schools, and lay waste to adjacent Westwood Corridor and Sinai Temple. One bright summer day in 1978 they packed up all their jewels, cash and “attitude,” traveled some 7,581 miles, and descended en masse onto the unsuspecting inhabitants of said city. Overnight, they evicted, expelled and dislodged the rightful owners of Beverly Hills by paying too much for their land, paying all cash, opening short escrows. The natives who weren’t forced to sell by outsized offers sold anyway, perhaps out of fear of the jewel-slinging Jews and their all-night displays of libertinism on Shabbat.
Sound familiar? It didn’t start with the TV show; it started more than 30 years ago, within the “native” American community of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.
Having planted their flag onto the “natives’ ” land, these Iranian Jews set out to expand their sphere of influence by infiltrating the four pillars of Beverly Hills’ community — the schools, synagogues, professional offices and Neiman Marcus. They spoke Persian to each other even when there were “natives” around. They invented shallowness, materialism, large houses and questionable business practices, and kept it all to themselves. All those unscrupulous bankers on Wall Street who rip off their own clients, the homeowners and real estate speculators who developed and built Brentwood Park and Holmby Hills, the international fashion houses and clothing stores that charge the equivalent of a midsize car for a wallet or a blouse — they must all be Iranian Jews. So must all the women prancing around this city with fish lips and Brazilian buttocks. And all the Americans who, no matter where they are in the world, speak English and expect everyone else to understand.
I shouldn’t have to, but I feel I must clarify that the above is, indeed, a myth. As with all myths, it has a kernel of truth buried somewhere within: Yes, a handful of Iranian Jews came to this country with a lot of money, though that’s hardly a crime; a few of their children own BMWs and drive too fast; a few come across as, or really are, impetuous and unpleasant.
But there are infinitely more rich, obnoxious, BMW-driving “natives” in this city than there are Iranians of that sort, and no one’s going around resenting their presence and blaming them for all the ills in the country. The difference is, when one of the “natives” commits a wrong, we blame him. When an Iranian commits the same wrong, we blame them all.
Sound familiar? It’s like what the world has done to Jews through the ages, except in this case, many of those wagging the finger and perpetuating the myth about the frightful Iranian-American Jew are — alas — “native” American Jews. At best, this is divisive and unhelpful.
So I’m here to tell you, lest it goes unsaid, that the real story of Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles is vastly different from the one that’s being told — on television and off.
The real story is that by far the great majority of Iranian Jews who settled in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and in the ensuing decade were anguished and traumatized refugees escaping the very real threat of extinction in a homeland where their roots stretched back thousands of years. Most got away with only the proverbial shirt on their back. What money they had made in Iran was the result of decades of hard work and ingenuity; whatever part of it they managed to bring to the United States, or to make here, helped contribute to the health and vibrancy of this economy.
The real story is that nearly no one, not even the most fortunate, was spared emotional loss and psychological hardship in the turmoil of migration. From the owners of the closet-size stalls on Santee Avenue who worked seven days a week selling quinceañera dresses, to the wives who took a job for the first time in their life because their husband couldn’t find one, and the children who were sent here alone to become the ward of a sibling, an aunt or a Jewish charitable entity — just about every Iranian here has earned whatever living he’s managed to make. To this day, most of them are not rich — not by Los Angeles standards. They don’t live in Beverly Hills, but in Pico-Robertson, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys and Northridge. Their kids don’t go to private school; they work nights and weekends, take loans to finance their higher education. That they manage to get into Ivy League colleges and succeed in medicine and art and law and technology puts the lie to the idea that they live and breathe to party, drink and spend their parents’ money.
They’re a splendid bunch, these young people who know, perhaps better than many “natives” of their generation, what a gift it is to wake up every day under the American sky. They take little for granted. They’ve learned to appreciate the salient parts of each piece of their identity and to tolerate the rest. That’s a gift they’ve been blessed with and a cross they’ll have to bear. But this other cross — being singled out as “foreign” by their fellow Americans, held to account for the flaws and failures of others, having the good in them overlooked and their faults magnified — this is a burden they’ve neither earned nor deserve.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.