Since arriving in Southern California more than 25 years ago, the Persian Jewish community has been tight-knit and has largely chosen to be closed off from the rest of the greater Jewish community and American society. Yet with an undying curiosity and persistence, local Jewish photojournalist Shelley Gazin has managed to capture the true essence of Persian Jewish life in a series of photographs.
After nearly two years of work on "Becoming Persian: A Photographic Narrative With Text Threads Illuminating the Persian Jewish Community," a small portion of Gazin's work will go on view for a one-day event at the Huntington Library in San Marino on Nov. 4. "I found Persian hospitality so encompassing that I was pulled in, almost as if by a magnet," said Gazin, whose photographs have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time, and Forbes magazine. "I'm surprised by how deeply I felt a part of it."
The event will also feature presentations from more than 40 archives of the arts, economies, politics and cultures of various Los Angeles-area communities. Gazin said she was originally attracted to documenting life in the Iranian Jewish community after photographing the late Persian Jewish Chief Rabbi Hacham Yedidia Shofet for her 2001 exhibition, "Looking for a Rabbi," at the Skirball Museum.
"It was interesting and impressive to realize that my own neighborhood [Los Angeles] had been transformed, and that this successful community has emerged who has made major contributions in science, medicine and business," Gazin said. "I realized that this might be the greatest saga of 20th century immigration".
Gazin's photos include various facets of local Iranian Jewish life, from extravagant weddings, to images of local leaders, to close-ups of community organizations supporting new immigrants from Iran.
Despite her limited knowledge of the Persian culture and inability to speak Persian, Gazin's desire to give an accurate portrayal of Persian Jewish life in Los Angeles has earned her the respect of the community's leaders, who have welcomed her with open arms.
"For a lot of people who don't know us or who have seen us only from a distance, what she [Gazin] has done will give them a better idea of who we really are and put a face to our community," said Dr. Morgan Hakimi, president of the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills.
Gazin's presence at local Persian Jewish events and gatherings has forced many Persian Jews to re-examine their lack of openness with other Jewish groups, Hakimi said.
"Sometimes we're out of touch with the Jewish community and the greater community since we're all within our own inner circles," she said. "So it's natural for us to learn about ourselves from a project like this".
Other local Jewish leaders said Gazin's work was significant for research purposes, because no one had previously documented with photos the lives of Persian Jews in Southern California.
"The Persian Jewish community is vitally important to the Los Angeles Jewish community, therefore it is essential that there are records of their history," said UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, who has collaborated with Gazin on past projects.
Seidler-Feller said Gazin's photographs ultimately would help bridge the cultural gap between older Persian Jews and the younger generation of Persian Jews that have been Americanized after living here all their lives.
After receiving the initial funding for her project from the California Council for the Humanities, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Durfee Foundation, Gazin is still seeking sponsorship from new donors in order to complete this extensive project. When she is done, she hopes to have exhibitions of the completed work, though probably not for another two to three years. The Laura & David Merage Foundation have provided funding for Gazin's presentation at the Huntington Library.
For more information on attending the Huntington Library's Inaugural Los Angeles Archives Bazaar on Nov. 4 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., or contact (626) 405-2100.
"The Passing Of Hacham Yedidia Shofet." Photo ©2005 Shelley Gazin