The history of Iranian Jewry goes back nearly 3,000 years, so Nahid Pirnazar has a lot of ground to cover in her Oct. 21 lecture at the opening of “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews,” a wide-ranging, five-month exhibition at UCLA’s Fowler Museum.
Both the show and Pirnazar’s lecture survey this particular landscape of Jewish history from the rivers of Babylon to the residences of Beverly Hills. Along the way are long stretches of discrimination and persecution under various empires, brightened by occasional periods of acceptance and security.
During centuries of living side by side, Jews and Persians influenced one another’s culture and cuisine, but although the Jews “acculturated” to Persian society, they never “assimilated,” Pirnazar observed.
The UCLA lecturer in Iranian studies herself embodies the cultures of East and West. Born in the Iranian town of Kermanshah and having grown up in Tehran, she was awarded a scholarship at age 16 from the American Field Service and ended up in Los Angeles, graduating from Fairfax High School in 1962.
“At the time, 97 percent of the kids were Jewish,” she recalled.
Returning to Iran, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tehran University, interspersed with a semester at California State University, Northridge.
After moving permanently to the United States, she enrolled as a graduate student at UCLA, receiving both master’s and doctoral degrees in Iranian Studies.
She is an expert on
the Judeo-Persian language, whose vocabulary and grammar evolved from old to modern Persian, but which is written in Hebrew letters.
Just as researchers into Germanic languages use Yiddish as a way to look into the past, Persian scholars examine Judeo-Persian to examine the evolution of their language.
And just as Ashkenazi Jews seek to perpetuate Yiddish and keep it alive, so Pirnazar founded the House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts, registered in Beverly Hills, to serve as an academic clearinghouse for documents and other writings in the language.
Over the centuries, in good and bad times, Jewish and Persian cultures interacted, and Pirnazar credits Jewish scholars with helping to preserve Iranian literature, music and history, while also contributing their skills in medicine, pharmacy and jewelry making.
Persians, in turn, transmitted to Jews their custom of exchanging gifts during holidays, such as Purim, as well as their culinary preferences and the use of various fabrics and decorations.
Although often labeled as Sephardic, Iranian Jews evolved their own religious identity. More accurately, “We are mizrachi (Eastern) Jews, who follow Sephardic halachah (religious law),” she said.
Moving into more modern times, in 1906, a constitution, which conferred citizenship on Jewish residents, was approved by the reigning shah. But even with this leap forward, Jews were barred from high military and government posts.
The most recent exodus of Iranian Jews is generally dated from the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but in preceding years, a steady trickle of the wealthier and more educated Jews had moved to Israel, Europe and the United States, many settling in Los Angeles.
One wake-up call to emigrate came with the anti-Semitic outbursts accompanying the soccer final between Iran and Israel during the 1968 Asian Cup Games that took place in Iran and saw audiences mock Moshe Dayan, hero of the previous year’s Six-Day War, by singing insulting songs about the One-Eyed Man, decorating their dogs with eye patches, and releasing balloons marked with swastikas.
Today, an estimated 50,000 Iranian Jews live in the Los Angeles area, representing three generations and making L.A. home to the largest such community outside Israel, twice as large as the remaining Jewish population in Iran itself.
As in most immigrant groups, Iranian Jews, particularly the elderly of the first generation, faced considerable obstacles in a new country, from learning a strange language to adapting to new societal mores.
Rather than facing these seemingly overwhelming problems, many of the immigrants tried to re-create their old lifestyle and traditions, according to Pirnazar.
“They started setting up their own temples, to read prayers with their own ritual and tones, developed community and academic centers, restaurants, supermarkets, Yellow Pages and media to preserve their cultural identity,” she said.
Though the passage of time has ameliorated some of the problems and shifted priorities, certain inter-generational frictions remain.
Among them are differences in religious observance between the old Iranian traditions and Western-style practice, ranging from the use of microphones and mixed-gender seating during services, to the changing role of women and prenuptial agreements.
Yet, the past decade also has seen considerable shifts. “We see increased use of English in most of our communal events. For example, at High Holy Days services and at some Persian synagogues, even the rabbis and cantors may not be Persian,” Pirnazar said.
Increasingly, the second and third generations of Iranian Jews are giving back for the help extended their immigrant parents by supporting such organizations as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Jewish Federation, Sinai Temple and various university programs, particularly at UCLA.
Eventually, Pirnazar predicts, Iranian Jews will become members of “one big Jewish family” and acculturate into the larger American society. However, she thinks it unlikely that they will ever entirely abandon an Iranian identity developed over some three millennia.
Pirnarzar will present the Fowler OutSpoken Lecture on “The Tapestry of Iranian Jewish Heritage: Reflections on Historical, Sociocultural and Political Relations” on Oct. 21 at 2 p.m. at the Fowler Museum.
Admission to the UCLA exhibit is free and will be accompanied by special programs on Iranian-Jewish music, food and ritual objects, and complemented by displays of artistic and literary works at the Shulamit, UCLA, Jewish Federation and Hillel galleries.
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