There is an open wound that is infecting all Jews in Los Angeles. While across the street UCLA students are battling rampant anti-Semitism, at many of our temples and schools, we are facing anti-Persian bigotry. "This school is way too Persian. I wouldn't send my kids there." Chances are, if you are not Persian you have whispered this.
With the growing and dominant Persian culture in Los Angeles, this week, Sinai Akiba Academy ran a bold ad in the back of The Jewish Journal entitled "”Too Persian.” Looks awful in print? It sounds worse in a whisper.” This ad is a product of some six months of deliberation and committee meetings made up of both Persian and Ashkenazi members to combat a growing prejudice. However, some Persians are upset over this ad. I wonder if those angry have not read past the title.
When my daughter was born, there was silence in the delivery room. She was a redhead; the rest of the family has black hair! After joking with my wife about how I’d like the next one to be blond, my father told me the story of the Polish redhead rabbi who married my great grandmother after he was recruited to their small village near Shushan. I always imagined a generation toiling to build a majestic temple, later overtaken by people of another color, another race. I often wonder if there were a Chinese revolution and all Chinese Jews came over to Nessah Israel (a prominent Persian Temple in Beverly Hills) would the Persians there be as gracious as the Ashkenazis have been to us? And what if the Chinese Jews dominated Sinai Temple?
These are important questions to address. They are not meant to be derogatory, nor humorous. Some believe that we should ignore the problem and it will go away. Others create major divides. But a wound is not cured by being ignored. An infection needs demarcation, treatment. Talking about an abstract concept of diversity and tolerance does very little. We need to bring to surface concrete issues. Here’s where the conversation starts, not ends.
Several years ago, before singing Adon Olam, there was a mad dash by Persians to the back of Sinai Temple. Most of the Kiddush was gone by the time those who finished the prayer arrived. Persians take the bread and cookies served as blessings from the day’s visit to their home. In a delicate sermon, Rabbi Wolpe addressed the entire congregation and united us by asking everyone to remain seated during the prayers and by reminding us of our cultural differences. We need counseling, much like a marriage, to understand each other to live under one roof.
As a culture, we Persians can be overwhelming. Many of us feel that our status, jobs, finances entitle us to everything. We speak Farsi around those who don't understand us. We, too, whisper about the "White" Americans. Some believe that if we spend money, we have done our part. It is now 35 years after the Iranian revolution. Persians have become a permanent part of the greater American society. We have much to be proud of. We are entering leadership positions, have top physicians, attorneys, entrepreneurs and philanthropists who are active and giving back. Persian parents are active in school annual giving, school projects and hosting events in our homes. Young Persian parents who are active feel underappreciated.
We live by nature in "cliques” but our nature is not always right and we need to be cognizant of our shortcomings. A large part of sending our kids to a private Jewish school is for the friends they keep. But what example do we set when Persian children don’t attend Ashkenazi birthday parties or vice versa? To be sure, there are many Persians that don't want to go to schools that have too many Persians. There are Persians who are upset that their children cannot get into Pressman because “they only take Americans.” There are Persians and Ashkenazis that would prefer to go to non-Jewish private schools to avoid Persians. Then, there are those who only socialize with people of equal or higher net worth. In being integrated, we must be careful not to push out those who opened their homes to us and those who work tirelessly to maintain them.
As we sing Ledor Vador, we should all embrace one another. As we sing Eitz Hayim, we need to realize that we are branches of the same tree; our roots are one. We must be transparent and honest with one another. We must talk openly, not whisper about these issues in our circles. We must go past tolerance and in the tradition of Abraham, and in the shape after which Sinai Temple is designed, invite guests over to our tents. We must love our neighbor as our selves.
Here’s part of a letter that Rabbi Wolpe circulated in response to the ad: “I have been asked “What if they said “Beverly Hills High was ‘too Jewish?’” My answer is that if this ugly rumor kept people from sending their kids there, and the school put out an ad clearly repudiating this prejudiced idea, I would be all for it. Gary Weisserman, the Head of Milken, approached me on Friday and said “Great ad. I wish we had done it first – and you can quote me on that.” He believed, as do I, that this will finally fully open a discussion that is too often had in whispered conversations and that will ultimately be very healthy for all involved.”
Our choice is to bury our heads in the sand, to be part of the problem, or hopefully to learn from each other and become part of the solution. We should not forget that the purpose of sending our children to schools is to educate them. We must teach our children we do not go with the tide, but do what is right.
As a step toward shining light on the great accomplishments of Persians, please visit this page I admin.
Also, please note that this weekend Magbit Foundation Awards Rabbi David Wolpe with Humanitarian Award