August 3, 2007
Covering Iranian Jews in L.A. is not a piece of halvah
“What are you doing reporting on us? You should find yourself a real job, a nice Jewish girl and get married!” said a prominent Los Angeles Iranian Rabbi to me when I approached him for an interview several months ago. Immediately he tried to convince me that my coverage of the local Iranian Jewish community was futile because I was not getting rich doing it. I tried to explain to him that my work as a freelance journalist wasn’t necessarily based on any desire to earn a living, but rather to bring about change for the better in the greater Jewish community. As is the tradition among most Middle Eastern Jews, I was then bombarded with the rabbi’s generous hospitality to enjoy food, libations and even in the blind dates he and his wife would offer to set up personally for me!
While my words to the rabbi fell on deaf ears, my encounter with him was yet another example of the challenge I’ve come across while covering Southern California’s vibrant and dynamic Iranian Jews for the last seven years. Covering local Iranians of all faiths as a journalist has been an uphill battle for me at times because even though many of them have been living here for nearly 30 years, a substantial number of them still have the hidden fear of opening up to the media. Older Iranian Jews in particular seem to be the most frightened sometimes to chat with me on the record because of witnessing or hearing about physical violence that befell anyone that voiced their opinions in Iran. This fear of the “secret police” has been so deep rooted that it still persists in some Iranian Jews today. It especially rings true when issues of the Jews still living in Iran arise. “You have to be careful what you say here in the U.S. because the lives and safety of the Jews in Iran could be jeopardized” is something I hear at least 50 times a month. Of course I have been sensitive to this concern when covering the community, but their unique mindset from the old world continues to interest me.
Aside from their fear of opening up at times to the media, covering local Iranian Jewish issues can also be trying since one must walk the fine line as the community has been plagued with some infighting and old school feuds. If you cover one group but fail to cover another group, you run the risk of immediately being branded as a traitor by both groups who assume you have hidden allegiances. Another challenge has been to accurately show how the Iranian Jewish community is grappling with their younger generation that has become more Americanized.
Despite traveling these rocky roads over the years, I have personally enjoyed sharing the community’s stories with the greater Jewish community and the world because Iranian Jews have been flourishing in the U.S. since their arrival in 1979. Within a short time span our community has accumulated substantial wealth, education and even attained public office. More importantly, the Iranian Jews in America have become one of the important bridges between Americans and non-Jewish groups in the U.S. and Middle East. My personal satisfaction from reporting on the Iranian Jewish community has come from exposing the true beauty of Iranian Jewish traditions, history and mentality to the greater Jewish community. Iranian Jews who have at times remained in their own enclaves in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles have become an enigma to many American Jews who do know understand their culture and background. My hope is that my work and insights into the Iranian Jewish community will bring other Jewish groups closer in the near future as there is a realization of the commonality they share.
And for the record, as much as members of the local Iranian Jewish community will continue to resist coming out of their safe bubble will try my utmost to bring them out of their cocoon in a dignified manner and expose their beauty.