Fast-paced Persian dance music and the aroma of beef kebabs filled the Arena Nightclub in Hollywood on March 16 as nearly 1,000 local Iranian-Americans and their young children gathered to celebrate the upcoming Persian new year of Norooz.
The Norooz Festival was the first in a series of events in which close to 1 million Iranian-Americans living in California were expected to mark their ancient new year and the beginning of spring, both of which fall on March 20.
Norooz is traditionally a secular holiday celebrated by Iranians of all faiths. The holiday is especially unique because it is one of the rare occasions that brings Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha’is and Zoroastrians of Iranian background together around the world for the common goal of renewal and improving society.
The daytime event in Hollywood brought families together over Persian foods, drinks and live entertainment. Alan Semsar, a local Iranian-American advertising and events marketing executive who organized the event, said his company has, in the past, helped put on similar festivals for other cultural groups in the area.
“We’ve done similar festivals in the past for St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest, but this year we decided to do something for the Iranian community to show our pride and desire to give back,” said Semsar, who is Muslim.
He said nearly $10,000 in proceeds generated from this year’s Norooz festival will be donated to the Los Angeles-based Free Arts for Abused Children charity that provides therapeutic art programs to local children facing abuse, neglect, homelessness or chronic poverty.
“People have had such a bad misconception of Iranians from what they’ve seen in the media — that is not what we’re about,” Semsar said. “I think all Iranians in this country are all about giving, but we have not always had a chance to show the larger community our generous nature, and this event is a great example of it.”
While L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was slated to appear at the event, was a no-show, City Councilmen Eric Garcetti, a mayoral candidate, and Dennis Zine, who is running for city controller, both made visits.
“As someone that is not Iranian, I love being able to come out and celebrate the Iranian culture with this community, Garcetti said. “Norooz has become a great Los Angeles tradition, and this is increasingly becoming something that we can unify us.”
The Hollywood Norooz festival was not the only gathering where area Iranian-Americans were giving back to the larger community. Close to 120 locals, called the Norooz Committee, a consortium of young Iranian-American Angelenos, volunteered on March 15 to feed nearly 1,200 homeless at the Midnight Mission, which is centered in the skid row area of downtown Los Angeles.
Taking such action at the time of the new year is important, according to Rob Salek, a 63-year-old Iranian-Jewish volunteer from Pacific Palisades.
“It is a time of deep spirituality when light symbolically conquers darkness and people open their hearts to help those less fortunate than themselves step into the light,” he said.
Salek said local Iranian-Americans first decided last year to feed the homeless on Skid Row during Norooz because of a sense of responsibility to help bring hope to those who were less fortunate in the city.
“Millions of Iranians were forced to leave their homes in Iran and rebuild them here. Because of our experience, we can identify with our neighbors on Skid Row,” Salek said. “Now we have an opportunity to share our success story and, in doing so, help them restore hope.”
Also on hand were Iranian radio personalities Sassan Kamali and Afshin Gorgin from the L.A.-based Farsi-language radio station 670-AM KIRN, which co-sponsored the event.
The Iranian community’s philanthropic efforts during Norooz this year drew praise from L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel, the other mayoral hopeful.
“I’m so proud of the Persian community’s tradition of volunteering at the Midnight Mission here in Los Angeles. It is the recognition that we appreciate all that we have, that we give back, that we help those less fortunate,” she said in a statement to the Journal.
Norooz celebrations also have a special meaning for many local Iranian-Americans this year, as one of their own, Adrin Nazarian, became the first Iranian elected to the California State Assembly. The Democrat, who represents the 46th District, is of Armenian background and is not Jewish. He told the Journal in a statement that he was particularly proud of the community’s contributions to the Southern California area.
“As an Iranian-American immigrant who now serves in the State Assembly, I wish the community a very happy new year,” Nazarian said. “Norooz is an amazing holiday that not only brings everyone together to celebrate the Persian new year, but continues a tradition of sharing with those less fortunate in Los Angeles.”
Local Iranian-Americans said the past week’s contributions of their community members reflected their true nature of generosity and goodwill that unfortunately has not been portrayed in recent reality television programs.
“We are blessed to have so many giving members of our community that have organized themselves for a positive goal of serving our society,” said David Rahimian, a local Iranian Jew and former special assistant to Villaraigosa. “Our community comes together and embraces this renewal to celebrate our values and traditions of being good to one another and service society.”
Additional Norooz celebrations will be held March 22 at Los Angeles City Hall for the formal recognition of the Persian new year by city councilmembers. Likewise, Norooz festivities will be held on March 24 in “Persian Square,” located on Westwood Boulevard between Wilkins and Ohio avenues. The event, featuring live music and traditional Iranian cuisine, is open to the public.
For more information on the local Iranian community’s Norooz celebrations, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.