Nearly 300 young Iranian Jews packed UCLA’s Fowler Museum auditorium on March 7 for a discussion featuring five prominent young Iranian-Jewish professionals openly discussing topics considered to be taboo within their community. The gathering was historic not only because young Iranian-Jews do not typically discuss their problems regarding career choices and personal relationships in a public forum — but also because this event marked the first time an openly gay member of the community has discussed issues of homosexuality facing Iranian-Jews in Los Angeles.
“I believe that we were aiming to create the types of dialogues and conversations that are already occurring between young Iranian-American Jews when they sit down together — only this time, we wanted to expand these expressions to a public forum so as to send a message that it is OK to actually discuss these issues openly and as a community,” the event’s moderator, Tabby Davoodi, executive director of the L.A.-based Iranian-Jewish nonprofit 30 Years After (30YA), said.
While 30YA did not sponsor the event, Davoodi said many of the local young Iranian-Jews who make up its membership were drawn to the event to learn how to speak to their family about pressures surrounding career choices or about issues of sex and marriage.
Speakers included Saba Soomekh, a theological studies professor at Loyola Marymount University, and her sister, Iranian-Jewish film actress Bahar Soomekh; hotel and nightclub entrepreneur Sam Nazarian; financial adviser Joseph Radparvar; and Shervin Khorramian, an openly gay Iranian-Jewish accountant. Fowler Museum organizers chose each speaker because they demonstrated independence and challenged community taboos. Each speaker talked about how young people in the community should feel empowered to make decisions in their own lives and take steps to shatter the taboos.
“I think it’s only natural for Iranian-Jews, as immigrants to this country, to be scared and want to keep their kids near them and push them into areas which they think are best for their kids,” Nazarian said. “But it’s up to each one of us in the younger generation to have the courage to follow our passions and make decisions that are best for us personally.”
Radparvar, 30, expressed the frustration many young Iranian-Jewish professionals face as their parents push them into medicine or law for the potential financial rewards.
“Every single day I was in law school I was miserable, and I know there are hundreds of other young Iranian-Jews who feel the same way because they go into certain fields just to make their parents happy,” Radparvar said. “I had to leave home and remove myself from that environment to find the inner strength to choose a career path I was happier with.”
Saba Soomekh said her young Iranian-Jewish students frequently say they feel trapped and are unable to speak with anyone about their issues of sexuality and relationships.
“The amount of sexual confusion in our community and the need for women to keep their sexual purity is at a ridiculously high level,” Soomekh said. “The fear of backlash and spreading of gossip has gotten to the point where girls can’t even talk to their girlfriends about issues of sex.”
She also said some Iranian-Jewish parents expect their daughters to remain virgins until marriage while looking the other way when sons are sexually active, creating a double standard that is a point of contention for young women in the community.
Homosexuality is a highly taboo topic in the community, as well. Many gay community members are not open about their sexuality out of fear of being ostracized by family or friends. Khorramian said Iranian-Jewish parents, especially, face a significant difficulty when gay children come out of the closet.
“I can understand the sense of loss Iranian-Jewish parents feel when their kid comes out to them, because they feel the child has left their culture and their norms,” Khorramian said. “The second you come out, the roles are reversed. You become the teacher, and your parents become the students — so you have to be patient, considerate, accepting and forgiving of them.”
Khorramian also said many young Iranian-Jews who are gay lead double lives. They often use the Internet for anonymity, which can expose them to sexual predators online or other dangers.
Iraj Shamsian, an Iranian-Jewish psychologist who has long helped young Iranian-Jews open up to their families about their homosexuality, but was not at the UCLA event, said that community members need to have ongoing public discussions about sexuality, drug abuse and alternative career choices.
“The reality is that there are Iranian-Jews who are drug addicts, or who are gay or have mental health issues — we don’t have to like it, but we must acknowledge these people and slowly begin a healthy community dialogue about these topics in order to grow as a society,” Shamsian said. “We have to change as a community, so people who need help can get help, and we need to take a risk to understand these issues and not to judge individuals facing these issues.”
Shamsian said he hopes to begin a support group for young gay Iranian Jews to help them come out to their families and to embrace their new identities.
30YA head Davoodi said that while currently there are no plans for future events on the topic, she has been bombarded with positive feedback from attendees expressing their support for the open dialogue created by the event.
“There is a way to explore the taboo issues in healthy, gentle ways without sacrificing our amazing principles and traditions,” Davoodi said. “It all begins with listening, compassion and suspension of judgment, whenever possible.”