March 18, 2004
Tribes of Jews move through the history of Los Angeles in predictable cadences. First as new immigrants, raw and clannish and eager to succeed; then as successful citizens, integrated or assimilated, their accents lost in their children's mouths. Finally they earn the right to choose the life they want: to identify themselves with their traditions or not, to shape the city or withdraw into its shapelessness.
My mind wandered in these directions as I sat watching stunning Persian Jewish men and women dance the night away at a gala event Saturday night inaugurating Neman Hall, a sumptuous ballroom at the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) in West Hollywood.
A ballroom is a ballroom, right? Wrong. Neman Hall, designed by architect Abdi Khoranian, happens to be quite elegant, more fairy tale than function-room, though its mirror-paneled walls do hide a state-of-the-art Internet hookup, satellite receivers and flat-panel displays.
But this night was, ultimately, not about celebrating architecture, but arrival. "It is a kind of renaissance," said Joe Shoshani, one of the evening's organizers. "We are having freedom both in Israel and the United States, and our people are flowering in both."
To drive home that point, the honored guest Saturday night was Israel's Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz. Mofaz, 56, was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel at age 9. His rise to the top of Israel's army as chief of staff, and his subsequent appointment to what is widely considered the No. 2 post in the government, is a source of great pride to the Persian Jewish community here.
On a two-day visit, Mofaz spoke at a fundraiser at the Beverly Hills home of Parviz Nazarian for Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel, a pro-democracy project founded by Nazarian. Mofaz was the keynote speaker at a major fundraiser the next day for Israel Bonds, and in between he cut the ribbon at the Neman Hall event.
"I can't speak Farsi," he told the crowd Saturday evening. Nevertheless, he said he shared in their pride and congratulated them on their achievement. He received several standing ovations.
The 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey put the number of Persian Jews living in Los Angeles at 18,000. Others put the number at up to six times that, but demographer Pini Herman, who conducted the survey with Bruce Phillips, has said it is unlikely the number, if it is higher, is higher by much.
"You see the same people at every event," one partygoer at Neman Hall said. "Maybe there are only 200 of us."
But numbers -- and there are more than 200 -- matter less than impact. The Persian Jewish community has established itself economically, and as IAJF President Shokrollah Baravarian said at the event, it has successfully created mechanisms to transmit its values and concerns to the next generation. The IAJF building houses social-service outreach to new immigrants and the needy; organizations like Magbit and Nessah provide cultural and social support, there are singles groups, religious study groups and now, with Neman Hall, a social gathering spot open to the entire community, a room of one's own.
There are other religious and cultural centers for Persian Jews of the Westside and the Valley, but one advantage is that the West Hollywood locale allows for festivities to continue until 2 a.m. That comes in handy, as dinner doesn't appear at many Persian events until 10 p.m., following an onslaught of hors d'oeuvres.
"It brings the community together," Leon Neman said. Neman's brother, Yoel, spearheaded the two-year effort to construct the $1 million hall, named for and largely financed by their late father, Feizollah Neman. Brothers Leon, John and Yoel run Neman Brothers and Associates, a major textile concern.
"The Persian Jews fled Iran, but here we're showing what we can be," Leon Neman said.
David Nahai, an attorney who served as master of ceremonies, took the idea a step further.
"This hall bears silent witness to the fact that we have spread our roots in the community," he said. "We have gone from stunned, wide-eyed immigrants to an affluent community with incredible potential."
Nahai is a member and former chair of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, active in Jewish life and in political and environmental movements. Such involvement is the natural next step for a community that has, as Nahai said, already spread its wings so successfully.
"We can no longer be insular," Nahai said, "because we are not immune from the events that go on around us."
Nahai urged the attendees to apply their resources and skills to improving the lot of all Angelenos and Californians.
That, I realized, is the next step in the immigrant story: Immigration, success, organization and then outreach. Time and again Jews have come to this city and done just that -- made the city work for them, then worked hard to make the city better. And that is when you know they've arrived.