This article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal. View Original.
Yeah, I didn’t know it either. I only found out 10 years ago when a friend who lived in Iran came to L.A. for a visit. Just like I didn’t know, till I was in my mid-20s, that I’m not Iranian.
I found that out from a random caller to a Persian-language television program produced in Northridge. Like most others of its kind, the program was anti-regime. The host spent a good deal of time enumerating the crimes of the Islamic Republic, among them its stance toward Israel and the arrest and execution of anyone suspected of harboring Zionist sympathies.
A call came in from a viewer: “Why do you dwell on the regime’s treatment of Jews?” a man asked. “It’s not relevant. Those people are not Iranian.”
A strange thing to say about people who have lived on the land without interruption since 440 B.C., but the sentiment, though refuted by the host, was echoed by other callers. Strange, too, because all my life, I had thought and felt and taken pride in being Iranian.
Are we who we think we are, or what we’re perceived to be?
During the hostage crisis in 1979, when every ailment of Iranian society was blamed on the West and all the vestiges of American pop culture were banned and erased, Dirty Harry, of Clint Eastwood fame, outed himself as a God-fearing, mullah-loving, Iranian Muslim. He rode around at night on a motorbike at the head of a posse of other gun-slinging pasdars (Revolutionary Guards), all Made-in-America semi-automatic weapons and pistols and Marlboro Reds, and searched for Zionists and Americans badly in need of a dose of vigilante justice.
He dressed like Harry and combed his hair the same way, spoke with the same throaty voice, introduced himself to his victims as “Sarvaan (lieutenant) Dirty Harry,” and never missed the chance to encourage them to “make my day.”
Not that any of them dared point it out, but the irony in the man’s adopted identity was potent enough to use as a biological weapon, more so when you considered that the character’s creator, director and producer were all Jews. Still, to me his story was reminiscent of the 3,000-year-old Jew who believes he’s Iranian while millions around him know better.
You don’t know what a bad person you are, or how bad your hair looks, until you’ve sat down with my religious relatives for a meal and tried to conduct a conversation.
This happens to me every other week, on Friday night, when my mother hosts a summit of friends and family members from both sides of the aisle — religious and Reform — throws in a smattering of people who really couldn’t care less either way but will go along with the majority for the sake of keeping the peace, and lets the games begin. Almost invariably there’s a new face in the crowd, and it’s usually a very beautiful one because his or her ancestry stretches back to my mother’s grandfather, the once-mighty and forever fruitful Solomon (the Man), famous for his good looks, many talents and many, many wives. Solomon was Jewish but did not discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnicity or even geographic location. He once went to India to find “the most beautiful woman in the world,” married her and brought her back to live in the same house with his first wife and her children. You can read about that in my first novel, but the point is we don’t know how many people walking the earth today owe their existence to him. We just know that my mother has a knack for finding these “cousins,” and she loves to introduce them to the rest of the family at Shabbat dinner.
The other thing we know, if we’re paying attention right now, is that what I just said about Solomon the Man and his amorous activities violates one or more of the three deadly sins of speech — lashon harah (negative speech about another person that is true), hotzaat shem ra (negative speech about another person that is untrue) and rechilut (gossip). Lest you think I’m trying to appear especially knowledgeable about matters of moral rectitude, I’ll confess I only learned the subtle variations in prohibited speech because I looked it up on Wikipedia a few months ago, and only then after being challenged one too many times by my religious relatives about something I said.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal. View original.
This one’s for our children — the teens and 20-somethings who were born in this country or who’ve lived here most of their life, who have no memory of Iran except what’s been passed on to them or what they’ve constructed with their imagination. The kids who speak Persian with an accent or not at all, crack up at the way their parents pronounce their w’s and th’s, become wide-eyed and incredulous when they discover that we grew up without frozen yogurt, nonfat milk and broccoli. And who, more and more these days, find themselves having to define and defend that tangled nexus of nationality and religion, of likeness and singularity, of being and becoming that is their Iranian heritage.
I am speaking, of course, of the uproar within the Iranian community in reaction to a certain reality show over the past few weeks. I don’t know about everyone else, but it pains me to see our young people cringe and shudder at the thought of what the rest of the country is going to think of us after having seen this show. They’re in a strange predicament, these children of hyphenated parents. Iranian-American. Iranian-Jew. Iranian-American-Jew. Already, they’ve had to walk the tightrope from one component to the other every hour of every day. But for too long they’ve also had to endure the harsh judgment of Los Angeles’ larger society, fight negative misconceptions, shrug off the myth of what Iranian-Americans are like because they feel they have little power to change it. Why else would they be so hurt and offended by the pitiful portrayal of a handful of Iranians on a less-than-second-rate television show?
Once upon a time, an army of rich, spoiled and ill-mannered Jews, having exhausted all the sources of glee and merriment in Iran, sat around and hatched a plan to conquer the idyllic city of Beverly Hills, destroy its library and public schools, and lay waste to adjacent Westwood Corridor and Sinai Temple. One bright summer day in 1978 they packed up all their jewels, cash and “attitude,” traveled some 7,581 miles, and descended en masse onto the unsuspecting inhabitants of said city. Overnight, they evicted, expelled and dislodged the rightful owners of Beverly Hills by paying too much for their land, paying all cash, opening short escrows. The natives who weren’t forced to sell by outsized offers sold anyway, perhaps out of fear of the jewel-slinging Jews and their all-night displays of libertinism on Shabbat.
Sound familiar? It didn’t start with the TV show; it started more than 30 years ago, within the “native” American community of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.
Having planted their flag onto the “natives’ ” land, these Iranian Jews set out to expand their sphere of influence by infiltrating the four pillars of Beverly Hills’ community — the schools, synagogues, professional offices and Neiman Marcus. They spoke Persian to each other even when there were “natives” around. They invented shallowness, materialism, large houses and questionable business practices, and kept it all to themselves. All those unscrupulous bankers on Wall Street who rip off their own clients, the homeowners and real estate speculators who developed and built Brentwood Park and Holmby Hills, the international fashion houses and clothing stores that charge the equivalent of a midsize car for a wallet or a blouse — they must all be Iranian Jews. So must all the women prancing around this city with fish lips and Brazilian buttocks. And all the Americans who, no matter where they are in the world, speak English and expect everyone else to understand.
I shouldn’t have to, but I feel I must clarify that the above is, indeed, a myth. As with all myths, it has a kernel of truth buried somewhere within: Yes, a handful of Iranian Jews came to this country with a lot of money, though that’s hardly a crime; a few of their children own BMWs and drive too fast; a few come across as, or really are, impetuous and unpleasant.
But there are infinitely more rich, obnoxious, BMW-driving “natives” in this city than there are Iranians of that sort, and no one’s going around resenting their presence and blaming them for all the ills in the country. The difference is, when one of the “natives” commits a wrong, we blame him. When an Iranian commits the same wrong, we blame them all.
Sound familiar? It’s like what the world has done to Jews through the ages, except in this case, many of those wagging the finger and perpetuating the myth about the frightful Iranian-American Jew are — alas — “native” American Jews. At best, this is divisive and unhelpful.
So I’m here to tell you, lest it goes unsaid, that the real story of Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles is vastly different from the one that’s being told — on television and off.
The real story is that by far the great majority of Iranian Jews who settled in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and in the ensuing decade were anguished and traumatized refugees escaping the very real threat of extinction in a homeland where their roots stretched back thousands of years. Most got away with only the proverbial shirt on their back. What money they had made in Iran was the result of decades of hard work and ingenuity; whatever part of it they managed to bring to the United States, or to make here, helped contribute to the health and vibrancy of this economy.
The real story is that nearly no one, not even the most fortunate, was spared emotional loss and psychological hardship in the turmoil of migration. From the owners of the closet-size stalls on Santee Avenue who worked seven days a week selling quinceañera dresses, to the wives who took a job for the first time in their life because their husband couldn’t find one, and the children who were sent here alone to become the ward of a sibling, an aunt or a Jewish charitable entity — just about every Iranian here has earned whatever living he’s managed to make. To this day, most of them are not rich — not by Los Angeles standards. They don’t live in Beverly Hills, but in Pico-Robertson, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys and Northridge. Their kids don’t go to private school; they work nights and weekends, take loans to finance their higher education. That they manage to get into Ivy League colleges and succeed in medicine and art and law and technology puts the lie to the idea that they live and breathe to party, drink and spend their parents’ money.
They’re a splendid bunch, these young people who know, perhaps better than many “natives” of their generation, what a gift it is to wake up every day under the American sky. They take little for granted. They’ve learned to appreciate the salient parts of each piece of their identity and to tolerate the rest. That’s a gift they’ve been blessed with and a cross they’ll have to bear. But this other cross — being singled out as “foreign” by their fellow Americans, held to account for the flaws and failures of others, having the good in them overlooked and their faults magnified — this is a burden they’ve neither earned nor deserve.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.
There’s a concept in the Persian language – ghessmat – for which no exact equivalent exists in English. It refers to a person’s unrelenting, inescapable, for better or worse but either way, it was designed and executed specifically for you, destiny.
Like when you miss your flight because the cab got a flat tire, then the plane you were supposed to be on crashes in the Atlantic Ocean. Or when you work a lifetime and hide all your money in your mattress because you don’t trust the banks, then the mattress catches fire and burns to ashes. Or, more immediately in my experience, when you resist eating at kosher dairy restaurants for 30 years because the food gives you heartburn, only to end up in a place at Pico and Bedford on a Wednesday night, eating pizza with cheese, fried egg, and tuna, and living to rave about it.
My mother has been recommending this place – 26 by Shiloh’s – for a year already. She talks about it like it’s Perino’s come back to life in Pico-Robertson, and maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but all I’ve ever seen of kosher dairy is Greek Salad (I make it better myself), humus (they sell a nonfat version at Trader Joe’s), and pizza with a thick, greasy crust and too much cheese. My mother is a very talented artist with an intensely accurate intuition – she dreamt JFK was lying with his head in a pool of blood two days before he was assassinated – but she tends to have one or two blind spots for the people she loves, her entire, very extended, very international family among them. You want to achieve sainthood in under three minutes? Be born or marry into the Merage family, and my mother will see to it that you’re fast-tracked ahead of Mother Teresa.
The bride, tall and beautiful, is half white, half African American. The groom, no less attractive than his new wife, is half Russian, half Iranian. His father is half Jewish, half Baha’i. There is a sister who is half Baha’i, half Muslim, one who’s all Jewish and one who’s undecided. There’s a brother who is half Baha’i, half Christian, a niece who thought she was Muslim, discovered she’s in fact Jewish and finally settled on Catholic. There are two nieces and a nephew who are one quarter Jewish Iranian, one quarter Baha’i Iranian, and two quarters Chinese of undetermined religious affiliation. And this is only the groom’s side of the family — 20 people, to be exact, among some 150 guests milling around at the reception on a gorgeous afternoon in a beautiful ranch just outside of Los Angeles.
I know this family because they used to be all Iranian Jews — 30 years ago, when the revolution first brought us all together in this town — and if you think Iranian Jews are cliquey and intolerant of outsiders and unwilling to assimilate, you should meet some of this new generation, or go to one of their gatherings. They’re like poster children for what the United Nations aspires to be — people from all faiths and cultures united by love and able to soar above their differences. They embody that very American experience — each individual breaking away from the family’s past, forging his or her own path, creating his or her own destiny. I watch them at the wedding and tell myself this is what the Iranian Jewish community will become in 20 or 30 years, what every big gathering will look like once our children and grandchildren have crossed the emotional and cultural moat that now separates our little nation-in-exile from the rest of America. And while I see nothing wrong with this rainbow nation of the future, while I’m perfectly able to see that diversity has not divided this family, I can’t help feeling that something terribly sad has happened in the midst of all this joy.