05 May 2007

PresenTense: Two stories worth a read

PresenTense magazine offers some good reads about communities and cultures. I liked this article by Karmel Melamed about Southern California's Iranian Jewish community. Even better, it mentions old friends Dariush Fakheri and Sam Kermanian from our Teheran days.

The second article is about Harvard University's Sephardi Society. Who knew? But I was delighted to learn about their activities.

Melamed, who writes for Jewish and Iranian media, talks about the 30,000 Iranian Jews and their descendants in Southern California, with the majority in Los Angeles and environs.

Members of the (Persian) tribe call the city Irangeles, Tehrangeles or Kashifornia (for the city of Kashan in Iran). The Southern California Iranian community - of all religions -- is estimated at 500,000.

There are many Farsi radio/television programs and publications -- this is immersion culture if you want to learn the language. Oh, and there are language schools for the kids.

Everyone seems to be Persian (many signs are in Farsi): gas station attendants, hairdressers, bank staff, doctors, lawyers, car salesmen, specialty supermarkets, insurance brokers ... name it ... everyone speaks Farsi. There were entire days in L.A. during which I needed no English as I ran daily errands.

The mayor of Beverly Hills is Jimmy Delshad -- a former Sinai Temple president -- and there are other Iranian city council members.

However, not all Iranian Jews live in Beverly Hills. Importantly, this story mentions Darioush Fakheri, co-founder of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center, which helps Iranian Jews who are just getting by, subsidizes food expenses for needy families and arranges help from other organizations.

The Caring Committee, formed by the Torat Hayim Center, Eretz-SIAMAK and the Hope Foundation, helps provide newly arrived Iranian Jews with funds for rent, groceries, medical and legal bills, transportation and school tuition.

When we arrived in Los Angeles in 1980, I volunteered with the Jewish Family Service to assist new arrivals with public school problems and ease assimilation -- at least for the kids. Today there are four Farsi-speaking counselors at the Federation's Jewish Vocational Service.

The article also focuses on Iranian Jewish philanthropic causes. The community in Southern California and New York pledged nearly $6 million for Israeli organizations helping victims of last summer's rocket attacks, and organizations such as Persian Hadassah are involved in other endeavors.

"We are the children of parents who were born and raised in Iran’s ghettos during the Holocaust and the subsequent birth of the state of Israel,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), based in L.A. “I think we have a keen understanding of the fact that when the chips fall, the only guarantee against another Holocaust is a strong state of Israel.”

When the Iranians began to arrive, they flocked to major Conservative synagogues such as Sinai Temple and Valley Beth Shalom; the women wanted more participation for themselves and for their daughters.

They immediately gravitated to the synagogues, but traditions often caused friction. Instead of arriving on time for Friday night services - because they were at home enjoying Shabbat dinner with family -- they tended to arrive at the end and the old-timers didn't see it as Jews making time to come to synagogue, albeit late, but only as "they are eating all our cookies."

On Shabbat mornings, they arrived en masse, babies in strollers, little kids running around. This was, in some cases, too much for the staid, mostly Ashkenazi congregations. Luckily, the rabbis, when they understood the cultural traditions, spoke from the pulpit and commented that seeing all the children and babies showed that this was a vibrant, growing community.

The newcomers revitalized synagogues, filling classrooms in Hebrew schools and day schools, which at first caused other problems. Some congregations embarked on major construction projects to enlarge social halls to be able to cater to large Persian life cycle events.

Today, the orthodox Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills has encouraged greater participation of women in its religious services, which used to be more male-oriented.

Rabbi David Shofet, son of the late Chief Rabbi of Iran Yedidiah Shofet, heads Nessah, and attended the Jewish Theological Seminary's Rabbinical School, although it isn't widely known.

Nessah's president -- the only female president of an Iranian synagogue -- is Dr. Morgan Hakimi, elected in 2004. Eight women serve on its board, while more serve in other capacities.

The second article reveals Harvard University's Sephardi Society. Activities provide peeks into the culture of this very different community. Programs include international Sephardic-menu Shabbat dinners, guest speakers and movie screenings on relevant topics and more.


  1. Thanks for reposting this story on your blog! For more interesting articles on Persian Jews living Iran and the U.S., feel free to check out my blog:


  2. Hi, Karmel,

    I am looking forward to meeting you in person at the American Jewish Press Association conference in San Francisco in a few days.