Though Jews and Iran have had their differences, it might be surprising to learn that the history of Jews in Iran is as old and rich as Hugh Hefner.
That 2,700-year history was recognized and honored this weekend at a conference held at UCLA's Fowler Museum in conjunction with its “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews” exhibition.
David Yerushalmi, professor of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, articulated, in a jet-lagged stupor no less (he had arrived just a couple of days ago from Israel), an introduction to Iranian Jewish culture, dating back to the 16th century, and moving forward to the Pahlavi dynasty, from 1925 until 1979, when these exiled city dwellers went from being “an oppressed and marginalized community, to an enterprising, active and powerful section of broader Iranian society.”
From the original 80,000 Jews living in Iran, about 25,000 have remained. The others are in Los Angeles, New York and Israel.
A diaspora that was once denied the opportunity to own land, one of the most prosperous sources of income, more than compensated by becoming a “disproportionate success in business, education, and especially real estate,” according to author and moderator Houman Sarshar.
Among the disproportionately successful are some you may know; for example, Sam Nazaraian, at whose restaurants (Katsuya, Umami Burger, among others) you've dined and at whose nightclubs you've hooked up with people you've later regretted.
And there are some you may not know, such as Isaac Larian, inventor of the creepy and ever so popular Bratz dolls, and the late and great developer Ezat Delijani, who was responsible for saving many historical theaters dear to Angelenos, including the Broadway Theater, the Palace, State and Tower theaters and the Los Angeles Theater.
Perhaps one of our favorite contributions by Jewish Iranian immigrants is the advent of the Hot Pocket. Brothers and philanthropists Paul and David Merage invented the Hot Pocket in the '80s after realizing that with women going to work more often than ever before, all the men in the world may starve to death. Thus was the genesis of the Hot Pocket, later sold to Nestle for enough money to buy everyone in L.A. a lifetime supply of the delicious contraption. (You're welcome, poor college students.)
Other subsets of the Iranian Jewish experience were discussed during the event. In a panel that can only be described as the Iranian version of The View, moderator Morgan Hakimi discussed with Professors Saba Soomekh, Jaleh Pirnazar, Eliz Sanasarian and Janet Afary discussed the role of Iranian Jewish women, past, present and future. They were especially candid sharing their insight on modern sexuality, the new trend of recent immigrants adopting Orthodox Judaism and the inner workings of the Iranian Jewish mother-in-law. All that was missing was some Margaritas.
They highlighted the commitment of Iranian women of both Muslim and Jewish faith to improve the quality of the lives of mothers, daughters and sisters. With both Jewish and Muslim clerics speaking against women's rights regarding divorce, inheritance and dowry, there was an outcry from Iranian women within their respective societies for change. “Women's voices within their own religious community were quite loud and directed mainly at the political and religious leadership of their community, not the regime,” explains Professor Sanasarian.
One of the most prominent female figures in Judeo-Persian history is Esther, the Persian girl who becomes queen and saves her people from a massacre. “Esther's story is a symbolic struggle between light and darkness; there's love, sex politics hatred and revenge,” describes Yassi Gabbay, prominent architect responsible for Shah Abbas Hotel in Esfahan, Golestan University and many other projects, including one of his most proud pieces, the renovation of the shrine of Esther in Hamadan.
Purim, “the Jewish Iranian Mardi Gras,” as Gabbay refers to it, is the celebration of the co-existence of the Jews in Iran following Esther's triumph.
Despite all the tremendous effort to study and understand the origins and details of Iranian Jews, the identity crisis lingers for some who struggle the question of which comes first, the Iranian or the Jew (Jewranian?), a personal matter with no wrong answer.
But a good place to start is the Fowler museum's exhibition of “Light and Shadows: The story of Iranian Jews,” which boasts rare artifacts including elaborate 19th century Jewish and Muslim marriage contracts, amulets, literature and a collection of telling photographs by Hasan Sarbakshian documenting the Jews in Iran, including one of a family celebrating the age old tradition of beating each other with scallions during the Passover Seder to remember the “whipping of the Jews during the enslavement in Egypt.”
And who wouldn't want to remember that incident by hurling a ripe scallion straight at their grandmother's one good eye.