by Lior Sternfeld, Ph.D.
featuring photos by Iranian/French photographer Abbas

“They settled in L.A. because so much of it reminds them of Iran – the landscape, the car culture, the mountains…”
– Reza Aslan1

Home to the vast majority of the 600,000 Iranian immigrants in the United States and the largest Iranian population outside of Iran, Los Angeles – or Tehrangeles – is more than a diasporic community; it has become an affluent and integrated immigrant community with distinct national and cultural attributes, a primary example of what sociologists refer to as social preservation. Walking in the streets of Westwood Blvd can give one the impression of walking in unspecified time in Tehran. The neon signs in Persian, high concentration of bookstores, restaurants with menus in Persian, chai-khanah and coffee shops, billboards and advertisements in Persian for shops, lawyers, and clinics, and the chatter in the background. There is probably no better place to catch the recent films from Iran than the theaters in the city and the valley. And there is no better place to study the Iranian diaspora and how it is shaping cultural, political, and social dynamics in Iran.

USA. Los Angeles. Three generations of Iranian Jews, The GABBAIE share a meal in a Persian restaurant decorated with a mural of traditional bakers at work. © A. Abbas/Magnum Photos

The Iranian community in Los Angeles in not actually one of the oldest in the U.S.; between 1950 and 1977, some 35,000 Iranians had settled in New York, Texas and Oklahoma and additionally, some 391,000 non-immigrants (students, professional workers, investors, artists) had spent time in the U.S.2 However, immediately following the revolutionary events in Iran in the late 1970s, the numbers shifted drastically as some 100,000 Iranians adjusted their non-immigrant status to become permanent residents, and many more arrived as asylum seekers and refugees.3 Iranian minorities are over represented in this population: almost 20 percent of the Los Angeles community identify as Armenian, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, or Jewish, while in Iran, these groups account for less than 2 percent of the total population.4

USA. Los Angeles. An extended Iranian Jewish family celebrates Thanksgiving the Persian way, with a picnic in a city park. The traditional American turkey shares the table with traditional Persian rices. © A. Abbas/Magnum Photos, 2015.

The development of Iranian culture in the diaspora is connected to the characteristics of the immigrants who came to the U.S. after the revolution and during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), specifically the community’s high rates of entrepreneurship: some 22 percent of Iranian immigrants in the United States are self-employed.5 In Los Angeles, that rate is even higher, standing at 59 percent, and highest among Iranian Jews, an estimated 82 percent of who are self-employed.6 As Hamid Naficy has shown, many of these self-employed Iranian Jews had been writers, publishers, and journalists before their emigration and upon their settlement in Los Angeles, engaged in the production of culture. Coupled with their strong emotional investment in their Iranian heritage and strong national identity, that led to an almost unsurpassed cultural legacy. As Hamid Naficy argued:

“Self-employment allows Iranians to create not only an exilic and ethnic economy but also what might be called an interethnic or subethnic one. The repercussions of this situation for T.V. become clear when we consider that with two exceptions all Iranian exile television programs are commercially driven and must rely for their livelihood on Iranian businesses. The high percentage of self-employment among Jews and Armenians that means they have a disproportionate role in sustaining exile television and an extraordinary power to influence Iranian exile discourses. In addition, if we take into account the high representation of Jews, Armenians, and Baha’is in the production and distribution of music and entertainment recordings, the extent of their influence becomes more evident.”7

In other words, while perhaps created with Jewish consumers in mind, the many publications, newspapers and magazines, radio shows, and television productions made by Iranian Jews in Los Angeles effectively shaped the Iranian community beyond Jewish boundaries. Some cultural institutions even became globally renowned: Sherkat-e-Ketab (Ketab Corporation) with its iconic bookstore on Westwood Blvd became the largest publisher and distributor of Persian titles outside Iran before it closed in 2017.8

USA. Los Angeles. Iranian book and music store Kebab Corp. on Westwood Blvd. Its founder Bijan KHALILI is at the desk.© A. Abbas/Magnum Photos, 2015.

Cultural production has in turn increased the L.A. community’s reputation beyond the city limits or even the U.S. When Iranian Jewish immigrant Jimmy Delshad was elected mayor of Beverly Hills in 2007, the first Iranian-American to be elected to public office, it made national and international news. In 2010 the City of Los Angeles officially designated Westwood Blvd between Wilshire and Santa Monica as “Persian Square” and in 2012, Google Maps officially recognized Tehrangeles by that name.9 Among the most high-profile – and most controversial – representations of the Iranian American experience was the hit show “The Shahs of Sunset,” which premiered on Bravo! in 2012. The show presented an extreme stereotype of the Iranian community in L.A. that many felt was distasteful but also gave a glimpse, albeit ridiculing, into the cultural sphere that included religious rituals, social practices, and the self-perception of Iranian Jews in Iranian society and later in the American society.10

USA. Los Angeles. Tombstone of Iranian Jew, with writing in Farsi, English, and Hebrew in the Eden Memorial Park. © A. Abbas/Magnum Photos, 2015.

Iranian Jewish organizations and philanthropies, most of them based in Los Angeles, have also contributed to Iranian culture by devoting their efforts to documenting Jewish heritage in Iran and the U.S. This commitment to historical preservation may be related to a sense of urgency: as the number of Jews in Iran declined dramatically after the revolution, they felt a need to tell their own stories about the nation and the place of Jews in that nation.

Projects like CIJOH (Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History), 30 Years After, and 7Dorim connect the younger and American-born generations to the places and the stories that shaped this community back in the “old country.” They also provide the means for the Jews to reclaim their part in the Iranian culture. Talking about Jewish involvement in journalism, business, politics, charity, education, and more give Iranian Jews the historical agency that they have been denied by Iranian historiography (which tends to overlook minorities) and by Jewish historiography (which tends to overlook Jewish history in the Muslim Middle East). It also functions in countering the decidedly negative “first impression” of many Americans – both Jewish and non-Jewish – caused by the hostage crisis in 1979. By displaying interconnections of culture, language, and traditions, these projects celebrate Jewish Iranian culture, bringing to the fore the micro-histories and full experience of “being an Iranian Jew” in Iran and the diaspora.

Memoirs of Jewish-Iranian-American writers have had similar cultural impacts. By intimately detailing both the mundane and the exceptional experiences of Iranian Jews in the country, they have provided glimpses of a world completely unfamiliar to the American public, some becoming literary sensations, like Journey from the Land of No by Roya Hakakian and Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer that was even adapted into a movie starring Salma Hayek and Adrien Brody. Not only do the authors portray the many paths Iranian Jews took in Iran, they illuminate the many ways of being Iranian and Jewish, capturing a world of loyal monarchists and socialists, intellectuals and businessmen, upper middle class and lower classes, and Zionists and non-Zionists. Individual families often contain all of the above as do individual characters in different moments and contexts. The memoirs thereby reveal the nuances of integration into new societies, or the struggles in doing so, and have sparked many debates about Iran and Muslim-Jewish relations in Iran both before and after the revolution.

USA. Los Angeles. An extended family of Iranian Jews, the SOUFERIAN, celebrates Hanukkah, the festival of lights with a lavish meal and much rejoicing. Candles are lit. © A. Abbas/Magnum Photos, 2015.

These same themes repeatedly appeared in the over 30 interviews I have conducted in the past few years and are now the central focus of my new research. The interviewees neither romanticize the past nor broadbrush it with dark colors; their reality existed in the grey areas in between. Many reflected on the relations between Muslims and Jews in Iran by comparing the relations between the same communities within the Iranian diaspora in Los Angeles. It seems that the relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish Iranian communities in Los Angeles have become a prism through which the possibility of “another Iran” is being evaluated and rendered. Memoirs, movies, TV shows, and newspaper articles examined the underground streams and possibilities for a different vision of Iranian society in the twenty-first century. These reflections of the Jewish-Iranian-American experience provide a glimpse of an alternate universe, one that once existed in a faraway land and relocated to Westwood Blvd., or maybe one that was reinvented there.

 

 

Citation MLA: Sternfeld, Lior. “Iranian Jewish Los Angeles.” 100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles, edited by Sarah Abrevaya Stein and Caroline Luce, UCLA Leve Center for Jewish Studies, 2020, http://www.sephardiclosangeles.org/portfolios/iranian-jewish-los-angeles/. ‎

Citation Chicago: Sternfeld, Lior. “Iranian Jewish Los Angeles.” In 100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles, edited by Sarah Abrevaya Stein and Caroline Luce. Los Angeles: UCLA Leve Center for Jewish Studies, 2020. http://www.sephardiclosangeles.org/portfolios/iranian-jewish-los-angeles/.

About the Author:

Lior Sternfeld is an Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Penn State University… More

Citations and Additional Resources

1 Reza Aslan quoted in Shoku Amirani, “Tehrangeles: How Iranians Made Part of LA Their Own – BBC News,” September 29, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19751370.
2 “1980 US Census; No 48. Population by Ancestry Group and Region,” https://www2.census.gov/prod2/statcomp/documents/1991-02.pdf
3 Mehdi Bozorgmehr, “Iran,” in Encyclopedia of American Immigration, ed. James Ciment (Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2001), 1169.
4 “2012 National Public Opinion Survey of Iranian Americans,” https://paaia.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/2012-Survey-of-Iranian-Americans-Military-Action-Electronic.pdf
5 Maboud Ansari, “Iranian Immigrants,” in Multicultural America: An Encyclopedia of the Newest Americans, ed. Ronald H. Bayor (Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood, 2011), 1082.
6 Hamid Naficy, The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 27.
7 Ibid., 27.
8 Houman M. Sarshar, “The Jewish-Iranian Community in the United States,” in Jewish Communities of Iran: Entries on Judeo-Persian Communities Published by the Encyclopedia Iranica, ed. Houman M. Sarshar (New York: Encyclopedia Iranica Foundation, 2011), 176–77.
9 Shoku Amirani, “Tehrangeles: How Iranians Made Part of LA Their Own,” BBC News, Sept. 29, 2012.
10 For a comparative study of the Shahs of Sunset vis-a-vis other forms of memory creators, see: Leah Mirakhor, “After the Revolution to the War on Terror: Iranian Jewish American Literature in the United States,” Studies in American Jewish Literature 35, no. 1 (2016): 52–76.

To learn more about Abbas, the photographer whose work is featured on this page, visit Magnum Photos.

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