Ten years ago, amid the chaos of the Iranian Revolution and the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalist regime, the migration of upper-class Jews from Iran to the United States began in earnest.
These were no ordinary huddled masses yearning to breathe free. This was one of the richest waves of immigrants ever to come to the United States. Their first toehold in their new land was no squalid, crowded “Little Tehran,” but rather the gracious hillsides of Trousdale Estates in Beverly Hills, and other nearby neighborhoods of the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.
Khomeini’s revolution drove about half of Iran’s 80,000 Jews into exile. A few headed for New York or Israel, but the vast majority of those emigrants, probably at least 30,000, have settled in or near Beverly Hills.
Not all are fabulously wealthy. While some families have bought or built mansions north of Sunset Boulevard, at least as many are crowded into rent-controlled apartments on the south side of town.
But whether rich or merely middle-class, they have, like most immigrants before them, brought change to their adopted home, and have themselves been changed by life in America.
“Before the Iranians came, this city was a sleepy city,” said Beverly Hills real estate broker Stephan Saeed Nourmand, an Iranian who moved to the area in the early ‘70s and has been on hand for the wave that followed. “Sure there were celebrities, but it was still a small town. There was a gas station and a hardware store on Rodeo Drive.”
The Iranians, Nourmand said, brought more than money. “They brought their talents, too. There were doctors, lawyers, businessmen, retailers, manufacturers--a variety of people who came and immediately contributed by boosting Beverly Hills’ international image.”
The stamp of Iranian success is seen in the glitzy Rodeo Collection, trendy shops and eateries on Rodeo Drive built by Dar Mahboubi, who is also part-owner of the fashionable Bijan boutiques of Beverly Hills and New York. Adrays, a chain of discount department stores, is owned by Masud Hakim and two partners. And Iranian-born developer Kambiz Hemkat is building a 22-story Center West tower in Westwood.
Nowhere is the immigrants’ impact more evident than in the Beverly Hills Unified School District, where nearly one out of every five students is Iranian. Their language, Farsi, is incorporated in announcements sent home to parents and taught in after-school classes to the children. The district has hired a full-time counselor to ease the transition for students and to sensitize administrators and teachers to Iranian culture. And thousands of dollars have been contributed by parents to the Beverly Hills schools through the Iranian Education Foundation.
Despite this, many Iranians still manage to live their lives nearly surrounded in the culture of their homeland--going to Iranian nightclubs, worshiping at Iranian synagogues, shopping for clothing and jewelry at Iranian businesses.
The majority of the Beverly Hills-area Iranians are Jewish, and in many respects, they form a community of their own. At times, however, they also function as part of a larger Iranian community that is estimated to number 300,000 in Southern California. For Iranian Muslims, the largest concentrations are in Palos Verdes and Irvine. Ethnic Armenians from Iran have migrated in substantial numbers to Glendale, already home to a large Armenian community.
There is an 848-page Iranian Yellow Pages, listing 1,600 Iranian businesses and professionals in Southern California. There are Iranian magazines and television and radio shows. Concerts of Persian music, featuring such noted Iranian singers as Moine, Darioush or Shahram, often perform at Hollywood’s Palace theater before audiences of 1,000 or more. On most Sunday afternoons, Iranian families gather for picnics on the Palisades in Santa Monica, where mothers parade their teen-age daughters in front of prospective sons-in-law.
The influx has transformed a stretch of Westwood Boulevard south of Wilshire into an Iranian Main Street, where the aromas of shish kebab and rice hang in the air, where Iranian grocery stores stock hard-to-find Persian foods and spices, and where bookstores offer books and tapes in Farsi--including some that recall the “glorious days” under Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlevi.
Iranians have also contributed to the night life in Westwood and Beverly Hills. Stores and restaurants stay open longer, catering to Iranian families who tend to eat and shop later in the evening. And festive Iranian parties go on until the early hours of the morning--at times ending at the request of the Beverly Hills police.
“It’s like they never set their watches back when they came here,” said Irwin Kaplan, the former director of city planning in Beverly Hills. “At restaurants, the locals clear out by 9 p.m., and that’s when the Iranians are coming in.”
Every Tuesday night, the Omarkhayam Restaurant on Westwood Boulevard becomes a Who’s Who of former celebrities, government officials and other notables from the days of the Shah as they gather with families and friends for an evening of dinner and poetry.
UCLA sociologist Ivan Light, who is studying the Iranian immigration under a grant from the National Science Foundation, says the influx is extraordinary for its number of “high-status immigrants.”
Both the Jewish and Muslim immigrants, according to Light, are drawn largely from the privileged classes in Iran, tend to be well-educated and include many doctors, lawyers, bankers and other professionals. But there are also some differences between the two groups.
Muslims, he said, are somewhat more likely than Jews to have advanced degrees. Large numbers of Iranian Muslims have gone into real estate development and construction. The Jews, meanwhile, are more likely to be self-employed with backgrounds in trade and manufacturing of apparel and jewelry.
Light also has found that all of the Iranian subgroups are more dispersed within their new communities than is typical with other immigrants.
“With the possible exception of Westwood Boulevard, there is no central location for Iranians, like a Koreatown or Chinatown,” he said. “We suspect that wealthy immigrants don’t need those kinds of support systems.”
Jews have lived in what is now Iran for 2,500 years, ever since Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire, conquered Babylonia and invited its freed Jewish slaves to live in Persia. Traditionally merchants and traders for generations, the Jews found great prosperity during the regime of the Shah, not just as merchants and manufacturers, but also in government and the professions.
But in spite of a history in Iran that predated Islam by more than 1,000 years, the Jews were never more than a tiny minority in a country that is about 98% Muslim. Iranian Jews who have come to California say they always knew the day might come when they would have to leave.
“Because they were a minority in Iran, they always felt insecure and many made sure they invested outside the country,” said Baroukh Beroukhim, former president of Ettefak school, a 2,000-student private Jewish academy in Tehran.
“They even sent their children abroad to go to school as a means of having a little branch out there somewhere that would become the only hope if things got bad.” Beroukhim, who now lives in Westwood is active in the Iranian Education Foundation and the Iranian Jewish Federation Council.
Many Jews who left Iran in the days immediately before and after the Shah’s downfall in early 1979 say it was not overt religious persecution by Islamic fundamentalists that forced them into exile. Far more threatening, they say, was the general chaos and the enmity that Khomeini’s followers seemed to feel toward wealth in general.
The memory is still painful for Guity Nemani, who abandoned a successful family rug business, her home and most of her belongings in the city of Abadan, and fled the country with her husband and three children in 1978, shortly before the Shah was overthrown.
“It was terrible,” she recalled. “There was so much hatred on the streets. There was shooting. . . . It wasn’t a good place for my children. Anyone who had a little money, anything, was not safe.”
In their flight, the Nemanis did what many of the early emigrants did: They left home for a vacation in Europe and never returned. Instead, they headed for Beverly Hills, which already was becoming known as a Persian ghetto. They chose the city, they said, because of its affluence, its excellent schools and police force, the presence of a large Jewish community and its climate, which is similar to Tehran’s.
Those who left before the revolution found it relatively easy to liquidate their assets and get out. Since the revolution, it has been harder. The government has restricted emigration and confiscated homes and businesses of some who do leave.
While many of the early emigrants simply flew first-class out of Tehran into LAX and brought their money with them, the more recent ones are far more likely to have sneaked across the border into Pakistan or Turkey with little more than the clothes on their backs.
“The first to leave were the wealthy . . . ones who could get out quick and adapt easily,” said banker Solomon Aghai, who arrived in 1980. “Then came the middle-class, and now we are getting the ones who are less fortunate.” Roughly 1,300 Jews emigrated from Iran last year to Los Angeles area, said Aghai, an executive vice president of American Express Bank International and the president of the Iranian Jewish Federation, a coalition of seven organizations in the Los Angeles area.
Some of the later arrivals have simply started over and made new fortunes. Industrialist Nejat Gabbay, for example, had his Iranian assets confiscated after he left the country in 1979. But with money owed him from various overseas commissions, Gabbay rented an office in downtown Los Angeles and started a little import-export business with his three sons.
Today, Gabbay is the president of Gibson Overseas Inc., which occupies an entire city block in Alhambra and is one of the largest importers of Chinese porcelain in the country. He lives in a large hilltop home in Trousdale Estates, with a commanding view of Los Angeles.
“We had to succeed,” he said confidently. “We had no other choice.”
Despite their overall affluence, the Iranian Jews have encountered their share of misunderstandings and adjustment difficulties in the United States, just like any other immigrant group.
Some of the newcomers’ more awkward cultural clashes have been with other Jews. There are as many differences as there are similarities between the customs and traditions of the Iranians and those of Los Angeles’ established European-Jewish community.
At Sinai Temple in Westwood, the oldest, conservative synagogue in Southern California, there were “ill feelings about the Iranians, and there were always rumors that the Persian community was taking over Sinai Temple,” said Donald Shulman, a member of Sinai Temple’s board of directors. “The Persian Jews have a Middle Eastern culture like the Israelis. It is the stereotypical Persian rug salesman and bartering.”
Shulman and others at Sinai were initially annoyed by the tendency of Persian Jews to attend services but not to become regular dues-paying members. “Iranians are frequently more than 50% of those attending the services, but only about 12% of the regular dues-paying membership,” he said.
In Iran, explained Rabbi David Shofet, “there was no obligation to become a member of a synagogue. If you wanted to attend, you attended; if you wanted to give, you gave.”
Shofet, the son of Ydidia Shofet, who was chief rabbi of Tehran, now heads the Nessah Israel Congregation in Santa Monica, an Iranian synagogue. Shofet said he is concerned that many young Iranian Jews are falling away from the tradition that has been nurtured for centuries and are drifting toward the larger American Jewish culture.
“We come from a different religious tradition,” he said. “We had a homogeneous culture, there was nothing to force us to change. But here all of a sudden there are choices in religion, sects, denominations. There was no force compelling change in Iran, bringing innovations into religion.”
Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz of Temple Sinai, who has been active in providing help for Iranian immigrants, agrees that life in the United States offers many more choices and opportunities--to a point that some immigrants find hard to cope with.
“In Iran, there was a wall of Islam, which they could not penetrate,” Dershowitz said. “It wasn’t anti-Semitic, but there were clear delineations of ‘your community is here and ours is there.’ Some old-timers think it is still like that, but their kids have their own experience.”
The differences between Iranians and Americans took a different form two years ago in a dispute over construction of sun decks, swimming pools and tennis courts on hillside properties in Trousdale Estates. The City Council eventually intervened and adopted an ordinance limiting such improvements, but only after the controversy had exposed bitter feelings. “I thought we were going to have civil war up there,” said one city official.
“The majority of people who were trying to change the ordinance were Iranians and the majority of the people who wanted to keep it were Americans,” said Jack Kashani, an Iranian who lives in Trousdale.
“The dispute had to do with cultural differences,” he said. “Iranians have larger families--sisters, brothers, brothers-in-laws and cousins. Most are here now, and we get together with them often. . . . We enjoy ourselves a lot, that is why we need more space.”
For many Iranians, adjustment to life in the Beverly Hills area has been difficult on a more personal level, too.
As is the case with other immigrant groups, the younger generation tends to lead the way when it comes to adapting to a new homeland, and the older people often find it a struggle to keep up.
“You’ve got a man who was a big, tough businessman in Iran with 50 employees and a factory,” said Tom Pashaie, an Iranian developer. “In Iran, he is king of his household, very domineering. But here he is like a mouse, he and his wife. Their 16-year-old son is driving a Mercedes around, negotiating the house loan, advising parents.”
Situations such as this have created much conflict and tension in some families, Pashaie said.
“The father’s role has been reversed. A little punk who knows it all is telling his 56-year-old father that this is not the way to do business, (telling him that) you can’t bargain with the saleslady when you are in Robinson’s.”
Social workers who deal with the Iranian Jewish community say this cultural and generational stress contributes to such problems as child abuse and wife-beating. Divorce is on the increase, they say, and so are bankruptcies.
“We see them experiencing culture shock that takes place when the breadwinner is not able to go out and quickly earn money,” said Arnold Saltzman, vice president of Jewish Family Services, which provides counseling for a number of troubled Iranian families.
For some formerly wealthy families, it is a tough adjustment to have to struggle to stay economically afloat.
“I have to work all the time, it is very difficult,” said Edna Hakaian, who arrived nearly penniless in Los Angeles in 1983 with her two daughters after an arduous overland exodus from Iran by way of Turkey. She now is part-owner of a clothing boutique in the garment district in downtown Los Angeles. “In Iran, one person worked and the whole family ate. But here in America, one person works and everybody suffers.”
Basic Iranian values also are being challenged, said Hilda Balakhan, a social worker with the Jewish Family Services. “Men are finding it difficult to rule with an iron fist in a society where they are not the only breadwinners, and where the practice of physically disciplining a child, especially in public, is frowned upon.”
Another Iranian tradition that is encountering resistance from the young is the arranged marriage. Families frequently begin grooming their daughters for marriage by age 16 or 17. Parents make the introductions and arrange chaperoned dates.
“It’s not unusual for some girls to be engaged in their junior year of high school, get married in the spring of their senior year and take their 30-year-old husbands to the prom,” said Shahla Miller, a counselor in the Beverly Hills school district.
Edna Hakaian’s daughter, Nadia, 18, is one of a growing number of young Iranian Jewish women to say that she wants to break with that tradition.
Many of her own friends, Nadia said, already are making wedding plans. “Most Iranians don’t want their kids to date unless it’s for marriage,” she said. “At the same time, they expect more for their kids. They want you to get a job, go to college, do this, do that. They want to show you off. They say don’t wear the same dress twice.
“I don’t plan to get married any time soon,” she said. “Most of the men, when they come to ask for your hand . . . all they want to know is how much money you have. They just want totally money. There are a lot of problems when your parents are involved.”
As the Iranians adjust to life in the United States, she said, arranged marriages are on the decline. “People are falling in love more on their own, even if their parents do not approve. It is moving that way. Thank God,” she said.
Sometimes, even immigrants with extraordinary talents and skills find that there is no ready market for them in their new home. They work in small clothing or jewelry stores downtown, mini-markets and gas stations and some just hang around Westwood Boulevard sipping tea and drinking coffee.
David Ramzi readily concedes that his adjustment to life in the United States has been “a painful one.” A successful writer and television producer in Iran, he has had to settle in the United States for a job managing an Iranian discotheque.
Ramzi has written four books since coming to the United States, but has yet to get one published because there is little demand for works written in Farsi. He is saddened that the youngest of his three children, a daughter who came to the United States when she was 6, cannot read his writing.
“I know they will all be good Americans,” he said of his children. “But there is also so much to learn (about Persian culture) that they will miss.”
Even among the older immigrants, there is a growing sense that the old days are gone for good.
“Many thought the revolution was going to be a temporary thing,” said banker Aghai. “But it has been 10 years, and now people realize that they are not going back. A new generation has grown up, and they’re more American than Iranian.”
Dr. Ari Babaknia agrees. Babaknia had just completed his medical training at Johns Hopkins University in 1978 when his family decided the time had come to leave Iran. The young physician became, in effect, the head of the family, helping his parents, three brothers and two sisters settle and survive in their new home.
Two of the brothers followed him into medicine, and all are now living comfortably in Southern California. Babaknia himself is a noted infertility specialist who heads the Women’s Health Institute of California in Costa Mesa.
“We are the first major group of Iranian Jews to live outside Persia in . . . 2,500 years,” said Babaknia. “We have to make sure that the heritage of our 2,500 years stays alive.”
But the United States is now home for his family, and it is a good home.
“This country gave us the opportunity to bloom,” Babaknia said. “Each year, when we sit down for Thanksgiving, that is one of the things we say we are thankful for.”