Soraya Nazarian

Soraya Nazarian

The New Tehran

Soraya Nazarian’s trek to the America’s Persian Jewish Capital, Los Angeles.

51-year-old Soraya Nazarian lives in Los Angeles like many other Persian Jews. And like the individuals that make up the community her story is both similar and widely different than that of other Persian Jews. But she is making sure that those stories aren’t forgotten.

When she left Tehran as a mother in her early twenties, she never would have guessed that it would be the last time she would see her home, or the life she had known in Tehran.
“My husband asked me if I wanted to get on a plane for Israel,” she says in a Westwood coffee shop. “The plane was leaving at two o’clock and we didn’t have much time. But we went anyway.”

That was, Jan. 13, 1979, a week before the Shah was deposed. There was a foot of snow in the streets of Tehran. She had locked the door to her home before taking her two children to her in-laws’ house. It was as if she would be back later in the afternoon.

But the rumbles of revolution had already begun. Three days later the Shah would flee the country. Cassettes with Ayatollah Khomenei’s voice of incitement had been duplicated en masse and spread across the country, stirring up Shia dissent that bordered on revolution. The new Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, couldn’t hold control and left on the 26th. Less then a week later the exiled Khomeini returned. By Feb. 1, 1980 Iran was an Islamic Republic. Its population reeled and Jews began fleeing in droves.

In 1970 the Museum of Jewish People estimates that nearly 90,000 Jews lived in Iran with 55 percent in the capital. Most fled after the Shah was deposed in 1979. The majority went to Israel but a large group came to the United States. That group comprises 45,000 and is centered in the Los Angeles area with anywhere from 25,000 – 30,000 – about the same as the Jewish population in all of Iran today.

In those frantic days Soraya, her husband and their two children climbed a ladder up to the last El Al flight out of Tehran. It was full and Soraya’s 14-month-old toddler sat on her lap.

In Israel she describes a kind of limbo. Where the small group of Persian Jews that had made the same trek to Hertzliya thought they were going back.

“We all thought it was temporary. We didn’t even want to open our suitcases because we always thought we would go back.”

A month drifted into a year and the family went to San Francisco. While in California Soraya’s husband, Isaac, heard terrible news. In the decaying state of affairs the police had arrested and shot his cousin. He had been working at one of the family’s hotels. They thought he was a spy because the hotel was housing an Israeli soccer team.

Fearing for his brother, Isaac insisted on going back. Soraya says she insisted on joining him. They made a compromise and she waited for him in Israel. He was gone for nine months leaving Soraya alone with the children.

She remembers a scary Tehran. Where men would pinch young girls every time they went to the bazaar.

“I don’t really like to shop,” she says. “I think it is because of that.”

It was a place where she learned that she needed to hide her identity as a Jew after being called names at school. It is that feeling of alienation that she says strengthened her Zionism.

She also remembers wanting to be the one who would give out donations to the poor on Fridays. The children in her neighborhood would compete for the honor by trying to get the best grades. Poorer Jews and some Muslims would come every Friday for the handouts.

Soraya has taken that sense of Philanthropy that she developed as a child to Southern California. She and her family arrived in Los Angeles in 1980 and Soraya immediately threw herself into community work.

She jokes about how many hats she has worn saying that if she put them all on her head it would be ridiculous. When I ask about the things she has done her eyes widen and her finger comes to her lip. She is on the executive board for the Sinai Congregation, has worked with the Hebrew International Aide Society (HIAS) and currently works with Hadassah and Ayalim (a non-profit promoting the development of the Negev and Galilee).

“Now the people in the community are getting more involved,” she says of the changing attitude of Persian Jews in Los Angeles.

She explains how – at first – the community lost some of its traditions but that now, pushed by a fear of losing those traditions, Persian Jews are becoming more active and more close knit.

For herself and more importantly her children she started studying the traditions more closely.

“If the children don’t know Hebrew or Farsi how will they know the old Sephardic traditions?”

To that end Soraya translated the instructions for traditional holidays from Farsi and Hebrew into English, making a book that she shares with anyone who is interested.
She is happy to see that the importance of Judaism and her family’s identity as Persian is important to her children who don’t remember the snowy Tehran they left.

She tells me how her daughter met her husband. They were at a party and asked one another if they kept kosher. It so happened they were both Persian Jews and the deal was sealed.

“I am very optimistic,” she says. “Yes I lost all the money and the comfortable life I had in Tehran but I didn’t lose my children. And here I have made many friends and I have had a chance to help Zionism.”

She has also had a chance to help maintain her community’s traditions.