Monday, March 24, 2008

The Persian path through Los Angeles

In 30 years Persian Jews have put their 'oneg cookie' debacle with Ashkenazi old-timers behind them and are well on their way to becoming wealthy and successful, if cliquey, pillars of the Jewish community of California, writes Tom Tugend in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Lily):

"The Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles, the largest outside Israel, is in the midst of a transition, from odd and somewhat suspect outsiders to integral - though still distinctive - members of the larger civic and Jewish entities.

A little historical anecdote illustrates the change since the first large-scale arrival of Persian Jews in the late 1970s and early 1980s, following the fall of the shah's regime and the takeover by the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution.

Without their own places of worship, many of the new immigrants chose Sinai Temple, a Conservative synagogue on the city's affluent Westside, as their Shabbat gathering place. Soon their large, extended families, all speaking Farsi, socialized in the lobby on Friday evenings while munching oneg Shabbat cookies, and attended services the following morning.

Ashkenazi old-timers started grumbling about "free rides" for the newcomers, naturally unaware that, to the Persians, dues-paying membership in synagogues was an unknown concept and that it was considered a blessing for guests to take home some cookies and candy after a bar mitzva or wedding.

Tensions reached a point where a new and inexperienced temple president "solved" the cookie confrontation by canceling oneg Shabbat refreshments after Friday evening services.

Eventually, cooler and more perceptive heads prevailed as both sides came to understand each other's backgrounds and customs. These days, Sinai Temple is a model of "integration," with Persians representing about half of the membership, some 40 percent of the board of directors and even a former president.

There is no detailed demographic study of the Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles, though its size is generally given as 30,000, including the American-born children of the original immigrants. This figure is well below the 200,000 in Israel, but ahead of New York City's 12,000 - the only other large concentration in the US - and bigger than the 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran itself.

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