Persian-Jewish women keep tradition alive on canvas
In reporting on the Jewish community, I’ve learned about politics, schools, aging, race relations, religion and other matters. Few of these topics combine the complexity, creativity and history of a fascinating subset of Los Angeles Jewry, the Persian-Jewish women who paint.
The history, of course, goes back about 2,700 years, when the conquering Babylonians kicked the Jews out of the Holy Land, sending them to Babylonia. The Persians then conquered the Babylonians, putting the Jews in the Persian Empire. They were free to stay or to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple; many remained in Persia, now Iran.
The Persian-Jewish women who paint remind me of those ancient days — the art, customs and stories that go back to Queen Esther, King Ahasuerus and Haman of the Purim story. The women’s lives became part of modern Los Angeles Jewish history with the fall of the shah in the late 1970s. That event brought many thousands of Persian Jews to L.A., imbued with the ancient artistic heritage of their homeland. Many of them wanted to express themselves and to bond with other women, leading some to take up painting — enough so that this pastime became a distinct part of the many-faceted community.
“Painting is a way to remember, experience culture,” said Daniel Raminfard, who runs the Raminfard School of Arts on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles. “A very common subject of the Jewish women in my classroom is the bazaar, a very nostalgic look at the old times.”
I said they must have mixed emotions about the old country.
“Absolutely,” Raminfard replied. “Everyone knows there is nothing there for them, but they somehow miss it.”
I met Raminfard through my wife, Nancy, who studies with him. We had passed the studio on our morning walks, and Nancy was looking for a new painting teacher. Impressed with the work of the women who painted there, she signed up.
Not all of his students are Persian-Jewish women, but a substantial number are, about 40 percent. As I got to know the school and watched my wife develop friendships with some of the students, I thought her experience could provide a window on a community that tends to stick to itself and is something of an unknown quantity to the Ashkenazim, Jews of European ancestry.
Gina Nahai, novelist and Jewish Journal columnist, wrote of the divide between Persian and non-Persian Jews last year in an article in the Forward, “How Iranian Jews Shaped Modern Los Angeles.” In her article, Nahai said she thought of the Charles Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities” when she considered the divide because, “It reminds me of Jewish L.A. — the way I know it, and the way it must seem to the natives.”
Nahai wrote frankly of the prejudice in what she hears from some in old Jewish Los Angeles when they describe their immigrant Persian coreligionists: “There’s too many of them, they have too many relatives, their kids are spoiled, their wives too entitled, the men are too competitive in business, they’re all looking for a bargain … they’ve taken over Beverly Hills and Brentwood and Encino and Sherman Oaks and all the schools and synagogues.”
I emailed Nahai asking for help with this column. She replied, “My own mother is one of the original art hobbyists of Little Persia! By all means, let’s talk.”
She told me on the phone that her mother “had always wanted to paint, back in Iran.” In Los Angeles, she and other women who had come from Iran found painting helped liberate them from the rigid life of the Persian-Jewish community. It was, she said, “a way for them to do something with “their own talent and ability and get away from the rigid structure created for them.”
Shulamit Nazarian, owner of the Shulamit Nazarian gallery in Venice, said, “I think, from my own experience, art has been a very big part of our culture … the design of homes, architecture … poetry, books, drawing all have a huge influence in Iranian culture.”
I asked her on the phone about the Jewish art hobbyists, like those who study with Raminfard. “Art is becoming a language for everyday people, a common language, an inspirational language,” Nazarian said.
Raminfard’s studio, which occupies a storefront along an eclectic stretch of Pico, is a long room, with space for painters on both sides. Each student does her own project, with Raminfard and two other instructors giving individual instruction.
I talked to one student, Elizabeth Bolour, who has been painting for eight years and also gives art lessons to children. Before she started, she said, “I thought I couldn’t draw a line.”
When Bolour is at her canvas, “It really takes over … it is a beautiful painting high,” she said. One of her paintings is of a man in biblical times blowing a shofar. “I’m Persian, I’m Jewish,” she said. The symbolism of the shofar “was powerful. I felt it. It has affected me tremendously.”
Bolour came to the United States in 1978. In Iran, her father and grandfathers dealt in antique Persian and European carpets. They gave her “a passion for art and expression,” she wrote on her website Lizas Collection. “As time passed canvases became my carpets.”
A couple of long blocks to the west is Little Persia, where we live. On Westwood Boulevard, a center of the Persian-American community, there are bookstores, clothing stores, beauty parlors, a language school, a synagogue, markets, restaurants and a store specializing in Judaica. An intersection south of Wilshire Boulevard has been named Persian Square.
A Westwood Boulevard storefront just north of Santa Monica Boulevard houses the studio-school of one of the Persian community’s most respected artists, Houshang Peyman. Raminfard studied with him, as did Nahai’s mother and Bolour.
Raminfard’s father was imprisoned by the Iranian government after receiving a letter from a cousin in Israel. The late shah, friendly to the Jews, was on his way out, and Raminfard’s father, who had served in the army, was beaten and tortured. The family emigrated on the last plane to leave Tehran while the shah still clung to his throne.
“After the treatment of my father, it became painfully evident [Jews] were not welcome there,” Raminfard said, as we sat in his small office in the rear of the studio, the walls covered with his paintings. “This was a universal decision among the Persian-Jewish community that this place could no longer be considered home. Many Muslims were very uncomfortable with the regime change, many thousands left; they thought the regime was oppressive and extreme. Anyone other than a devout Shiite got up and left.”
Raminfard, 37, graduated from Stephen S. Wise High School and CSU Northridge, where he studied marketing and philosophy. Since age 9, he had wanted to be an artist and began studying with Peyman. He worked in banking, but his heart was in painting and he began giving lessons in his parents’ garage, mostly to Persian-American-Jewish women. His clientele grew, and eventually he moved to his present studio. He lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife and two children.
The family story is very similar to that of much of Jewish-Persian Los Angeles — flight from the old homeland, settling into a new one, bringing with them a life and traditions that enrich their new home. Not the least of these is the artistic tradition of the Persian-Jewish women who evoke the past and the present with their painting. Knowing more about their work and their lives will help bridge the divide in Los Angeles’ Jewish community.
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).