Young Iranian Jews Now Pushing Beyond Old Boundaries
New Persian blood: New York board members of the group 30 Years After, including Shannon and Lauren Hedvat, third and fourth from left, at their launch event in September 2008.
Arranged meticulously across a wooden dining table was a Shabbat meal that could have served 30 — fluffy gondhi, “Persian Meatballs,” still steaming from their broth, Middle Eastern salads and ghormeh sabzi, a green vegetable stew. A Shabbat candle hovered between a spread of tahdig, a crispy rice dish, and shirini polo, a sweet rice blended with almond slivers, orange peels and pistachios.
For the Hedvat siblings — Lauren, Shannon and Brandon — this was just another routine Shabbat meal in Lauren’s Manhattan apartment. It was winter break from Penn Law School for Shannon and Penn Engineering for Brandon, and they decided to cook up a traditional Persian Shabbat dinner for their friends, both Persian and not, many of whom have become frequent guests at the trio’s events.
“Growing up we became accustomed to our parents’ way of entertaining even though they have assimilated too much into the American culture. The warm hospitality of the culture is ingrained in us,” said Shannon Hedvat, 24, the middle of the three. “No matter who was coming over for whatever reason, my parents always had a huge bowl of fresh fruit, nuts and sweets on the table along with tea and coffee.”
Even as they hew to their Iranian heritage and their parents’ culture of hospitality, the Hedvats and other 20- and 30-something Persians, the first to be born in America, are transforming the famously insular Iranian community here in unexpected ways. Thirty years after the Iranian Revolution brought tens of thousands of Persian Jews to Great Neck, the gilded ghetto on Long Island’s Gold Coast, and to Los Angeles, a new generation is pushing beyond its parents’ tight-knit world.
Influenced by the cultural pluralism and openness of America, its members are entering into mixed marriages with Ashkenazim, something that would have been unheard of a generation ago. They have taken up leadership positions in large Ashkenazi shuls in Great Neck. And they are thrusting themselves into philanthropic and political causes in America, in Israel and worldwide.
“In general, Persians have an attitude of doing their own thing and feeling like other outside factors don’t affect them,” said Bobby Shamsian, 28, a vice president at renewable energy hedge fund TerraVerde Capital Management.
Shamsian sits on the board of a group of young Iranian Jewish professionals that calls itself 30 Years After. Formed two years ago here, shortly after a similar group launched in Los Angeles, the group is emerging as a change agent in the Persian community. “I think that times have changed and we have to be open to what’s going on and realize that politics do have an effect on everything we do,” Shamsian continues.
“We’re trying to push forward and get people involved.”
But the push for change has come at a cost for the young Persians, for it has put them on a seemingly inevitable collision course with their parents.
“As young Persians, my siblings and I feel connected and sometimes distant from both our American and Persian cultures,” said Shannon Hedvat, the Penn law student. She grew up not in Great Neck, but in the more culturally diverse community in the northern New Jersey town of North Caldwell, and is an active board member of the 30 Years After group.
“We are feeling the same struggle of balancing two cultures in forming our identity as our parents did,” she says. “But our generation feels the tugging of the two more since we are in many instances the first generation.”
“Heightening civic awareness and duty,” Hedvat continued, “is one way of helping bridge the gap that many of us grapple with as the first generation.”
During the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the years that followed, two-thirds of Iran’s Jewish community of approximately 80,000 fled what had become an Islamic theocracy. They escaped en masse to Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and the tristate area, as well as to Italy, explained Daniel Tsadik, assistant professor of Sephardic and Iranian studies at Yeshiva University.
The Los Angeles area remains the largest hub for Iranian Jewry, even boasting a Persian Jewish mayor of Beverly Hills, Jimmy Delshad. But Iranian Jews are also a strong presence in the Great Neck municipality, comprising 30 percent of Kings Point and 21 percent of Great Neck proper, according to surveys.
“I like to call Great Neck the Jerusalem of the Persians,” said Ellie Cohanim, who was born in Iran but came to America as a young child during the Revolution. “You’re talking about a group that’s been here only for 30 years and yet we’ve accomplished so much,” said Cohanim, director of Institutional Advancement at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, who is highly involved in Great Neck’s Persian community.
“Persians are go-getters, they want to succeed, they don’t lay back, they’re high achievers,” said Shahram Yaghoubzadeh, president of Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York. “They had to be smarter, they had to be more educated, they had to be sharper, they had to be more on their feet to succeed in Iran. I think that’s a trait that stayed with them.”
That success and the style with which they exhibited it — a propensity for very large, some would say ostentatious, homes — sometimes rubbed the Ashkenazim of Great Neck the wrong way. As so did the Iranians’ social insularity. But the tension between the two groups, which lingered for years, has seemed to dissipate, and a different storyline has taken hold.
In recent years, the Iranians have begun to mix with their Ashkenazi neighbors, and today they even comprise about 30 to 40 percent of Temple Israel, a historically Ashkenazi congregation. In addition to raising money for their own internal causes, local Persians donate large sums of money to American Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, UJA-Federation of New York, Long Island Jewish Hospital, and causes in Israel and scholarship funds for both American and Israeli Jews.
And, in a development that would have seemed impossible a few short years ago, more and more young Persians are warming to so-called “mixed marriages” — those with their Ashkenazi friends.
“We are seeing more and more interaction between the Ashkenazi and Persian families,” said Rebecca Yousefzadeh Sassouni, who is one of six Persian trustees on a board of 32 at Temple Israel. She has two school-aged children.
Some members of the younger generation, like 24-year-old financial analyst Roxana Yaghoubzadeh, agree, adding that in her family, “We don’t even think twice about it.
“Great Neck may have been majority Jewish, but there was never a barrier between Persians and non-Persians friendships,” she said.
Yet Bobby Shamsian, only four years her senior, disagrees, feeling that despite the diversity, most young Jewish Iranians still lean toward Persian marriages.
“Out of default, because those are the people you hang out with the most,” he said. “Some of the customs and traditions are easier and the families understand each other better.”
Iranian-Jewish culture watchers like Tsadik, the YU professor, agree with Shamsian’s assessment, adding, “The general feeling is that people would love to marry someone with their own background, but it’s not as much of a must these days.”
For the sandwich generation of Iranian Jews, like Great Neck resident Nazanin Amirian, 48, the process of immigration has been bittersweet.
The mother of three loves Jewish life in America, but she still regrets that she never had the chance to serve her country as she wished, to perform the post-high school compulsory service required of her had her family not left during the Revolution. She longed to teach in a small village or work as a medical assistant in a local hospital. “I always had this feeling that I never gave back to the country that gave me so many values and such a rich culture,” she said.
But this country has given her much, and now she finds herself in the position of keeper of the Iranian cultural flame, so to speak, passing on her heritage to her kids.
“Through the culture and the teachings — that’s how I can set up boundaries for them,” noted Amirian, who makes sure her college-age son commutes to Great Neck from Columbia University for most Shabbat evenings. “They may deviate — but they deviate with a conscience.”
One of Amirian’s contemporaries, Jacqueline Harounian, also of Great Neck, chuckles as she recalls how her parents never let her go to the high school prom or partake in the American social scene. But times have changed, and while parents do still keep a pretty strict watch on their children, they have gradually become more lenient as they acclimate to America.
“I’m definitely not as strict as my parents are, but I’m probably a little stricter than my children’s friends’ parents,” said Harounian. She is the immediate past president of SHAI, Sephardic Heritage Alliance Incorporated, a nonprofit that has raised $1.2 million in scholarship funds for needy Sephardic students in New York and Israel. “I think I’ve transmitted my values well enough to my children that I don’t even worry.”
But Harounian added, referring to her two school-aged kids, “They have freedom — I’m so jealous.”
The 30 Years After group, which says it now has hundreds of members, is keenly aware of the precarious tightrope its members are walking.
“As first-generation Iranian American Jews, we are not only divided between our dual identities, but more importantly, we stand at a critical position where we face the inevitable reality of being the ones to take responsibility for preserving 2700 years of ancestry and heritage,” wrote the New York chapter’s board in a joint e-mail statement to The Jewish Week. “The bigger divide with our parents’ generation is our connection to the rest of the Jewish community — which is one of the specific goals of our mission statement — and our parents’ generation who largely remain strictly in an Iranian Jewish social circle.”
And so the new generation of successful Persians is striving to retain its parents’ culture and traditions, by continuing to speak Farsi and throwing those lavish Shabbat meals. But it is also flying from the Great Neck nest, one eye trained straight ahead, the other glancing back as it organizes educational missions to Israel, Israel advocacy events for New York Persians, networking events and a variety of partnerships with local synagogues and Jewish organizations.
Added Shannon Hedvat: “By inviting members of the older community to attend some of the programs, it helps them better understand our generation’s wish to assimilate and also to hold dear the traditions that have founded our heritage.
“We’re saying to them, ‘Help us define our identity and observe it as a blessing, not an obstacle to learning and growing.’”