The New Jews of L.A.: Beyond 'Shahs of Sunset'

Looking beyond designer clothes and luxury cars, Iranian Jews in 'Tehrangeles’ want to be taken seriously.

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The Jews who moved to Beverly Hills from Iran after the overthrow of the shah don’t get a whole lot of sympathy.

Known for their lavish and sheltered existence in the bubble referred to as “Tehrangeles,” their mansions, designer wardrobes and luxury vehicles have been immortalized for two years in the Kardashianesque reality television series “Shahs of Sunset.”

Tabby Davoodi, 31, who left Iran as a teenager, is all too familiar with the stereotypes of her community. “We’re viewed as superficial, materialistic and insular – Iranians marrying other Iranians, having Iranian friends, throwing Iranian parties.”

But, she argues, critics need to take a closer look at what these people have been through. Even though they’ve never starved or lived in tents or crowded tenements, they’ve been refugees.

“All of the wealth and the glamour of our community needs to be taken with a grain of salt,” Davoodi says. “Our move to the United States was nothing short of traumatic.”

Sipping coffee in the kosher Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in – where else – Beverly Hills, dressed conservatively in a sweater and skirt, soft-spoken and intense, Davoodi doesn’t fit the glitzy extravagant stereotype. She’s part of a group of young Jewish Iranian-Americans determined to change the image of Persian Jews. Not only does she want the community's members to take themselves more seriously, she wants them to become a political force.

She cofounded the group 30 Years After and now serves as executive director. The mission: “promoting the participation and the leadership of Iranian American Jews in American civic political and Jewish life.” And preserving the legacy of Persian Jewry.

The organization’s name refers to the 1979 overthrow of the shah and the rise to power of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which dramatically transformed the lives of a community that had lived in Iran for generations – 2009 marked the revolution’s 30th anniversary.

Davoodi is among the youngest of LA’s Iranian-born Jews; her family left the Islamic Republic in the late ‘80s. The family lived in Europe for a year while their request for refuge in the United States was being processed. They had to renounce their Iranian citizenship.

“Until I was 16 I had no citizenship,” Davoodi says. “I wasn’t anything. I wasn’t an Iranian, I wasn’t an American yet. My only identity was that I was a Jew.”

Supermarkets and nightclubs aren’t enough

Though she grew up in the epicenter of “Tehrangeles,” her horizons widened when she attended the University of California, San Diego, and particularly after 9/11. She developed an interest in politics and activism, and took a job at the L.A. Israeli consulate as director of academic affairs.

It was there she met Sam Yebri, a third-year law student at the University of Southern California. They felt that the Persian community badly needed an organization to try to ramp up its influence.

While their parents’ generation had created synagogues and community-support groups for Persian newcomers – not to mention supermarkets and nightclubs – the community didn’t yet have a real voice in public life.

“My parents grew up in families that lived in Iran for so many millennia, through shahs and mullahs,” Davoodi says. “We Jews were always such a minority voice, we kept our head down and no one asked for our opinion on anything. Voting? To come to America and be told to vote – I’m not sure they believed it or that anyone cared about what they had to say.”

Though there are wealthy Persian families in Beverly Hills who have been there for decades, raised children and sent them to prestigious universities, “there are people who can’t identify their congressman or senator and have never registered to vote,” Davoodi notes.

To raise the community’s political awareness, 30 Years After has held three biennial civic-action conferences, each drawing more than 1,000 participants and a host of local politicians. In interim years, the group holds power brunches and other events – guest speakers have included the chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce. In an emotional encounter, Tony Mendez, the real-life hero of the escape from Iran depicted in the film “Argo,” addressed 400 Persian Jews last October.

“Not only was it his first major address in L.A., it was his first major public address to the Iranian-American community. People came up to him and started telling him how they escaped Iran, and at one point his wife began crying,” Davoodi says.

“He swapped stories and talked about how beautiful he thought Iran was when he was there. It was historic and it was organized by volunteers from a new generation of Persian Jews, many of whom were not even born at the time of that 1980 rescue mission.”

The group also strives to preserve the history of Persian Jewry and the story of their immigration. 30 Years After has collected 250 testimonials on Jewish life in Iran, and the group’s next big project is a six-month young-leadership program for Iranian American Jews.

Naturally, Davoodi says, Persian Jews are intensely interested in developments in their former home. Geopolitics has put a strain on their triple identities as Americans, Jews and Iranians, most of whom still have family and friends both in Iran and Israel.

Persian Jews are both disappointed by and highly suspicious of the big powers’ nuclear agreement with Iran, Davoodi adds. They harbor “tremendous distrust and disdain” for Iran’s leaders.

“Our parents and our generation are very, very wary of the deal,” she says. “You can’t blame us – we speak the language, we hear the speeches and read the articles in Farsi online. And we were there on the ground and have seen the brutality of the regime with our own eyes.”

This article is part of a special Haaretz series called "The new Jews of L.A.," about Jewish life in and around Los Angeles.

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