When Stereotypes Collide: the Persian Jews of Beverly Hills

by Special Correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie

At the airport bookstore, I immediately overlooked Bruce Willis’ and Emma Hemings’ smoldering stares on the cover of this month’s W. My attention went directly to the top left: “Meet the Neighbors: the Persian Conquest of Beverly Hills.”

Knowing the history of glossies and their historic portrayal of racial ethnicities more as props than as cover stories, I was simultaneously worried and intrigued—how would W fare as documenters rather than voyeurs?

A patio party introduces us to the Persians of Beverly Hills: with lounging guests, designer duds in the pool, and lavish tents, the spread is vaguely reminiscent of a harem bath scene combined with a Sultan’s caravan theme. The font for “The Persian Conquest” is done in an Arabesque font, with sinewy flourishes and random dots evocative of the Aladdin soundtrack. “Here we go,” I say to myself.

But reading the introduction, I learn that these aren’t just any Persians W is profiling—they’re Persian Jews, who are a large part of Los Angeles’ huge Iranian diaspora.

The use of the term “Persian” didn’t surprise me much. A large segment of Iranian immigrants and subsequent generations use “Persian” rather than “Iranian,” for varying political, ethnic, and ideological reasons. But with Persian Jews, the use is given another dimension: “Persian” does not connote any specific religion, whereas the term “Iranian” definitely conjures images of Shi’a Islam: ayatollahs, chadors, and the Islamic Revolution of 1979.  “Persian” also conjures images of lazy cats, sumptuous carpets, and fat sultans surrounded by glittering palaces—stereotypical images of an Orientalist fantasy, but one that most likely suits Persian Jews better than menacing stereotypes of dour women in chadors and grim-faced Khomeini.

The story, written by Kevin West, gives a brief history of Persian Jews’ presence in L.A., from when many families first fled to the city during and after the Islamic Revolution, to the present day, when the Persian Jewish community wields serious business and political clout. But for the most part, this isn’t a rags-to-riches story: West notes that,

“Although disposed, the thousands of Iranian Jews who flocked to Beverly Hills in the coming years had assets most immigrants lack: advanced education, business experience and, in the majority of cases, some cash in overseas accounts.”

The embarrassment of riches image is fortified with lavish pictures of local heavyweights and symbols of the fortunes they’ve amassed. One image shows a “Persian Palace,” the nickname given to huge, ostentatious houses built and designed by Persians in their new home. Another image is the sweeping view of Los Angeles from Sam Nazarian’s penthouse, or his “$1.6 million Bugatti Veyron”.

While W is a luxury magazine, all of this wealth made me uncomfortable. Of course, W would never profile an ethnicity that wasn’t rich, but I had to wonder why they would profile any specific group at all. West chartered the difficulties that the Persian Jewish community has gone through: racial tension with others in the community, religious tension with other Jewish groups, etc. It was almost as if W wanted to dispel stereotypes about Persian Jews.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, right? In attempting to dispel stereotypes, W simply backed them up: showy images of wealth and references to media and real estate empires are uncomfortably close to the stereotypes of “rich Jews” and “Jews running the media and the banks.”
The Persian side of things didn’t fare much better, either:

“Thanks to their wealth and numbers, Persians didn’t need to adapt. Instead, they developed a self-sufficient Farsi-speaking enclave, complete with grocery stores, restaurants, and even taxi services. And, rather than courting the local social establishment, rich Persians stuck to their own social world, which revolved around lavish 1,000-person bar mitzvahs and weddings.”

The article has combined the rich Jewish stereotype with the filthy rich Persian stereotype, and wrapped it up with a gilded segregated bow.
And it gets better: one of the article’s central themes deals with the new generation of Persian Jews in Los Angeles, the born-and-breds. West repeatedly draws generational differences: describing the immigrant generation as miserly (“…since the older generation by and large has not adopted the American ethic—and tax strategy—of giving money to nonprofits.”) and clannish, whereas the younger generation is more “Americanized,” and thus more generous, social, and acceptable.
But is the article doing all the stereotyping? West references Parviz Nazarian, the first in Beverly Hills to build a “Persian Palace,” saying that, “A different all-American motto, however, has been fully embraced by the Nazarians and many other Persian families who have earned fortunes here: If you’re got it, flaunt it.” It wasn’t W who purchased Bugattis or constructed homes that look like “a particularly frothy wedding cake propped up by a forest of fluted columns.” Have rich Persian Jews internalized their own stereotype?

No. Anyone who has money uses it. And herein lies the problem: applying the term “rich” to a specific ethnicity implies that this community’s money is somehow unearned or unacceptable. While being showy with it is optional, the Persian Jewish community has worked hard, and spend their money no differently than musicians with platinum albums or white moneyed families. One man’s Bugatti is another man’s tricked-out  ’67 Pontiac Parisienne.

W doesn’t make much of an attempt to demystify the Persian Jews of Beverly Hills: though the article traces the community’s history, difficulties, and hardships, the takeaway message has nothing to do with tradition or how the community has bolstered the area. The magazine plays up luxurious, powerful images of Persians and Jews, and the major messages are of stereotypes.

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Fatemeh is currently finishing her master's degree. She currently runs a website dedicated to critiquing how Muslim women are portrayed in both Eastern and Western media.

  • Tiffany

    Being a Persian Jew living in Beverly Hills I feel as if I have to address the fact that most of the article is a big ‘ol stereotype or only is true for a minority Persian Jews. I actually couldn’t stop laughing by the end of the article at how ridiculously we are protrayed.