I Grew Up Without a Mizrahi Community. Moving to LA Changed Everything.

As a Persian Jew who was raised outside of the Iranian Jewish community, I felt a bit out of place at first in “Tehranangeles."

Culture shock. That’s the best way to describe how I felt when I first moved to Los Angeles just over a decade ago. I grew up only an hour drive away in Orange County, yet somehow felt like I had moved to a different world.

In some ways I had. As a Persian Jew who grew up outside of the Iranian Jewish community, I felt a bit out of place at first in “Tehranangeles.”

Like many Iranian Jewish families, my parents left the turmoil and chaos in Iran after the overthrow of the Shah and the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Many settled in Los Angeles, which is home to one of the largest populations of Persian Jews in the world.

I was born and raised just outside of that community and Jewish values and tradition were the pillar of our home. Knowing my parents came to America so that I could safely practice and observe Judaism kept me close to my roots. And while we’d definitely hit up the local park as part of traditional Persian New Year celebrations every year, my Persian Jewish background was a part of me that I was exposed to mostly within my familial circle: speaking the language with my parents, scallions for Dayenu at the Passover seder, and of course, gondi, the chickpea dumpling, eaten every Friday night for Shabbat.

From a young age I attended religious school and later a Chabad Jewish day school and I was lucky to have exposure to a handful of different Jewish denominations like Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, and Reconstructionist. The common thread of all these communities and synagogue spaces was Judaism from an Ashkenazi lens. I learned to enjoy eating kugel, singing the different melodies I learned from each synagogue, and of course would occasionally drop an “oy vey” here and there. These rituals along with practices at home all felt like “my Judaism.” I found beauty in all of it.

And so nothing could really prepare me for what I was about to experience when I packed up my things and moved to L.A. I was excited to live in a new city and also understandably a little nervous — I was stepping into a community where everyone seemed to share my Jewish identity, but it was an identity I had not fully explored.

Months after I moved, I remember casually browsing the beauty counter at a department store when there was an announcement from Estee Lauder — in Persian. I remember turning to my mom and asking, “Uh, did we move to Iran?”

I felt like a stranger in a strange land, even though its people literally spoke the same language as me. Soon it was Hanukkah and I went to one of the many Persian kosher markets in L.A. to buy the classic Manischewitz latke mix but they didn’t sell it, leaving me confused and upset. I also remember feeling confused and frustrated when I’d see programs just for the Persian Jewish community or specific events where no Iranian Jews attended. It felt to me like our Jewish community was divided and siloed.

I realized that while I got to practice and embrace my Iranian heritage at home and with relatives, I didn’t have a place to explore it within the Jewish community where I grew up. My understanding of Jewish community was funneled through an Ashkenazi perspective and I suddenly felt confronted by my Persian Jewish roots.

It soon clicked that my move to L.A. was an opportunity to explore the richness of my Persian identity within a community setting. I made the decision to make room to own, embrace, and honor that part of myself that I had not yet explored.

So I jumped right in. I began to spend my free time attending programs within the Persian Jewish and greater Jewish communities. My involvement soon turned into volunteering, participating in leadership programs, and joining non-profit boards. I became more and more curious about my roots that trace back to Iran and became more aware of differences from how Jewish community and tradition looks in Ashkenazi spaces versus Mizrahi ones.

It became so evident to me that there is a beauty to Jewish cultural differences. As just .2% of the world’s population, it fascinates me to realize that my grandparents and generations before them would recite the same blessings over wine and challah that my fellow Jewish brothers’ and sisters’ ancestors would recite in Russia, Tunisia, Syria, and other parts of the world, perhaps with a different melody, but the same blessings nonetheless. We share a Jewish history that is based on survival, yet somehow we managed to keep our traditions and rituals alive and thriving in every corner of the world we’ve made home.

And here in L.A., I continue to recite the same blessings and practice the same rituals, alongside Jews from Europe, Morocco, and Argentina to name a few.

Nearly a decade after my move, the discoveries are endless. My Jewish community upbringing was in Ashkenazi spaces, which exposed me to traditions which do feel like mine, yet what I didn’t get to experience was a space to share and deepen the understanding of my family’s traditions that trace back to Esfahan and Tehran, Iran. Many of our Jewish institutions still have room to grow in terms of creating inclusive spaces for Jews of all cultural backgrounds and making room to celebrate all traditions of our rich cultures.

My journey of self-discovery ultimately led me to switch careers to work in the Jewish non-profit space. Today I lead the Y&S Nazarian Initiative at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, with the vision to weave in and honor Iranian Jewish heritage, culture, and ritual throughout the fabric of Jewish L.A. As a little girl in Orange County, it didn’t click for me that I could share my Iranian Jewish customs with the rest of the Jewish community I was a part of — what I realize now is that this growth is something we must do together as a united Jewish community. It’s rewarding that I get to contribute in this way everyday through my work.

Now that I feel a sense of ownership over my Persian Jewish roots, I feel empowered and responsible to share these traditions in Jewish spaces and do so every chance I get. Looking back, I never thought I’d have so much growth around my multiple identities, and as far as I’ve come, I know this is just the beginning.

Donna Maher

Donna Maher (she/her) leads the Y&S Nazarian Initiative at the Jewish Federation of Greater LA and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University. She is a first-generation Iranian American and is passionate about dance, meditation, and unifying our diverse Jewish community.

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