From the Shahs to Los Ange­les: Three Gen­er­a­tions of Iran­ian Jew­ish Women between Reli­gion and Culture

Saba Soomekh
  • Review
By – March 4, 2013

As many as 40,000 Iran­ian Jews live in the Los Ange­les area. This is the largest con­cen­tra­tion in the US and also in the world. Saba Soomekh, an Iran­ian-born mem­ber of this com­mu­ni­ty, has writ­ten an infor­ma­tive pro­file of the three gen­er­a­tions of women in this community. 

Each gen­er­a­tion had a dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence and they also var­ied in their approach to Jew­ish life espe­cial­ly with respect to the high­ly tra­di­tion­al role of women. The first gen­er­a­tion, born in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, close­ly fol­lowed the tra­di­tions passed down infor­mal­ly by their moth­ers. A sec­ond gen­er­a­tion, born between 1948 and 1963, expe­ri­enced a more pri­va­tized form of reli­gion and were sub­ject to more sec­u­lar influ­ences. Some of these women are employed in fam­i­ly busi­ness­es in con­trast to their moth­ers whose role was almost uni­ver­sal­ly restrict­ed to the home. This is the gen­er­a­tion which immi­grat­ed here in the midst of rais­ing their fam­i­lies and hewed more close­ly to tra­di­tions than their daugh­ters, many born abroad but reared here, who are influ­enced by an inter­est­ing peer eth­nic cul­ture that places less stress on reli­gious tra­di­tions, tends to be mate­ri­al­is­tic and is still sub­ject to the joint influ­ences of Amer­i­can, Iran­ian, and Jew­ish traditions. 

All three gen­er­a­tions are influ­enced by the cen­tral val­ue of najeeb, which empha­sizes mod­esty and sex­u­al puri­ty before mar­riage. This val­ue is stressed for the third gen­er­a­tion which, accord­ing to Soomekh, strug­gles with it far more than their moth­ers did being sub­ject to the cross­pres­sures of the broad­er, sec­u­lar soci­ety. At the same time, an impor­tant trend among sec­ond and third gen­er­a­tion women has been a return to Ortho­dox obser­vance in recog­ni­tion of the lim­it­ed lev­el of Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity among the less strin­gent. This echoes a pat­tern found in the broad­er Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. As an insid­er, Soomekh has a unique per­spec­tive on these three gen­er­a­tions on the basis of her own expe­ri­ence, her back­ground research, and inter­views with mem­bers of each generation.

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

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