Iranian Jewish scholar breaks stereotypes while studying them

Prof. Saba Soomekh has blazed trails in the LA Persian community. Now she’s retracing her ancestors’ steps

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Saba Soomekh decided to study her own Iranian Jewish community. (courtesy)
Saba Soomekh decided to study her own Iranian Jewish community. (courtesy)

It’s hard to look away from the piercing gaze of the girl in the photograph on the cover of Saba Soomekh’s book, “From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture.” The photograph is of Soomekh’s great-grandmother as a 12-year-old bride in Iran, and it makes you wonder whether she is somehow looking into the future, amazed at just how different her great-granddaughter’s life is from her own.

Soomekh, the 37-year-old great-granddaughter of the child bride, is a theological studies professor at Los Angeles’ Loyola Marymount University and one of only a small number of researchers who focus on the Iranian Jewish community.

She has a BA from Berkeley, a Masters from Harvard Divinity School and a PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She’s a member of the Iran Task Force for the American Jewish Committee and a member of Los Angeles’ Human Resource Commission. PBS employed her expertise in producing its 2012 “The Iranian Americans” program. The same year, the Fowler Museum at UCLA appointed her project coordinator for its “Light and Shadows” exhibition on Iranian Jews.

Soomekh has traveled a very long way, both geographically and figuratively, from where her great-grandmother sat to become who she is. Still, she has found it impossible to ignore her ancestor’s gaze which compels her to study Iranian Jews in America. To do so, however, she must hold herself at arms length from her own community.

Getting some distance from the tight-knight Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles can be challenging for a young woman who has grown up in it. Soomekh and her older sister Bahar, a Hollywood actress and environmentalist, were among the first girls from the community to leave home for college.

Saba Soomekh (left) with her Hollywood actress sister Bahar Soomekh. (courtesy)
Saba Soomekh (left) with her Hollywood actress sister Bahar Soomekh. (courtesy)

“People would have my mother in tears, asking her: ‘What did you do to make your daughters run away from you,'” Soomekh recalls in a conversation with The Times of Israel.

“What guy will marry a girl who went to Harvard?” friends warned Soomekh’s parents and grandparents.

Things have begun to change among Los Angeles’ approximately 45,000 Iranian Jews, but the Soomekh sisters still stand out within the insular community on account of the unusual academic and professional paths they have chosen.

At first, Soomekh’s pursuit of religious studies took her far from her roots. Her initial academic interest was in Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, and she lived and studied for some time in India.

However, when she noticed that the Jewish studies courses she was taking and the research literature she was reading did not reflect her own background, she decided to change her focus.

“Today, there are so many Iranian Jewish students at USC and UCLA, and more and more diverse Jewish courses are being added,” Soomekh notes. “But when I was starting out, everything being offered in Jewish studies was either biblical or Ashkenazi. The Mizrahi and Sephardi experience was not part of the discourse.”

Then she discovered that very little had been written about the Jews of Iran, and especially not about the women. “It was at that point that I decided to focus on my own culture and community,” she recounts.

“I grew up with my grandmother telling me stories about life in Iran, and I decided that I needed to record this oral history,” she explains. “I wanted to be the voice of the people without a voice in the scholarship.”

‘I wanted to be the voice of the people without a voice’

As her research and teaching advanced, Soomekh developed specialties in a variety of interrelated areas. In Middle Eastern studies, she is an expert on women. When it comes to Iranian history, she has focused on minorities — particularly the Jews. Within the realm of Jewish studies, she sheds light on Iranian Jews.

The combination of these various areas makes sense to her.

“It’s a reflection of my hybrid identity,” she says.

For her book, Soomekh interviewed 120 Jewish women (ages 18 to 90) of Iranian Jewish origin who have been living in Los Angeles since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Some of the women grew up in Iran during the constitutional monarchy of the earlier part of the twentieth century, while others were raised during the modernizing Pahlavi mid-century regime. Still others grew up entirely in Los Angeles.

An ethnographic portrait, “From the Shahs to Los Angeles” concentrates on religiosity and ritual observance, the relationship between men and women, and women’s self-concept as Iranian Jewish women. It also covers subjects like mother-daughter relationships, double standards for sons and daughters, marriage customs, and the alternate attraction to and critique of materialism and attention to outward appearance.

Soomekh believes the women opened up to her precisely because of the fact that, while she is from their community, she is at the same time not fully embedded in it.

A photo of Soomekh's great-grandmother as a 12-year-old bride in Iran is on the cover of her book. (Courtesy of SUNY Press)
A photo of Soomekh’s great-grandmother as a 12-year-old bride in Iran is on the cover of her book. (Courtesy of SUNY Press)

“It really benefits me to be outside the community. I am trying to keep myself out of my scholarship,” she explains.

“My informants were willing to speak so frankly to me because I am not involved socially in the Persian community. My friends are mostly all American,” she says. “At the same time, there was a certain level of trust because I am Persian and my family is known in the community.”

Soomekh’s family worked hard to establish themselves in Los Angeles after fleeing Tehran. Her parents were a “classic nouveau riche Iranian couple” in their homeland, where her father Hamid owned a women’s high fashion company. He started over in the US with a belt manufacturing business, working together with his wife Manijeh.

“Our grandparents, who came over before us and lived a few houses away, were our caregivers since my parents were working so hard,” the couple’s younger daughter recalls. Soomekh, who left Iran at age two, went to Jewish day school and learned English by watching television. “My sister and I learned to speak the language from ‘Dynasty,’ ‘Dallas’ and MTV.”

Soomekh continued on to Beverly Hills High School, and it was there that she began to feel different from her Iranian Jewish friends. “I became friendly with American kids and got really in to the Grateful Dead,” she says. “I got flack for that from the Iranian kids.”

At times, she found it hard to navigate both worlds.  She was trying to figure out how to establish boundaries to be independent while still being part of her close-knit community.

‘The parent-children relationship is very intense. It’s: “We live for you, and you live for us”‘

“Najeeb,” or sexual purity, is important in Iranian families, Soomekh explains. “But for my parents, the main thing was to make them proud.” Nonetheless, she was not totally immune to the “overwhelming pressure” and emphasis on family reputation that exists in the Iranian Jewish community.

“The parent-children relationship is very intense. It’s: ‘We live for you, and you live for us.’”

Soomekh has chosen the road not taken, and it has not been without some bumps along the way. But to her satisfaction, it has, to a certain extent, led her back to where she comes from.

Her childhood friends and neighbors may have initially been suspicious of the direction she decided to follow, but they are now impressed by her scholarly contributions toward documenting and explicating the uniqueness of the Iranian Jewish experience.

“People support you once you are successful,” she says.

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