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Iranian Jews Find a Beverly Hills Refuge : Immigrants: Khomeini's revolution drove 40,000 of them into exile. At least 30,000 may live in or near the city that symbolizes wealth.

February 13, 1990|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some of the later arrivals have simply started over and made new fortunes. Industrialist Nejat Gabbay, for example, had his Iranian assets confiscated after he left the country in 1979. But with money owed him from various overseas commissions, Gabbay rented an office in downtown Los Angeles and started a little import-export business with his three sons.

Today, Gabbay is the president of Gibson Overseas, which occupies an entire city block in Alhambra and is one of the largest importers of Chinese porcelain in the country. He lives in a large hilltop home in Trousdale Estates, with a commanding view of Los Angeles.

"We had to succeed," he said confidently. "We had no other choice."

Despite their overall affluence, the Iranian Jews have encountered their share of misunderstandings and adjustment difficulties in America, just like any other immigrant group.

Some of the newcomers' more awkward cultural clashes have been with other Jews. There are as many differences as there are similarities between the customs and traditions of the Iranians and those of Los Angeles' established European-Jewish community.

At Sinai Temple, the oldest conservative synagogue in Southern California, for example, there were "ill feelings about the Iranians and there were always rumors that the Persian community was taking over Sinai Temple," said Donald Shulman, a member of Sinai Temple's board of directors. "The Persian Jews have a Middle Eastern culture like the Israelis. It is the stereotypical Persian rug salesman and bartering."

Shulman and others at Sinai were initially annoyed, for example, by the tendency of Persian Jews to attend services but not to become regular dues-paying members. "Iranians are frequently more than 50% of those attending the services, but only about 12% of the regular dues-paying membership," he said.

In Iran, Rabbi David Shofet said, "There was no obligation to become a member of a synagogue. If you wanted to attend, you attended, if you wanted to give, you gave."

Shofet, the son of Ydidia Shofet, who was chief rabbi of Tehran, heads the Nessah Israel Congregation in Santa Monica, an Iranian synagogue. Shofet said he is concerned that many young Iranian Jews are falling way from the tradition that has been nurtured for centuries and are drifting toward the larger American Jewish culture.

"We come from a different religious tradition," he said. "We had a homogeneous culture, there was nothing to force us to change. But here all of a sudden there are choices in religion, sects, denominations. There was no force compelling change in Iran, bringing innovations into religion."

Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz of Sinai Temple, who has been active in providing help for Iranian immigrants, agrees that life in America offers many more choices and opportunities--to the point that some immigrants find it hard to cope.

"In Iran, there was a wall of Islam which they could not penetrate," Dershowitz said. "It wasn't anti-Semitic, but there were clear delineations of 'your community is here and ours is there.' Some old-timers think it is still like that, but their kids have their own experience."

The differences between Iranians and Americans took a different form several years ago in a dispute over construction of sun decks, swimming pools and tennis courts on hillside properties in Trousdale Estates. The City Council eventually intervened and adopted an ordinance limiting such improvements, but only after the controversy had exposed bitter feelings. "I thought we were going to have civil war up there," said one city official.

"The majority of people who were trying to change the ordinance were Iranians and the majority of the people who wanted to keep it were Americans," said Jack Kashani, an Iranian who lives in Trousdale.

"The dispute had to do with cultural differences," he said. "Iranians have larger families--sisters, brothers, brothers-in-law and cousins. Most are here now and we get together with them often. . . . We enjoy ourselves a lot, that is why we need more space."

For many Iranians, adjustment to life in the Beverly Hills area has been difficult on a more personal level too.

As is the case with other immigrant groups, the younger generation tends to lead the way when it comes to adapting to a new homeland, and the older people often find it a struggle to keep up.

"You've got a man who was a big, tough businessman in Iran with 50 employees and a factory," said Tom Pashaie, an Iranian developer. "In Iran, he is king of his household, very domineering. But here he is like a mouse, he and his wife. Their 16-year-old son is driving a Mercedes around, negotiating the house loan, advising parents."

Situations such as this have created much conflict and tension in some families, Pashaie said.

"The father's role has been reversed. A little punk who knows it all is telling his 56-year-old father that this is not the way to do business, you can't bargain with the saleslady when you are in Robinson's."

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