Although dispossessed, 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. Iranian Jews also landed in Israel and New York, and it’s worth noting that the mass flight away from theocracy included Muslims and members of other religious minorities. But entire neighborhoods of Tehran’s Jewish elite settled in Beverly Hills—something like a wholesale transplant of a social community. Initially the shell-shocked refugees found solace in local synagogues, where older members remembered the influx from Europe after World War II and welcomed them. Sympathies grew strained, however, by the differences in language and custom between the Ashkenazi Jewish community and the Sephardic newcomers. By American standards, Persian decorum at synagogue was freewheeling, even disruptive, as family members rose to greet one another and chat during services. In addition, says Delshad, Persians didn’t understand that American-style membership in a prestigious synagogue like Sinai Temple meant paying annual dues and getting involved with fundraising. “The other members looked at them as freeloaders coming and taking but never contributing,” he explains.
Delshad proved to be a major force in bridging these antipathies when, after 12 years of campaigning, he was elected in 1999 as Sinai’s first Sephardic president. He insists that tensions have since eased and notes that Persians today account for approximately 25 percent of membership. (They constitute 20 percent of the overall population of Beverly Hills.)
In 2003 Delshad took a leave from the technology company he started in 1978 to run for the Beverly Hills City Council. Ironically, he recalls, some of the toughest votes to get were Persian: Iranian Jews had no experience voting under the Shah and were wary of joining any bureaucratic roster, even the Beverly Hills voting rolls. Delshad nonetheless prevailed and in 2007 was elected mayor, despite a major kerfuffle over municipal election ballots printed in English, Spanish and, for the first time, sinuous Farsi script. “I had nothing to do with that,” Delshad insists. (Federal law does require that non-English-speaking voting blocs be provided with ballots in their own language.) “But the way they did it was to put the Persian bigger than the English,” he says. “It looked like a Farsi restaurant menu. Hundreds of people called the city to object.”
The outcry over the ballot—which made the front page of The Wall Street Journal—was an eruption of tensions that had been simmering for decades. A complaint sounded by Beverly Hills old-timers was that the Persians could be clannish, self-segregating and indifferent to the established norms of the community they were entering. There is some truth to that charge, acknowledges Angella Nazarian. 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. “My mother really doesn’t need to speak English, although she does,” says Nazarian. “Cultural preservation is one part of the experience of being displaced, and as with any immigrant community, we naturally want to associate with one another. Middle Eastern countries also tend to be very tribal.”