- From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women between Religion and Culture by Saba Soomekh
Saba Soomekh’s From the Shahs to Los Angeles is a comparative ethno-graphic study that places the experiences of three generations of Iranian Jewish women in a historical, socio-cultural, and political context. The first generation, “the generation of the constitutional monarchy,” grew up under the rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the second generation grew up during Mohammad Reza Shah’s more secular regime, and the third generation was born in the United States, after the families immigrated around the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
I find the most compelling part of the book to be about hybrid identities, the fluidity of identities and social status that the women in her study experience in different contexts. Soomekh describes hybridity as “cultural creativity, the making of something new through the combination of existing things and patterns” (8). She describes identities as being fluid, changing over time by place and space and transforming in the global, cultural, political, and social milieu. Her convincing analysis explores the singular development of each generation’s identity juxtaposed with the similarities among and within their communities and across the generations. Soomekh reiterates throughout the book that “Jewishness” shapes all three generations of women. And, as important as national and cultural identity (Persian, Iranian and/or Iranian-American) are to these women, that common thread is a more tenuous link among them. But, her primary focus is on the importance of gender [End Page 136] identity. She offers convincing arguments about the significance of gender and how gender shapes her cross-generational subjects. Other than ethno-religious identity, gender and sexual identity hold the most sway in these women’s lives. Their social status, daily interactions, responsibilities, and sense of self-worth and self-image revolve around being female and what the “arranged” expectations are for girls or women in their communities and within their families.
She devotes considerable time to the evolving connotation of the Persian word najeeb, which can be roughly translated as pure, sweet, and virginal. She describes “najeebness” (her word) as a desirable trait expected of Iranian Jewish women that corresponds to women being expected to preserve their virginity for their husband and to stay sexually innocent and modest. But the interpretation of the concept mutates with each generation. The sexual mores of najeebness, as she explains, were constrained for the older generation who lived in Iran for their childhood and most of their adult life. The mores remained similar among the second generation of women and their families who immigrated to the United States but loosened among their daughters who are considered second generation Iranian-American (and Jewish). The more lax sexual mores of American culture has a clear influence on the youngest generation of women in her study as it is often the case with children of immigrant parents who immigrate from more traditional and more patriarchal societies.
Soomekh’s study skillfully explores the formative influence of politics and culture on these women’s identities. The first generation of women (the grandmothers) are more attached to their Jewishness. They lived apart from their Muslim counterparts in segregated neighborhoods and saw themselves as disadvantaged minorities. The second generation of women (the mothers) who grew up during Mohammad Reza Shah’s more secular regime is more detached from religion. Their impression of their lives in Iran as compared to their mothers was of a life more integrated into Iranian society and with greater access to resources, such as education. Their daughters (the third generation) who were born or mostly raised in the United States have diverged in their religious identities and practices. One group has become less religiously attached but remains ethnically Jewish. In fact, their Jewish identity in the United States supersedes their Iranian/Persian identity. Among the other group, [End Page 137] many of the younger women have become more religious...