At UCLA, Bruins are encouraged on a daily basis to familiarize themselves with their origins so as to better understand how their identities were formed and have shaped their lives. Persian Jewish Bruins are no exception to this campus phenomenon. UCLA boasts a large and vibrant community of Persian Jewish students. Hillel at UCLA, the university’s center for Jewish life, recognizes this large community and prides itself on housing a student organization catered towards their needs and interests: the Persian Community at Hillel (PCH). The Persian Jewish community has also been well represented amongst the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), so much so that the weekly lunch and learning program held by JLIC has been named Nooshe Joon, a Persian phrase that literally means, “May your soul be satiated.” The initiative’s title reflects Persian students’ desire to both preserve a part of their heritage as well as to share it with their peers.
Outside of these student organizations, Persian Jewish Bruins have been given opportunities tap into their cultural history through regular course offerings provided by the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and the department for Iranian Studies. One notable educator within these institutions is Nahid Pirnazar, Ph.D. Dr. Pirnazar has been a lecturer within the Iranian Studies department since 2000 and teaches courses such as the “Introduction to the History and Culture of Iranian Jews” and the “Introduction to Judeo-Persian: Literature and Culture.” Dr. Pirnazar received her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Tehran University and her master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Tehran University, with honors. As the top graduate student in her school, she received recognition from the Iranian monarch at the time, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Following her graduate studies in Iran, Dr. Pirnazar received a second master’s degree and Ph.D. in Iranian Studies—with an emphasis on Judeo-Persian—from UCLA. Today, Dr. Pirnazar formally holds the Habib Levy Visiting Professorship in Judeo-Persian at UCLA.
For those unfamiliar with the tongue, Judeo-Persian is Persian language written with Hebrew script. The Jews of Iran began to write in Judeo-Persian after the year 323 CE, when Rabbi Yossi, the Resh Galut or leader of the Jewish community of the Diaspora, declared that Jews living in the Diaspora must speak the language of the country in which they reside. However, either for the sake of convenience or in a desire to preserve their heritage, Iranian Jews wrote works of Persian language using letters from the Hebrew alphabet. To reflect their Jewish heritage, Iranian Jews often infused their writings with Hebrew vocabulary as well as cultural and religious content.
Last spring quarter, I decided to challenge myself and enroll in Dr. Pirnazar’s Judeo-Persian literature course. While the syllabus explained that the course would expose me to an array of poetry composed by members of Iran’s Jewish population and teach me to become literate in their writings, I did not realize that it would also serve as a means through which I could better connect with my family, most notably my grandparents. During one Shabbat dinner at my grandmother’s home, I had mentioned to my grandmother that I was enrolled in a Judeo-Persian course, and I recited for her a recent poem that I learned in class. She immediately recognized the lyrics and then chimed in with a tune I did not know the poem possessed. From then on, I often studied for class with my grandmother, who always had a sentimental story attached to the text at hand.
As Judeo-Persian is a rather rare field of study, I was interested to know just what motivated Dr. Pirnazar to pursue a doctorate degree in this subject. In an exclusive interview with Ha’am, Dr. Pirnazar explains that she did not initially intend to study Judeo-Persian. In fact, she was set to study women in Iranian literature, and was encouraged by one of her past educators to focus on the works of female poet, Parvin E‘tesami. At the same time, however, the late Professor Hossein Ziai (1944-2011), the Jahangir and Eleanor Amuzegar Chair and head of the Iranian Studies department at UCLA, encouraged her to learn Judeo-Persian, a topic not thoroughly researched at the time. Ultimately, Dr. Pirnazar chose to study Judeo-Persian, and her educator who advocated for the study of E‘tesami warned her that she had chosen “turnips over roses,” implying Judeo-Persian literature was less appealing or alluring than the poetry he had recommended to her. However, Dr. Pirnazar soon came to believe otherwise. In her own words, “As I was trying to grow ‘supposedly’ turnips, I found beautiful flowers such as jasmines, tulips and roses, all frozen under the mud of centuries, being neglected by those within the Iranian literary tradition. I felt that it was my duty to bring some parts of this buried culture [Judeo-Persian] back to life, like an archeologist. I would cherish these flowers [poems], remove the dust from them and then publicize them for others to read and hear.”
Dr. Pirnazar has credited her three doctorate program advisors — Professor Hossein Ziai, Professor William Schniedewind and Professor Amnon Netzer — as individuals integral to her ability to grasp the language and to stay motivated amongst obstacles she came across in interpreting and translating texts. Dr. Pirnazar has also credited her students, themselves, as playing major roles in her decision to continue working on Judeo-Persian texts. She has said, “…My classes on Iranian Jewish history — offered in English and taught during winter quarter — and Judeo-Persian — offered in Persian and taught during spring quarter — bring up a lot of memories and spark a lot of conversations among Iranian Jewish students. There is definitely a lot of bonding among students, parents and grandparents. One father of a student started to cry when he heard a poem because it was the same song that was sung at his wedding. That [the ability for classwork to connect the generations] is what gives professors [like me] the energy to keep on [working].”
Her studies in Judeo-Persian have certainly allowed Dr. Pirnazar to use her education as a means to do a genuine service for the Persian Jewish community at UCLA. With her dedicated work ethic and desire to teach classes that do more than simply provide material that remains within the boundaries of the classroom, Dr. Pirnazar has led classes that have connected different generations and helped Persian Jewish students uncover the roses and jasmines that constitute their heritage.