With the advent of a new academic year, innovations are practically inevitable for an ever-evolving campus such as UCLA. One novelty at UCLA took place earlier this fall at the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies (CJS), when the department welcomed Dr. Saba Soomekh to the board as Associate Director of Research. Soomekh obtained her undergraduate degree in religious studies, with a focus on Judaism, from the University of California at Berkeley, her graduate degree in theological studies at the Harvard Divinity School, and her Ph.D. in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Soomekh to better understand her interest in the CJS, learn about new reforms to the Center, and get an inside scoop on Soomekh’s own contributions to the Jewish community.
Soomekh emphasized the CJS’s location and academic community as two of the primary reasons for joining the Center. Los Angeles contains the second largest community of Jews in America, and the UCLA CJS “really reflects how expansive, how different, and how extraordinary the Los Angeles Jewish community is,” says Dr. Soomekh.
The CJS already has forty-four events planned for the academic year, boasts a community of two thousand affiliated students and nearly thirty faculty members, and offers almost seventy different courses. Course curriculums range anywhere from Israeli film, to Biblical literature, to Jewish identity. Prior to joining the center as Associate Director of Research, Soomekh had already been teaching a sociology course at UCLA, supported by the CJS, called “Iranian Jews in Los Angeles.”
Soomekh’s course is one of the several courses offered by the CJS, known as service learning courses. These sorts of courses deal with subjects such as Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community, Holocaust survivors, and even the Russian Jewish population of Los Angeles. Unlike typical classes that take place solely within the boundaries of a classroom, service learning courses require students to spend time interviewing, photographing, and conversing with notable members of the Jewish community, outside the classroom. Service learning students have interviewed Holocaust survivors, businessmen, philanthropists and even rabbis for course assignments. The information collected is then uploaded into an online archive for students and community members to access and learn from.
The archive, found on the CJS’ website, is called “Mapping Jewish LA.” One notable entry Soomekh and I talked about was one completed by a student in her class, regarding Elat Market, a popular Iranian-owned Kosher Market in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles. “Fifty years from now, you’re going to look back and see [from the archive] that Elat Market was a place where you had Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews and hipsters all together. It kind of became this gathering place for the Jewish community,” Dr. Soomekh explains.
In addition to archiving and researching areas currently rich with Jewish life and culture, the CJS also aims to study areas in Los Angeles previously home to large Jewish communities. One historical Jewish population the Center would like to focus on is the community of Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles that served as a Jewish center in the early to mid twentieth century. Next year, Dr. Caroline Luce, the CJS’ Research & Digital Projects Manager, will spearhead an exhibition to understand why Boyle Heights was once the heart of Jewish life.
Soomekh has also made it her goal to improve the outreach strategies used by the Center to promote Jewish learning. As a matter of fact, Soomekh promoted the Center during one of the initial sessions of my Jewish Studies 177 course, and explained the benefits of student involvement within the Center. During that session, I learned that students also interested in conducting research outside of the “Mapping Jewish LA” project are also encouraged to participate in the Center. Soomekh stressed that “the beauty of being affiliated with the Center for Jewish Studies is that we [the Center’s community] are here for the students…[both] to help you and to mentor you [in your chosen field].”
Soomekh and I used the remainder of our time to discuss her background. Educated at a Jewish day school for most of her life, Soomekh decided to try something new in college. She took a class on Islam during her time at UC Berkeley — and loved it. Soomekh then developed an interest in majoring in religion through taking a World Religions course, taught by religious scholar Huston Smith. As a graduate student at Harvard, Soomekh spent time studying Jewish thought and religion at the co-ed Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
Finally, during her time at UC Santa Barbara, Soomekh found that there was minimal to no work written in regards to Iranian Jewish women, a topic of particular interest to her. She dedicated her dissertation to the study of three generations of Iranian Jewish women in her family, featuring individuals ranging in ages from eighteen to ninety. Her dissertation, entitled “From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture,” was so vital to the study of Iranian Jewish life that it was also made into a book. The text aims to stress that “they [Iranian Jewish women in America] started all over again [once they arrived]…we [the Iranian Jews of Los Angeles] are such a successful community. But it didn’t just happen. Very few people came with money and had that luxury [of instant success].”
Soomekh has also edited a book on Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in America for the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life at the University of Southern California. In the future, she hopes to address another rather untouched topic: the LGBT Iranian community of Los Angeles.
Whether it is lecturing a service-learning course, reaching out to students to get more involved with the Center, or embarking on yet another fascinating research exploration, Dr. Saba Soomekh is certainly an invaluable asset to the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies.