From 'Tehrangeles' with love: The epic family history of some of LA's wealthiest Persian Jews

Dora Kadisha-Nazarian, daughter of one of the richest Jewish-Persian families in the US, tells of her family’s extraordinary history that led them from Iran to Los Angeles.

Dora Nazarian (photo credit: TOMER ZMORA)
Dora Nazarian
(photo credit: TOMER ZMORA)
Three days after US President Donald Trump announced a travel ban on seven Middle Eastern countries, I met with Dora Kadisha-Nazarian, who fled from blacklisted Iran in 1979.
She escaped Iran at the age of 18 with her family and found shelter, first in Israel, then in the United States. Her father established a business empire, and today he and his brother are considered the wealthiest Persian Jews in “Tehrangeles” – the Iranian hub of Los Angeles.
Nazarian heads the philanthropic activities of the family. In 2003, her family initiated the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, which aims to promote “a more effective government in Israel.”
Dora Nazarian. (Credit: Tomer Zmora)Dora Nazarian. (Credit: Tomer Zmora)
Her experience of fleeing Iran, then rising to a position that enables her to give back to society, has shaped her philanthropic philosophy in Israel as well as her Jewish identity. She sees our period as a pivotal moment that requires Israelis to demand more of their elected officials, and calls the Jewish people who have gone through “forced migrations and pogroms” to “look at things from our perspective and remind the world that, even when we are comfortable and secure, others should not be forgotten and left out.”
Tbilisi, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles
Nazarian’s grandmother was 12 when her family packed whatever belongings they could fit into suitcases and ran for their lives. Her parents were wellto- do Russian Jews living in Tbilisi until the political climate changed.
When the Bolsheviks grew stronger and outbursts of violence threatened their community, they skipped across the border to Azerbaijan and traveled to Tehran, where she took the name Golbahar, Spring Rose in Farsi.
Golbahar married young, but shortly after giving birth to two children – Izak and Younes – was widowed. “I don’t know where my grandmother got her spirit from,” says Nazarian smiling, “but she decided not to stay with her late husband’s parents. She knew how widows were treated in the Jewish Quarter of Tehran and concluded it’s not for her.” Instead, she found a small single room for her little family and supported her two children by doing small mending and sewing jobs.
Izak, Golbahar’s firstborn and father of Nazarian, understood that if he wished to make things right for himself he must earn money. At the age of five or six he sold matches and cigarettes, and continued with any kind of unskilled labor he could find. When he became a teenager, his experienced immigrant mother encouraged him to seek opportunities abroad. He saved money and in 1947, a few days shy of his 18th birthday, traveled to Italy to study. In Italy he met a man from the Jewish Brigade who recruited him to the Zionist cause, and several months later, after a short period of paramilitary training in Genoa, he set foot in the port of Haifa and was sent to fight in the 1948 War of Independence with the Seventh Tank Brigade.
After the war, his mother and brother joined him from Iran. In the newly founded Israel, Golbahar picked a Hebrew name that corresponded with her Farsi one: Aviva (“spring”). The three resided in a house with no ceiling in Holon.
“Those were tough times,” says Nazarian. “My father likes to mention the lizards crawling on the walls and that economically the future didn’t look promising.” Izak worked in construction, as a bus driver and in an electric shop.
In 1957, Golbahar advised her son to return to Iran. She told him Iran was growing and prosperous, that there were opportunities there, and that he should travel east, earn money in Iran and come back to Israel. So 10 years after he left, Izak was back in Tehran. He found his work experience in Israel to be helpful. The late 1950s and 1960s were an era of vast growth in infrastructure in Iran. In addition, the romance between Israel and Iran was flourishing. Izak nurtured contracts with the Shah’s government and brought Israeli engineers, technicians and construction companies to work in Iran.
This lucky turn of events allowed Izak to send for his mother and brother who reunited, for the second time, in Tehran.
Golbahar, like any good Jewish mother, wanted to marry off her reluctant son, and cunningly introduced him to a young Persian Jewish woman named Pouran. Not too long after, Dora was born. She went to an American elementary school, then to a Jewish high school, and used to visit relatives in Israel during the summers.
Nazarian was 18 when the 1979 Islamic Revolution erupted. Like her grandmother, she packed a suitcase and traveled far to find a safer life. Her father tried to salvage part of his business and stayed in Iran. Around that time, Nazarian started seeing a fellow Farsi Jew by the name of Neil Kadisha, whom she had befriended in Tehran; when she announced her engagement, her father made the trip to Israel for the festivities. To this day, he is thankful he didn’t skip the party. On his way to the airport, heading back to Tehran, he was informed that the head of the Jewish community in Tehran had been executed and that his own name was next on the list. He canceled his return trip to Tehran and has never gone back.
Since all lines of communication between Israel and Iran, where most of the Nazarian family’s financial operations were located, had been severed, Izak decided to go to a place where he could save whatever was left of his business. Coming from Tehran, Los Angeles was the obvious destination. The family settled in LA, and Nazarian attended UCLA and married her fiancé in her first year of college. In 1984, Izak met a young man who worked for NASA and piqued his interest with a risky investment proposal in a new telecommunication company. Izak and his brother took the leap, and in 1985, with their financial support, Qualcomm was founded.
“It was scary,” recalls Nazarian. “We didn’t know how things would play out.”
Today, Qualcomm is the leading provider of mobile processors, with a market value of over $77 billion and 27,000 employees around the globe. Things played out well for the Nazarians. The family is still a stakeholder at Qualcomm, but they also diversified investments and business to other fields and companies.
Mohammad Reza, Pahlavi, shah of Iran, 1941-1979, was the last ruler to hold the title. (Credit: Wikimedia)Mohammad Reza, Pahlavi, shah of Iran, 1941-1979, was the last ruler to hold the title. (Credit: Wikimedia)
Investing in people
For more than two decades, the Nazarians have been donating to charitable causes in Israel and the United States. Nazarian, who travels back and forth between Los Angles and Tel Aviv, heads the family’s philanthropy.
“We believe in the State of Israel. We believe in it as a Jewish, stable, prosperous country that we can be proud of. It’s our responsibility to make that happen.”
The mission statement of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel states that it is “dedicated to diagnosing systemic failures in the Israeli government and initiating methods of follow-up and monitoring the implementation of government decisions.”
As part of this mission, CECI’s monitor program aims to make government actions more transparent and tries to keep government decisions in check.
Some 60 of the center’s researchers produce dozens of reports annually. In 2016 alone, the center published over 50 such reports, and presented their conclusions in a user-friendly manner online.
According to statistics provided by the center, for example, 20% of government decisions aren’t implemented, 65% are only very partly implemented and lagging far behind the set time lines for implementation, and only 15% end up being executed in full.
On its website, one can find many government decisions and look into the details of their implementation or lack of execution. For instance, one can learn that in 2013 it was decided to remove the ammonia tank that endangers the residents of Haifa. CECI notes that “the decision was given national priority, meaning that every six months the environmental protection minister would report to the prime minister regarding the project’s progress and a barrier committee headed by the CEO of the Prime Minister’s Office would become involved if needed.”
However, “the government decision is not being implemented.”
Another example is the center’s sophisticated project for monitoring the state budget. In November, when the Knesset was about to approve the new budget, a team from CECI authored a complimentary report on the previous budget’s spending. The Missing Report book that they published looked into which resources were used fully or not enough, and the reasons the budget wasn’t implemented as promised.
According to report, in the past three years some NIS 20 billion of the state budget wasn’t properly used.
Recently, CECI launched an interactive website that simplifies and illuminates the system of budget spending to citizens who aren’t economically very savvy.
“It is an NGO that aims to bridge between the government and the citizens,” Nazarian explains. “We want to help the government help itself. We pinpoint a problem, bring in information and help figure out how to better implement decisions. We also focus on raising citizens’ awareness of the government’s doings.”
Why focus on lack of proper governance in Israel, of all things? “As a businessman,” Nazarian answers, “my dad’s perspective is that it seems like the managers [of this country] aren’t running the company well. So this company needs a new structure."
“You first need to identify the problems. See if the managers are doing their work right. I think we have great leaders. Great ministers. Unlike the common belief, they are not merely jumping from one bar mitzva to another, but are hard-working."
"There is a lot of bureaucracy and their hands are tied. It’s an entangled system. There is also the issue of stability. Until recently the average government term lasted 18 months. How much work can you do in 18 months?
“Now we have a government that is stable, and we see that not only stability but also productivity is important."
"The bottom line is: Is it effective? Is the younger generation receiving what they should? MK Manuel Trajtenberg [who headed a committee appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to examine socioeconomic problems] came up with all sorts of suggestions. Were any executed? So we are looking at the issues and we see that it’s not a matter of budget, that decisions are being made, but that there is a problem in implementation. Why? This is what we are looking into.”
Asked if her family supported any politicians, Nazarian answers decisively, “No. We don’t believe in any involvement with the Left or the Right. We remain neutral.
We are bipartisan. We have friends from the Left and Right, secular and religious. We were friendly with Shimon Peres, Netanyahu, Gideon Sa’ar, Tzipi Livni, Shaul Mofaz, Yuli Tamir – they all know that they might be competing with each other, but that we don’t pick sides.”
Can you really be bipartisan here? “Yes,” she says, “100%.”
However, as we all know, politicians aren’t looking only for friendship but also – or perhaps mainly – for support. Asked to comment on this, Nazarian replies: “That politicians are looking for financial support while campaigning is true.But other things can be also valuable, even priceless, like [sharing] experience and worldly knowledge… "
Getting people more involved
“I have hope in the new generation, and I’ll tell you why. It will be their decision to put leaders in power and take power from them. Our motto at the center is: Your vote is your power. I think there is a shift now. [The younger generation is] being pushed a lot and not receiving what they deserve. As smart as they are, they still need help from their parents.”
“Things aren’t managed well. I believe in integrity of the office. I believe we have good people, but we also have a system that makes possible all sorts of kombinot (Hebrew slang for backroom agreements). [In the center] we help politicians to identify what’s wrong with the system… to change a few laws. For instance, we supported a smaller government, but we realized that it’s not that. Some of the ministers need to get more involved to understand what’s going on under their noses.
“They sign, let’s say a law, a government decision. There is a budget and everything. But something in the middle gets stuck. Why don’t things move forward? These ministers don’t have adequate connections to each other and to the field. Let’s reduce the bureaucracy. Let’s find out why it takes so much time to get permits. We want to give them tools to work better.
About the more recent investigations around Netanyahu, she says she is “saddened.”
She explains, “It reduces people’s trust in those in charge. There was a survey a couple of years ago about citizens’ trust, and it comes to really low numbers regarding members of Knesset, ministers, people in offices – and I think that what saddens me is this lack of trust.”
Is this lack of trust justified? “I believe you are innocent until proven guilty. Do innocent people sometimes get investigated? Yes, but this is the beauty of our democracy. If there is doubt, then we have a good system of checks and balances in place and they will find out. If you deserve to be in jail, you should be in jail. I’m not embarrassed [by this situation]; I’m proud of the system that jails people who take advantage of their positions to do corrupt things.
“The key to reestablishing trust is getting people more involved. The center launched an app that simplifies following the government’s actions and decisions. You know, a law can be a very complicated thing to read – many pages – so we have a simplified way to read it, follow the specific interest you have, understand how it will affect roads, pollution, education, etc. We think that citizens have a major responsibility to be involved, and that comes with being engaged, informed, aware, and taking action.”
I asked Nazarian how she felt, as someone who came from a Muslim country and found shelter in the United States, about Trump’s recent ban on immigration.
“I think it’s too early to judge Donald Trump. We need to have criteria. It’s not black or white. There must be some reasoning about it. As immigrants who were allowed to come to Israel and the United States with hope of better lives, I do believe that everybody should be given an opportunity. Having said that, we live in a volatile reality with so much going on there should be a system in place. So it’s not black and white. The devil is in the details."
“How about illegal immigrants in the US who live there respectfully, raising families, for over decades, and their children who were born in the US? Where do they fall?”