Don’t let them tell you Los Angeles has no seasons. What else would you call March’s glorious, lilac-hued explosion of jacaranda blossoms, if not springtime?
From the high-rises of Wilshire all the way down to the Palms neighborhood, a riot of purple and yellow flowers adorns Westwood Boulevard, the main drag of L.A.’s eponymous neighborhood and the heart of its Iranian-Jewish community. Those blossoms herald two things: spring and Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
Many American Jews celebrate two New Years, Rosh HaShanah and the first of January. Many Iranian Jews celebrate three, and if you visit L.A.’s West Side around Nowruz (March 21 this year), you too can join the festivities.
Nowruz means “New Day” in Farsi, and a week before Passover, it likewise heralds the start of spring. Like Jewish and Christian holidays around that time, the Nowruz celebration has evolved in syncretic fashion, blending Zoroastrian roots with age-old rituals from Iran (and, in Los Angeles, distinctly Californian flavors).
It’s hard not to feel festive in the sugary wake of Purim festivities, when Nowruz flags fly on streetlamps along Westwood Boulevard and you no longer need heat lamps to sit outside. In between Nowruz parties at dance clubs, temples and ballrooms, revelers dig into heaping platters of saffron-scented rice with almonds and juicy lamb and chicken kebabs.
On the topic of food: The Los Angeles Westside is one of very few places where a diner can stroll — yes, stroll — by multiple kosher eateries. Jewish establishments cluster not only in Westwood, but also in Beverly Hills and the Pico-Robertson neighborhoods a few miles east.
That’s why some half-jokingly call West L.A. “Tehrangeles,” a reference to the hundreds of thousands of Tehran natives, many of them Jews, who settled this California city after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Somewhat redundantly, the intersection of Westwood Boulevard and Wilkins Avenue was officially designated “Persian Square” a few years ago.
With a SoCal diaspora that stretches from Irvine in Orange County to the San Fernando Valley, Iranian Jews sponsor cultural events year-round. The month around Nowruz is a particularly fruitful time to catch up on Persian music, theater, handcrafts and dance in a city where performance is a reflex.
UCLA kicks off Nowruz early and in style, with a lavish party planned for March 11 at its campus north of Westwood Boulevard. The university is worth a visit just for its terracotta-brick Romanesque buildings and plazas, including Royce Hall, the showcase auditorium that will host this year’s Farhang Foundation-sponsored Nowruz event.
Performances will feature Sima Bina, the legendary classical Persian folk singer; the tambourine-wielding ladies of the Djanbazian Dance Company; a puppet show from Negar Estakhr; the pint-size mallet wizards of the Daneshvar Children’s Ensmble; and the Dzambo Agusevi Orchestra, with jubilant “gypsy” brass music alongside Iranian singer Mamak Khadem.
Several museums on the UCLA campus are free and worth exploring. Wander into the Fowler Museum, dedicated to arts and cultures of Asia and Africa, and discover large-scale feminist paintings from Southern Africa, photography highlighting Oaxacan baseball culture and ceremonial objects from bygone eras.
The Hammer Museum, at the intersection of Westwood and Wilshire Boulevards, reflects the eclectic passions of both its founder, Armand Hammer, and modern-day L.A. Temporary exhibitions often feature contemporary installations and media; the permanent collection, meanwhile, emphasizes French painting from 19th-century greats (Dégas, Manet and so on) along with European and American masterworks from the last half-millennium.
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Post-museum, it’s time to party. At Echoes on Pico, an event space just east of the Pico-Robertson synagogue cluster — and just a mile from IKAR, the popular Jewish community center — a federation-sponsored Nowruz celebration will feature Iranian dishes and the music of the Chloé Pourmorady Ensemble, a Persian-Balkan fusion band. (You can also catch the popular group in concert at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills on Feb. 25.)
“The Love Stories of Shahnameh” is a theatrical rendition of a classical Iranian poetry cycle — a national epic brought to life in song and dance on March 22, in a presentation from B’nai Brith and the Fariborz Matloub Foundation. The performance takes place at the American Jewish University; if you’ve never been to AJU’s spectacular Mulholland Drive campus, set dramatically atop the Hollywood Hills, the view alone is worth the trip.
A few days later, the university hosts a Nowruz concert featuring Farimah Shahmaz, a singer whose ensemble specializes in Iran’s traditional, oud-laced melodies.