Saba Soomekh is a lecturer at UCLA and the associate director of research at the university’s Leve Center for Jewish Studies; she has taught courses on Jewish literature, world religions, and Middle Eastern history. She’s also a prominent figure in the Los Angeles Jewish community, balancing her time between the academic classroom, private classes, and public seminars, who will be speaking about Saudia Arabia and Iran at Harry’s Plaza Café in Santa Barbara on Sunday. For her first book, From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women between Religion and Culture, she interviewed 120 women, ages 18-90, about their religious rituals and personal history. “I’d just start asking questions, and three hours later, they’re talking my head off,” she says, laughing. “They have so many great stories to tell, and really, no one asks them.”
For Soomekh, history is an important part of the present as well. “There are so many pieces to each story,” she said when discussing her upcoming May 21 speech, part of a series organized by SPARC (Sparking Political Action, Response, and Change), a Santa Barbara-based political action group working to provide reliable information about pressing issues through a series of lectures. Soomekh’s talk, “Saudi Arabia and Iran, their proxy wars and its affect on America,” is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Harry’s Plaza Café. “Most people have no idea what’s happening [in the Middle East], and we are so involved,” she said.
I spoke with her on the phone on a Friday night, after Shabbat dinner. Below is a condensed version of our conversation.
Your family moved to the United States from Tehran when you were 2. Tell me a little about your connection to Iran, and your interest in studying Iranian culture. How did that evolve? My interest in Iran started when I was in graduate school. I lived in Punjab in grad school, and I originally thought I wanted to do something with looking at the Vedas and looking at the Torah, and something with South Asia. And then I took a week of Sanskrit and said, “I’m out of here! There’s no way.”
I did grow up speaking Farsi. I knew how to speak [it], but not how to read or write. So it wasn’t until I went to Harvard that I took Persian classes to learn how to read and write. And my father was really into Persian poetry, and it was really important for me to connect with him in that way.
I always loved studying women and religion, and I took a lot of courses on women and globalization, women and Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These are a lot of the courses that I actually teach now. And I was realizing I was taking a lot of classes on women in South Asia and a lot of classes on women in the Middle East but barely learning anything about women in Iran. And there were lots of books on Shia Muslim women and their religious rituals, but there was … barely anything written about Iranian Jews, let alone…