Zoroastrianism is Part of L.A’s Cultural Mosaic

Nikhil Misra-BhambriBy Nikhil Misra-Bhambri      November 13, 2020

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Zoroastrianism is Part of L.A’s Cultural Mosaic
Photo courtesy of California Zoroastrian Center in Canoga Park. Gahambars are seasonal festivals that happen six times a year. Above, While incense burns, Priestess Hirbod Nooshin Jahangiri sits behind a table laden with fruits, nuts, bread, and sweets and recites sections of the Avesta (Holy Book)
Amongst the San Fernando Valley’s religious and cultural mosaic lies a house of worship, the California Zoroastrian Center in Canoga Park, home to Zoroastrianism, arguably the world’s oldest monotheistic faith. The Zoroastrian residents in San Fernando Valley, despite their small numbers, meet frequently at the Center to keep their ancient religious traditions alive. Until COVID-19, the Center organized many social and cultural functions to bring the small community together. Forced to abandon in-person get-togethers during the pandemic, the community has used Zoom videoconferencing to connect with their network of fellow devotees throughout the state, nationally and even internationally, something they hope to retain post-COVID-19. Zoroastrianism was founded in ancient Iran by Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) more than 3,000 years ago. It thrived until Persia succumbed to Muslim conquest around the 7th Century A.D. Following the invasion, Zoroastrians, also known as Parsis, sought refuge in various parts of the world. The San Fernando Valley is home to around 1,200 Zoroastrians from a total worldwide population of less than 200,000. Most of the Valley’s Zoroastrians fled their native Iran following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and many of them live now in Woodland Hills, Tarzana, West Hills, Encino, and Calabasas. Artemis Jevanshir, a dental hygienist who came to the USA in 1980 when she was only 12, recalls the trauma of leaving the land she called home. “I did not want to leave Iran. My father asked me to come to the USA with the promise that I could return to Iran. I left all my precious belongings because it was sort of a promise that I would return. Iran is the homeland and my heart is there.” She quotes Abbas Milani’s “Tales of Two Cities: A Persian Memoir,” “[E]xile is when you live in one land and dream in another.” Canoga Park’s Zoroastrian Center, which was founded around 2005, provides a gathering place for Jevanshir and others who feel as she does. The Center contains a large prayer hall, along with smaller rooms for lectures, classes, and celebrations. Worshippers may enter at any time for reflection, or to read prayers from the Avesta (Holy Book), and Gathas (hymns written by Zarathustra, their prophet). The prayer room (Atash Kadeh) is distinguished by a fire since Zoroastrians practice fire worship. However, due to permit issues, Canoga Park’s center does not use a real fire. Dating back to their religion’s founding, the light of the Fire is believed to be the source of enlightenment and purification for their lives, as it represents God’s light and wisdom. Zoroastrians typically pray towards a source of light, whether it’s the sun, or a candle. Zoroastrians pray to the creator deity, Ahura Mazda, or “wise lord,” who is associated with goodness and purity. However, unlike other religions, Zoroastrians do not have a set day on which devotees gather for a service and group prayer. According to Jevanshir, “Zoroastrianism is a religion of free will. The important act is not the daily prayers but being in tune with Asha (righteousness). Hence, someone can pray once a day, or does not pray at all. Each individual’s preference is accepted and respected.” Religious and cultural celebrations are a large part of the Zoroastrian practice. Each day and month has a name in the Zoroastrian calendar. When the name of the month and the day are the same, they celebrate. For example, Nowruz (Persian New Year) is one of the most popular cultural gatherings. It marks the beginning of Spring and is the first day of the Iranian calendar’s first month, around March 21 in the Western calendar. Before the Spring Equinox, Zoroastrians set a table called “Haft Seen,” consisting of seven food items beginning with the letter “S.” Once the equinox happens, they give each other sweets and rose water, while elders give gifts to younger family members. Following the New Year, community members visit fellow Zoroastrians with whom they exchange offerings of tea and sweets. In addition to going to one another’s homes, the California Zoroastrian Center typically hosts a day for devotees to congregate and socialize. Gahambars, seasonal festivals, happen six times a year. Their origins date back to Iran’s Pre-Zoroastrian agricultural population, who celebrated the changing of seasons. These early Aryans’ lives were heavily dependent on the changing seasons when they could plant, harvest, and take their animals for grazing. Thus, the gahambars are moments to be remembered and be thankful for. At each gahambar, a large table with a collection of fruit, nuts, bread, and sweets are placed in the communal area. While incense is burned, priests sit behind the table and recite sections of the Avesta. For each gahambar there is a particular section that is read. After the prayer, attendees socialize and enjoy a communal meal. Another major religious ritual is Sadreh Pushti, the initiation ceremony for boys and girls. It symbolizes the moment when Zoroastrians reach puberty, and officially become a member of the community. A special event is held when they wear a sedreh (undershirt), white shirts and kushti (woolen string), which is tied around their waist. The string symbolizes good thoughts, words, and deeds, and is tied three times, one for each of those values. Thus, the tying of the string serves as a reminder to uphold these moral principles in their post-puberty life. A priest guides them to tie the string. This ceremony is followed by a joyous party. After this festive occasion, the newly initiated begin wearing the sedreh and kushti for the rest of their lives. Jevanshir recalls how her children had their Sadreh Pushti in the picturesque Topanga Community Center. The Zoroastrian Center plays a key role in uniting the San Fernando Valley’s community around religious education as well as social activities. Both youth and adults attend religious classes. Youth classes are held from September till the end of May on every other Sunday. Students learn about the Zoroastrian religion, the various celebrations, and the Persian language. Several fun activities include playing and competing in ping pong, chess, and backgammon. Despite the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, the Valley’s Zoroastrians remain steadfast in their practice. Armita Dalal, the Vice President of Accounting and Human Resources at the Benefit Programs Administration, said, “If the temple is not there, you carry on at your house. For many years when we moved to America, we did not have a center or fire temple. We would conduct our religious classes at the Community Center park. It is great to have a temple where our community can have a base. Even if we do not go, it does not stop us from being Zoroastrian.” COVID-19 has connected different Zoroastrian communities and brought them together. Through Zoom they have been able to connect with those elsewhere in California, the U.S., Canada, and even in London. Jevanshir says, “For us, this has been the silver lining.” For the first time, the community has been holding youth classes on Zoom, which has also had several benefits. Teachers from San Jose, Orange County, and Los Angeles came together. They are hoping that their children will be able to connect with youth from different regions. In addition to youth classes, weekly prayers and memorial services have been held on Zoom. A recent memorial service included Zoroastrians from Iran. According to Jevanshir, “No matter how wonderful Zoom is, the experience of being beside one another, seeing each other face to face and doing activities side by side is definitely a different feeling. This new lifestyle has encouraged us to combine the use of Zoom in addition to on-location activities in the future. Post-COVID-19 I think this will be a wonderful thing to do.” Ever since arriving in the San Fernando Valley, Zoroastrians have kept their unique culture alive. For the past 15 years, their community center has instilled unity through religious education, celebrations, and social activities. Despite the lack of in-person events, they have managed to retain their traditions, while expanding their community network nationwide and internationally. From the Iranian Revolution until now in this COVID infected world, Zoroastrians have strived to preserve their ancient religion. Regardless of the obstacles, they remain resilient and successfully keep their distinct faith alive while raising a second generation to continue their ancient traditions. Waiting for the Canoga Park house of worship to reopen, Jevanshir says, “Maybe not as many people will come back, but eventually they will come back. This cannot last forever.”
Nikhil Misra-Bhambri

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November 13, 2020

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