Growing Up Persian and… Jewish – A Persian Jewish Perspective on Living in Atlanta

When the revolution occurred in Iran in 1979 my parents decided to do one of two things; to either risk persecution or join my mom’s family within America. The country was already heading towards a non-secular government, and for many Iranians this meant a new change in government. Demonstrations soon spread throughout the country advocating for an end to the Shah’s reign and the 54 year old monarchy.

Before the revolution, many Jewish communities were seldom ostracized  and able to peacefully co-exist with their Muslim neighbors. Although they were considered the minority, Jews in Iran still composed a large part of the country’s population and benefited from the Shah’s modernizing reforms. Religious schools were built within major cities and many Jews were able to hold governmental positions. Once the royal regime collapsed however, many Jewish Persians took this as a sign of what was to come and decided to escape.

During the days of the revolution nothing could escape the watchful eyes of the government and anyone who was caught fleeing the country was quickly placed under extreme scrutiny. Once I was born however, both my parents decided that the best gift they could offer their only daughter was to live in a country free from tyranny.

In order to raise money for our own departure, my mom began to sell everything she possessed. She sold her wedding dress, her jewelry, her paintings, and even wedding gifts she had used to decorate her house with as a newly married couple. Meanwhile, my father worked endlessly to get our papers in order so we would not endure any setbacks.  After days of waiting and waves of questions as to why we were leaving the country, my family and I were finally ready to embark on our journey.  With the last of their belongings packed, and only enough clothes to fill two suitcases, my parents fled the country they once called home.

Once my parents came to America life did not become any easier as each immediately set off to find work. My father was an accountant in Iran and when he wasn’t busy crunching numbers, you could easily find him delving into pages and pages of history books. To this day whenever anyone in my family has an accounting or history question, he is the first person they go to. In the states, my father had to start from square one. There were no freebees, no handouts and no networking opportunities. He began to work a number of remedial jobs and slowly worked his way up the corporate ladder. Despite the circumstance he was presented with however, my father always placed his family first and made sure we were well provided for.

Life for my mother on the other hand meant a fresh start and a new chance to reinevent herself.   Gone were the listless days now of living under the government’s suppressive regime and gone were the days of having to wear a chador. In Iran my mother was a nurse and considered herself a very independent woman.Upon completion of college, my mom made it her sole mission to ensure that both my brother and I attended college as well and refused to let anything get in our way. A few years later and plenty of money spent on tuition I happy to say both my brother and I graduated with honors and as the first generation within my family.

Growing up Persian has really been a treat for me and between the music, the food and dancing I still don’t know which one I love more. I grew up listening to Persian music and cannot remember a time when it didn’t fill our house. Whether it’s a sappy love song or the latest Pop there is something about its melody that always draws me in. After the revolution occurred in Iran, a number of Persian artists began to sing a new genre of songs that were infused with political messages. These songs were the first in a series of songs which would later be hailed as some the greatest works of all time.

Listening to Persian music is one thing, but dancing to it is quite another. I seldom miss an opportunity to attend a Persian wedding and almost always find myself on the dance floor when I do. Persian Jewish weddings can be very lavish in style and are very extravagant in décor, food and music. I have attended dozens of family weddings from New York to LA, and each one always out does the one before it. From Eiffel tower Chuppah’s to elegantly designed reception halls, it never seizes to amaze me how spendthrift Persian Jews are. Persians love flowers and anything with bling; combine the two together and you now have your own 4 foot centerpiece adorned with crystals and flowers. And if that doesn’t take your breath way, you can always divert your eyes to the Chuppa as you remain awestruck at every detail. But what I enjoy most about these events is the fact that I know all the dance moves and songs by heart. Since I grew up learning how to speak Farsi, I can relate to the music and lyrics instantly. Soon it’s time for dinner, and as guests slowly make their way to their tables, you can smell the kabobs roasting from a mile away.

I am sure anyone one who has ever tried Persian food would agree with me that it is the most exquisite food they have ever had. Each dish has its own unique recipe and uses a generous amount of fresh green herbs. The stews are usually seasoned with an array of fruits such as plums, quince and apricots, and are served with intricate dishes of rice. Over the years I have spent countless hours watching my parents prepare these very dishes for Shabbat dinners.

Growing up I don’t remember eating a great deal of traditional Jewish foods such as Gelta fish or kuggle, however I do remember how my parents stressed the importance of our religion and made sure that my brother and I had every opportunity to learn our Jewish heritage alongside our Persian. Every year to this day when we are about to fast for Kippur my Dad prepares Persian dishes but when we are at our synagogue our prayers are just the same as everyone else’s. When my parents left Iran they knew that they wanted to live in a country which would allow them to practice their religion freely and yet still allow them to maintain their heritage.

Today, when I attend various networking events within Atlanta I would like to share both my cultures and do not feel that I need to substitute one over the other. I love my Persian culture and my Jewish identity just the same, and am always amazed by how receptive people are to both. Although Atlanta’s Jewish Persian community is not as big when compared to that of New York or L.A., it is a rapidly growing. Yet, regardless of what part of the country you find yourself in, the line of questing always remains the same.

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