GINA NAHAI: Becoming American

The bride, tall and beautiful, is half white, half African American. The groom, no less attractive than his new wife, is half Russian, half Iranian. His father is half Jewish, half Baha’i. There is a sister who is half Baha’i, half Muslim, one who’s all Jewish and one who’s undecided. There’s a brother who is half Baha’i, half Christian, a niece who thought she was Muslim, discovered she’s in fact Jewish and finally settled on Catholic. There are two nieces and a nephew who are one quarter Jewish Iranian, one quarter Baha’i Iranian, and two quarters Chinese of undetermined religious affiliation. And this is only the groom’s side of the family — 20 people, to be exact, among some 150 guests milling around at the reception on a gorgeous afternoon in a beautiful ranch just outside of Los Angeles.

I know this family because they used to be all Iranian Jews — 30 years ago, when the revolution first brought us all together in this town — and if you think Iranian Jews are cliquey and intolerant of outsiders and unwilling to assimilate, you should meet some of this new generation, or go to one of their gatherings. They’re like poster children for what the United Nations aspires to be — people from all faiths and cultures united by love and able to soar above their differences. They embody that very American experience — each individual breaking away from the family’s past, forging his or her own path, creating his or her own destiny. I watch them at the wedding and tell myself this is what the Iranian Jewish community will become in 20 or 30 years, what every big gathering will look like once our children and grandchildren have crossed the emotional and cultural moat that now separates our little nation-in-exile from the rest of America. And while I see nothing wrong with this rainbow nation of the future, while I’m perfectly able to see that diversity has not divided this family, I can’t help feeling that something terribly sad has happened in the midst of all this joy.

I’m not sure what’s bothering me. I can’t describe it except by comparison: If this were a typical Iranian-Jewish wedding in Los Angeles or New York, the number of family members in attendance would be many times higher than the two-dozen who have gathered at this ranch. Instead of meeting for the first time and having to ask each other the family history of the bride and groom, just about everyone present would know everyone else’s story, going back a few generations. Instead of shaking hands and going their separate ways at the end of the night, only to come together, perhaps, at Thanksgiving and Christmas and Passover once every few years, the families of the bride and groom would have already worked out the rotation of the weekly Shabbat dinners and would be getting ready to fight over which holiday will be “theirs.”

If this were an Iranian-Jewish affair, the guests would be more critical; the parents of the newlyweds would be more in debt; the bride and groom would be harder to please. Dinner would be served at midnight; the music would be much too loud; the dancing wouldn’t stop except, perhaps, in case of an earthquake.

But of course, it’s not the one custom or particular tradition that’s at stake here. Whom you marry and how is only a reflection of something much larger and more fundamental. And it isn’t just the fact that so much conversion is not good for the Jews. Granted, this family is probably more assimilated than your average American-Jewish clan. And yes, one can give up the Iranian heritage and become an American Jew without spreading out much farther. But even then, there are enormous cultural differences between Iranian Jews and Ashkenazim. Becoming American, as we call it in Persian, entails an almost seismic shift. You can’t become American one day and return to the old colony the next. That’s how immigrant communities slowly dissipate and become fully integrated. It’s inevitable, and perhaps necessary, but in many ways, it’s also a great loss.

What do you gain, and lose, when you leave the small town of your childhood and merge into the chaos of the big city?

You get more choices, bigger possibilities, greater privacy and independence. I know that.

And you lose …?

You lose a common history, an invaluable sense of family, an iron bond between parents and children that brings immeasurable comfort, especially to the young. The Iranian-Jewish community in the United States is very different from its counterpart in Iran: a tiny nation inside its new homeland, born of necessity and molded by a single twist of history. A community that, in the space of 30 years, has managed to take care of its own and helped take care of Israel, served as a nucleus for great achievements by its members and changed the shape of the cities in which it’s located. Once dissolved, it will be no more than a flicker in time, but it will leave a void.

The truth is, every one of the multicultural people at this wedding still wishes to belong to one group or another. If you sit with them long enough, you’ll hear a lot of talk about church, or bar mitzvahs, or the Baha’i Center. You’ll notice that even among siblings, people’s faith determines the extent of their closeness to one another. The Iranian Jews of 30 years ago may have left the small town from which they came, but they’re hard at work trying to find a place of belonging in the big city.

How sad, then, that our own community, our own faith, was not able to offer them that vaunted place.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.