Gina Nahai: Staying true to our own heritage
I once wrote a novel about an Iranian Jewish woman who grows wings and flies away from her husband’s home. She escapes because she’s in love with another man, and she believes it’s better to abandon her family than to stay and shame them by having an illicit affair. A few months after the book was released, I overheard someone — an Iranian Jew who happened to be very observant and very trusted by Iranians and Ashkenazim alike — remark that the novel had no merit because it was based on an impossible premise. I braced myself for a comment about the implausibility of a woman growing wings and flying off a window ledge like a migrating bird. Instead, the gentleman went on to assert that the really improbable proposition was that any Iranian Jewish woman would ever, under any circumstances and for any reason, contemplate an extramarital affair.
Now, God knows I’m no expert in Iranian Jewish history, but I’ve seen a thing or two in my time, and I can say without equivocation that by far the majority of our women are, and have always been, impeccably chaste, unfailingly faithful and indefinitely devoted to their spouses. I’m not saying this just to keep up appearances before our friendly American neighbors or to avoid being banished from all Iranian parties forever. I’m saying it because it’s true. Nevertheless, I believe it’s possible that, over the course of our 2,500-year history, one of our women has committed an indiscretion of the kind depicted in the book. What fascinated me about the gentleman’s remark, therefore, was not so much his faith in our women’s piety, as his manifest conviction that there are areas of human nature and behavior that remain, to this day, entirely closed to Iranian Jews.
I realize that’s not a terribly uncommon assumption for a Jew to make about other Jews. Just as the world holds us to a different standard, so do we hold, if not ourselves, then each other, to a higher code of ethics. I grew up hearing about a multitude of acts that were the exclusive domain of Muslims and Christians and Zoroastrians and Buddhists and basically anyone at all except for Jews. Murder was one. Adultery (for women) was another. Theft on a grand, gluttonous and unabashed scale was yet another.
According to all the Jewish adults in my Iranian childhood, Jews did not kill, sleep with anyone but their husband, or steal from their friends, neighbors and random old ladies because:
A. They were bound by a higher calling — halachah — than your average penal code.
B. They lived in a country where, by law, the entire Jewish community was held responsible, and would be punished, for the indiscretions of each of its members. And
C. They belonged to a culture in which a person’s good name and reputation was his greatest asset, where his or her children would be duly rewarded or punished for his or her actions, where “shame” was a penance greater than any jail sentence and more exacting than poverty, illness or even death.
That, regrettably, was then.
I don’t know if things have remained the same in Iran, but I hope my fellow Iranian Jews in this country will forgive me for saying in print what we all know and lament in person — namely, that somewhere between Tehran and Los Angeles, some of us became more religiously observant and less personally righteous, more outspoken about the virtues of piety and less capable of feeling remorse, more able to circumvent the law and less fearful of public shame.
And I hope my fellow American Jews in this city will resist the urge to wag a holier-than-thou finger and indulge in the all-too-common tendency to blame the entire Iranian community for the sins of a few individuals. For one thing, that’s rather reminiscent of what the non-Jewish majority did to the Jewish minority in Iran, Russia and even in this country up until the 1950s. It wasn’t right then, and it’s not right now. More importantly, I dare say that Iranian Jews are as Jewish and as American as all the parents and grandparents of the current “native” population. Like us, your parents prized their American citizenship but continued to speak both English and their mother tongue. Like us, they ate both hot dogs and latkes, were made to feel unwelcome in fancy neighborhoods, and were suspected of committing all sorts of offenses, from building unattractive houses to taking over the world.
But I digress.
In the three decades since the revolution, Iranian Jews tried to embrace the best of Western culture while maintaining the positive aspects of their own. The jury’s still out on how well we’ve navigated those waters, but until recently, we were pretty confident that we had indeed gotten one thing right: We had re-created in America a community that, while far from perfect, had nurtured and strengthened us through many a difficult time. Outside our little bubble, the world was moving fast and memories were short, people reinvented themselves with impunity every few years, and nothing was wrong unless the law said so. But inside, we continued to harbor the notion that there were some things in this world a Jew just did not do.
We assumed, for example, that a Jew would not solicit “investments” from other Jews only to use the money to build himself a big, fancy house. Or that a Jew, especially a very observant one, would not empty the trust funds of orphan children into his own wife’s bank accounts. Or rob poor widows to enrich his already wealthy siblings. Or cheat his closest friends to finance his children’s education at expensive Jewish day schools.
We assumed all this with the kind of foolish certainty that had driven the gentleman critic to assert that a Jewish Iranian woman would sooner grow wings than indulge in pleasures of the flesh with a man she was not married to. We were, alas, proven wrong. On the heels of Bernie Madoff and all his lesser likenesses, Iranian Jews discovered their own batch of “toxic assets.” One of them, you may be amused to learn, was our resident literary critic. In a single year, he and his fellow luminaries did to our community what a 1,000 years of being persecuted by the mullahs and 30 years of living outside Iran did not: They took from us the notion that Jews, especially very religious ones, observed a higher threshold of ethical behavior; that a good name had an inherent value that could not be measured in dollars.
If you can’t trust your own, whom can you trust?
We are, today, a wounded and perplexed community. The old laws don’t apply, and the new ones don’t protect against Old World behavior. We cannot enter a deal with a handshake, then expect the courts to enforce what we didn’t deem necessary to put on paper. For us, the question is no longer what a Jew will and will not do; it’s what we, as a community, will and won’t tolerate. It’s whether our increasingly Orthodox rabbis will take a public stand against larceny in our own midst, or choose to look away. Whether our fellow Jews will buy and sell with other people’s money, or pass on profiting from ill-gotten gains. Whether we continue to protect the guilty with our silence and save our hate mail for the young Iranian Jewish reporter who relates the news as it happened in this publication. Instead of yelling at him to stop shaming our community by reporting other Jews’ misdeeds, we could, for example, yell at the wrongdoers and their accomplices and enablers.
It’s a funny thing about shame, you know: Those who are capable of feeling it are inevitably at a disadvantage against the rest. That’s always been in the case. There have always been people who chose wealth in disgrace over the simple honor of a life of hard work and sacrifices. In the old country, this was a real, almost permanent choice. “Everything dies,” the old Persian expression went, “except a name.”
But out here, where bootleggers’ children grow up to become president and a few million can get your name above a school or synagogue door, who’s to say that’s not a false choice? Commit the crime, weather the storm, then go out and purchase an even better name than you had before. The question, for our community, is whether we’ll go the American way and buy and sell a name as easily as a used car, or whether we’ll pause, and remember, and stay true to our own heritage.
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.