The dream of a beautiful bat mitzvah — but whose dream would it fulfill?


For my daughter to have a bat mitzvah would be a dream come true — but for whom, for her or for me? Throughout my life, people have told me that I am only half Jewish, as my father is Jewish and mother is Japanese Buddhist, although Reform Jews now recognize children of Jewish fathers as Jews. I remember my own childhood as a series of colorful feasts of Jewish and Japanese tastes. But I still hunger for more meaningful cultural and religious traditions, as I had no formal rites of passage, no opportunity to study for a bat mitzvah or a tea ceremony.

Growing up with a Jewish father and Japanese mother did not mean I visited double the number of temples during holidays, like some special at your favorite restaurant. Instead I watched longingly as Jewish kids celebrated Chanukah and Japanese kids celebrated the Shichi-go-san, a festival for girls and boys that celebrates the 3rd, 5th and 7th birthday. At my house we celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday.

While life in my family was always amusing and entertaining as a multicultural and interfaith family, we sacrificed both cultures and faiths in the interest of supposed peace and avoidance of cultural conflict and disharmony. As a result, the absence of religious and ethnic identity has left me longing for a personal identity I am just now beginning to find.

When I look at my daughters, I see their faces as both azoy shayne and uruwashii, “so beautiful” in Yiddish and in Japanese. I hope they never have to share my experience of being shunned and shamed for not belonging truly to either one culture or another. As a child I found it laborious and dispiriting to explain to Jewish and Japanese kids why I did not look just like them with either perfectly straight or wavy hair.

We celebrated holidays with few customs except culinary ones, with both miso and chicken soup served at the celebratory table. Growing up with Jewish and Japanese parents meant I lived among two distinct cultures, with an identity that was less secure and more obscure. As I did back then, I continue to long for a stronger sense of my Jewish culture, as well as to be considered simply Jewish rather than half.

Since my parents were artists who believed individual faith was a personal decision, even for small children, there are no marked passages to remember. Except if you count the afternoon I wore my grandmother’s silk kimono with my best friend’s prayer shawl to a Jewish deli in Hollywood. OK, I concede, there were no ceremonies — but that was certainly a rite of passage!

I suppose I should listen to sympathetic friends who attempt to console me.

“Saying you’re only half-Jewish is like saying you’re only half-pregnant,” says one. “Even a bit Jewish means you’re one of the tribe!” he continues, as he passes me a piece of bacon.

Remind me not to consult him should I decide to make a kosher home.

Or there is my friend who lists all the “cool” famous people who are half-Jewish, like Sean Penn, Harrison Ford and Gloria Steinem. Even Geraldo Rivera got to have a bar mitzvah, although his mother was Jewish.

My middle daughter looked at me the other day and said, “Mommy, I think I am a Jewish girl. Can I attend Hebrew school like Daddy did?”

“Yes,” I answered, as I kissed her tan, cool forehead. “You are a Jewish girl, and you will know all of the traditions I never did.”

As my daughter will soon turn 10, my husband laments that she has not received any formal Jewish education. Dancing the hora at weddings, watching the Marx Brothers and trying on his yarmulke for laughs does not count.

Unlike me, my husband had a bar mitzvah when most ceremonies were still respectable, unlike a bat mitzvah I attended in which I couldn’t figure out which person on stage was the rapper for hire or rabbi for hire. Maybe they were the same person.

I can think of no parent who does not wish more for their children than they had, but I remain in a quandary: Do I wish my girls to have a bat mitzvah celebration because I missed out, or for more honorable reasons? Many American Jewish families consider having a bar or bat mitzvah to be the sole experience of their children’s Jewish education, a symbolic occasion securing them in the Jewish tradition.

Indeed, I have decided this is a gift I will give to our daughters, who are confident that they are Jewish and deserve to study in the traditional way all the more. Perhaps I am no different than my Jewish sisters and brothers, as I too want to ensure that my daughters feel secure in their Jewish identity, with this celebration a testament to their strong cultural history. The worst that might happen might be that they would study for a few years, receive a little more gelt than guilt and experience a valuable celebration they would neither be able to forget, nor wish to.

In the meantime, I have dreams of what my own bat mitzvah might have been like in laid-back, lackadaisical 1970s Southern California, when many expectations and traditions for children were abandoned, leaving many members of my generation feeling abandonment.

I see myself in a proper but pretty dress from my favorite Sears catalog I used to keep in a drawer by my bed. I am in a beautiful L.A. temple near my father’s Beverly Hills boyhood home and I begin to chant from the Torah in my songbird voice, while both my Jewish and Japanese relatives are verklempt and tokui — overcome with emotion and pride in two languages.

Too many mazel tovs and kisses are given to count, and my lyrical mother gently fixes a velvet ribbon in my hair while my father tells me how proud he is.

After that, my dream is not so clear, although there is some blurry vision of overeating knishes and California rolls simultaneously until I have to lie down, something I am still guilty of today.

Somebody please call the doctor.

Francesca Biller-Safran is an investigative print and broadcast journalist and recipient of The Edward R. Murrow Award. She specializes in political and social inequalities and is currently working on a book about her background. She is married with three daughters, lives in the Bay Area and can be reached at fsafran@hotmail.com.

Reprinted with permission from InterfaithFamily.com.


‘Mixed’ marriages lose stigma among Iranians


If Arash Saghian’s recent marriage had taken place in the late 1980s or early 1990s, he would likely have faced ostracism from Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community. The family of the 25-year-old businessman might have also frowned upon the match, all because his spouse Maya was Ashkenazi.

A few years after fleeing the chaos of Iran’s revolution in 1979 and setting up new roots in Southern California, parents and families in the insular Iranian Jewish community were fearful of losing their customs and the traditional form of Judaism they practiced. For these reasons, many in the community rejected or were fearful of their children marrying Jews from other cultures.

But my, how times have changed.

With today’s Iranian Jews now an important thread in the fabric of Jewish Los Angeles, the community has softened its approach to these so-called mixed marriages. For their part, the Saghians were married in what has almost become a normal occurrence for many younger Iranian Jews.

“Being Jewish is the most important part of the marriage,” Saghian said. “The families have different cultures, but when they see their children are happy and continuing the Jewish traditions … that matters more.”

Saghian is one of a growing number of Iranian Jews marrying Ashkenazi Jews because of their shared level of religiosity. But the trend is also growing among Iranian Jews on the secular end of the religious spectrum.

Dr. Nahid Pirnazar, a professor of Judeo-Persian history at UCLA, said marriage between Iranian Jews and other Jews is not a new phenomenon since many other immigrant Jewish groups have done the same after becoming Americanized over time.

“Thirty or 25 years ago, you wouldn’t see Iranian Jews going to see baseball or basketball games, or musical shows and plays, but now they own suites at the Staples Center or boxes at the Hollywood Bowl,” Pirnazar said. “Today, we as a community are becoming more assimilated, so having an American member in the family is not an inconvenience but a sign of sophistication.”

Pirnazar, whose husband is an American Jew, said many Iranian Jews who were living in the United States as students prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution were open to marriage with non-Iranian Jews, since the Iranian Jewish community was small at that time. Disagreements over finding a spouse from the Iranian Jewish community only arose after the older generation of Iranian Jews immigrated to the United States and were unfamiliar with other Jewish groups.

Iranian Jewish matchmaker Asher Aramnia, who volunteers his time out of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana, said there were hesitations even back in Iran. Prior to the revolution, marriages between Jews from different cities in Iran were often difficult for families to accept, he said.

“In Iran, in each city the Jewish community was fairly small and everyone knew one another so they could ask around about a family’s background,” Aramnia said. “But when a Jewish man from Shiraz, for example, wanted to marry a Jewish woman in Hamedan, there would be problems because each of the couple’s families had no idea what the other family was like or what their traditions were like.”

Aramnia, who has been married for more than 50 years, also said younger Iranian Jews today have no problems marrying Jews of European and Middle Eastern descent largely because their families have become more tolerant.

“Iranian Jews 25 years ago had heard rumors that American Jews did not want to be married for life, so there were hesitancies to marry with them since our community does not easily accept divorces,” he said. “But now, after they’ve seen so many long and successful marriages with American Jews, the doubts have disappeared.”

When Jaleh Naim’s daughter Neda met a Brazilian Jew at the USC dental school 10 years ago, the mother of three didn’t know how to take it at first.

“It was very hard for me to accept their relationship because we had no idea what his background was like,” Naim said. “But today they’re very happy together and that’s all I want.”

Dr. Morgan Hakimi, an L.A.-based Iranian Jewish psychologist, said despite the language and cultural differences, Iranian Jews have increasingly chosen to marry into other Jewish groups after having discovered they share common religious values with other Jews.

“We should not underestimate the power of the Jewish religion as a common denominator,” said Hakimi, who is also president of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. “A great foundation that has contributed to overlooking their cultural difference is Jewish knowledge and philosophy that has become the anchor in many of these marriages.”

But many families still frown upon intermarriage with individuals of other faiths, Aramnia said.

“There are a number of Iranian Jewish men who have married non-Jewish Mexicans and Filipinos, which the majority of our families do not approve of,” Aramnia said. “But parents are beginning to be more receptive to their children’s spouses who convert to Judaism.”

As the taboo of marriage to Jews of other cultures continues to abate, even many older Iranian Jews are finding Jewish spouses of Ashkenazi heritage. Gerald Bresler, of Encino, said he married his Iranian Jewish wife 18 years ago after being divorced because he had had positive business dealing with Iranians in Southern California.

“When I met my wife I was not surprised. I liked her mannerisms and everything about her,” said Bresler, who is in his 60s. “I think American Jewish men are attracted to Iranian Jewish women because they really try to please the man.”

Bresler said some older Jewish couples where the women is an Iranian and the man is an American have been successful because of the level of respect the couples have for one another.

“With the older generation in Iran, the male is more dominant than the female, whereas in the American culture men treat women equally,” Bresler said. “So I think if anything, Iranian Jewish women might be interested in marrying an American Jew because they might feel more equal.”

Many in the L.A. Iranian Jewish community feel the trend will continue as long as the marriages remain successful. Hakimi said the common ingredients in the relationships that continue to work have been “love, respect and tolerance for one another’s differences.”

Our Hollywood moment: An article in three acts


Prologue

One of many things that I’ve learned over the last several years is that many roads in L.A. lead to Hamilton High School. Hamilton sits at the strange but fertile delta of Beverlywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City and a couple of markedly less fortunate neighborhoods. It is a school at a crossroads, much like Alan Kaplan was himself. A founder of the school’s humanities magnet, Kaplan had run into a critical mass of trouble. His fiery teaching style and philosophical emphasis on racial inequality as a foundation of American history had always fueled admiration among most students and consternation among some parents. The parents most unsettled were African Americans who felt that Kaplan’s focus on slavery and its modern legacy was inappropriate and ultimately demeaning. By the spring of 1999, a group of about a dozen parents had organized and charged Kaplan — a Jewish man — with racism, calling for the school district to take action.

The newspaper I worked for, the L.A. Weekly, dispatched me to Hamilton to see what I could find out. Kaplan did not want to be interviewed, but I kept asking.

Finally he agreed to talk, on a Sunday afternoon. I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to open the door when I rang the bell at his place in Encino. I found him blunt, wary, impolitic, impulsive, bull-headed, but also gracious and idealistic, fascinating and fiercely committed to his students. I decided he was not a racist. I wrote my story. He kept his job.

That initial meeting, as it happened, was the start of something entirely unexpected. Within a year, we were engaged. That was the fairy-tale ending of one story, but the prelude to another — our Hollywood moment.

Dramatis personae:
Erin Aubry Kaplan — a writer, black
Alan Kaplan — a schoolteacher, Jewish
Michael Siegel — a literary agent
Michael Maren — a screenwriter
Various skeptics and supporters

ACT I: The Proposition

(Scene 1: A cubicle at the L.A. Weekly)

The phone on my desk is ringing. It’s late. I don’t want to answer. I have an uneasy, semi-permanent feeling it’s the parent group that once wanted me to write about the awful transgressions of Mr. Kaplan. The Mr. Kaplan who is now my fiancĂ©. The parents are probably still fuming, and objectively speaking, I don’t blame them. I hardly understand it myself. When I first met him, I could see right off that Mr. Kaplan — Alan — had a roguishness and rough-edged charm that hooked pubescent students, but I didn’t think it would work on me. Of course, I didn’t think I would work on him. The last person he wanted in his life was a black reporter. The last impression I thought I’d get was of a sincere, sensitive but remarkably unguarded white man who offered me dinner in the middle of a very tense interview at his place in Encino. The dinner — a large cube of lasagna and a salad — turned out to be the only food he had left in the house. He set the table and everything. He didn’t eat, just watched me. I was moved. That was the first movement of many, the first movement of an entire symphony. Now we were engaged.

“Erin Aubry? Hi, this is Michael Maren.”

It’s not the parent group. I relax a little.

“I know this is sudden, and that you don’t know me. But I’m a screenwriter, and I live in New York. And I read your piece in Salon magazine today, and I thought it was really terrific.”

For Salon.com, I’d written, “The Color of Love,” a concise account of my unlikely romance with the guy who was falsely cast as the West Coast incarnation of David Duke. Alan was not a mercenary like David Duke, plus he was a lot more chivalrous. I thank Michael for his feedback. Nice way to end the day.

“There’s something else.” Michael pauses. “I think this would make a great screenplay.” Another pause. “It’s got all the elements — love, race, conflict, story arc, resolution. And it says a lot about L.A., things that don’t normally get said. I’d like your permission to shop it around.”

“Shop it around?” I hear myself say the words. I’m sitting up straight. I glance out my window at the Hollywood Hills. I listen.

“Yes. You know, pitch some studios and networks. I’m thinking HBO would be a good bet. They do original ideas, and I’ve written for them before…”….
He’s a former journalist, now a full-time screenwriter, a real one, who wants my story. Our story.

I start to feel floaty, giddy. A tiny bit self-important.

“I think that’ll be fine,” I say. “But I need to talk it over with Alan. It’s his story, too.”

(Scene 2: The kitchen of the writer’s apartment)

I have to break this to Alan the right way. My future husband is an idealist who likes movies but hates Hollywood, at least as a concept. Parties, paparazzi, Oscar fashions, actors dating models, models dating actors, celebrity hangouts, production trailers that screw up street traffic — he hates all of it.

Like me, he’s a native Angeleno. That’s part of our connection. He grew up in Sepulveda, a rarely filmed part of town; I grew up in equally unglamorous South Central. His favorite places to eat are old-line diners like Norm’s, which has twilight meal deals and takes coupons. He also likes the eternal two-tacos-for-99-cents special at Jack in the Box. To Alan, the pretensions of Hollywood and the film industry exist purely to threaten a better, simpler, more straightforward L.A. that’s disappearing by the acre, like the Amazon rainforest. One of his biggest fears is that one day, Hollywood will discover Jack in the Box and make it chic.

“Honey,” I call out, “you’ll never guess who called me at work today.”
Alan looks at me over his reading glasses. He’s in the kitchen, a newspaper spread on the counter, his fist in a box of dry granola. He hates milk.