May 21, 2019

Trick Or Treat. Or Sukkah.

Photo by PxHere

In November 2014, I moderated a panel on the future of American Jewry at 30 Years After’s fourth biennial Civic Action conference at the Skirball Cultural Center. Only this time, the topic was the future of Iranian-American Jews, and a heated conversation began that, for me, actually foretold the future of our community with tangible clarity.

Simon Etehad, former president of Nessah synagogue, passionately argued that Iranian-American Jews ought to focus more on their Jewish identities than their Persian or American ones. Writer and Jewish Journal contributor Gina Nahai said she saw nothing wrong with our community practicing Persian and American customs.

At one point, Etehad said something I’ll never forget. His voice resonating with frustration, he demanded to know why, at that time of the year, there were so many Halloween decorations on the front lawns of local Iranian Jews and so few sukkahs. 

His question was met with thunderous applause from half of the audience. Nahai then reminded everyone that our community was Persian, so why would we want to shed the proud, millennia-old heritage that made us so distinct? Besides, we were in America now. 

Her response, too, was met with wild applause from half of the room, which consisted of roughly 800 Persian Jews between the ages of 21 and 60.

There you had it. Two Persian Jews, both immersed in their local community in Los Angeles, albeit in different ways, literally arguing over whether Persian Jews had any business putting up fake skeletons on their front lawns when they should have erected sukkahs.

I was enthralled by both the audience’s embrace or rejection of their assertions. Half of the Persians in the room wanted something like Halloween because they believed they could compartmentalize their identities —Iranian, American and Jewish — while still not losing anything. The other half was clearly concerned that such an ancient Jewish community was at risk of losing itself by embracing very non-Jewish practices. 

“Iranian-American Jewish families who enthusiastically embrace very non-Jewish, but very American, traditions like Halloween should ask themselves whether their kids exude as much excitement over Jewish traditions.”

I had to admit that I never once heard of my ancestors dressing up like vampires. My paternal grandfather was famous for the joy he derived from setting up his sukkah in Tehran each fall, and my great-grandparents were too busy suffering in Iran’s Jewish ghettos to pass out candy to children in costumes. 

Before I began to observe Shabbat roughly six years ago, I attended a Halloween party on a Friday night, hosted by one of my young Persian Jewish friends. It was October 2008, and I came dressed as Sarah Palin. Since I would always be home with family on Friday nights, I felt a little strange to be pushing my way through hundreds of other young Persian Jews who, like me, had clearly chosen Halloween over Shabbat. I knew that their butts also should have been back home, fighting over rice. 

And then I realized that the young party guests had enjoyed Shabbat dinner with their families and then left for the party. They, like me, had tried to dip a toe into both worlds. 

But at the end of the day, we don’t pass down costumes, but customs. 

Our children learn by watching our values in action. They can either see us sweating over getting the sukkah just right (or lamenting that we don’t have room for one) or watch us struggle to put fake witches on the front lawn. 

For Iranian-American Jewish families who enthusiastically embrace very non-Jewish, but very American, traditions like Halloween (which I used to love as a kid), I implore that they ask themselves whether their kids exude as much excitement over Jewish traditions. 

I don’t know if it’s too late. Perhaps more than a toe has been dipped; perhaps the entire foot is now in the cauldron.  

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.