Shannon Delijani was 14 years old, enjoying a cousin’s wedding ceremony, when an older Persian man spotted her, sat down next to her and started telling her about his son: He’s tall, he’s a doctor, he owns his own house …
“I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, this is happening,’ ” said Delijani, now 21. “I had heard about this but I didn’t think it would happen so soon.”
Unsure how to react, Delijani complied with the man’s request for her phone number and full name. When he finally asked her age and she told him, he gazed pensively into the distance. After a long pause, he patted her on the shoulder and conceded, with great disappointment, that she was too young for his 27-year-old son.
Delijani and other Persian Jews know this matchmaking ritual as khastegari, a word that loosely translates to “proposal” but denotes the elaborate Persian courtship custom that precedes the formal offer. What sets khastegari apart from ordinary matchmaking among Jews is the overt, active role families play in arranging matches for their children, sometimes meeting the potential suitor before the couple even plans a first date.
In its most traditional form, a suitor — the khastegar — and his family visit a young woman’s home to evaluate her family over tea and pastries. If the families approve of one another, the couple gets their blessings for a first date or even an engagement. Sometimes the children have a say in the selection; sometimes they don’t.
Several generations and one American migration later, the essential values of khastegari still are entrenched in the landscape of Persian-Jewish dating in Los Angeles, with parental involvement replacing dating apps and bar scenes in the dating lives of many young Persians. The custom is a source of amusement for many young women, who have coined the slang verb “khastegared” and trade stories with friends about awkward encounters like Delijani’s.
For her part, Delijani said she doesn’t mind when adults try to set her up with their relatives. She said every time she tells a non-Persian friend about the custom, they ask if her mom can set them up, too.
“Everyone always complains about not being able to meet people [to date], but here we have this built-in system for meeting someone,” Delijani said.
She’s not exaggerating when she says built in: It’s not rare for single Persian Jews to throw implicit “khastegari parties” with the intention of letting friends scope out potential marriage partners.
Delijani attributed the roots of khastegari to the centrality of family in Persian-Jewish culture, which makes parental involvement a major factor in shaping their children’s lives.
Shaina Pakravan, a master’s candidate at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, created a short film called “Roksana,” based on her mother’s and grandmother’s khastegari experiences. The film, which won a 2015 Short Short Story Film Festival award, follows a young woman with obsessive-compulsive tendencies as she sits awkwardly through a first meeting with a potential suitor and his parents.
Pakravan, 25, said she rarely sees formal khastegari rituals among her own generation. Still, she said, Persian culture’s communal nature persists in the United States despite the influence of American individualism. Meeting a potential spouse’s family still factors heavily into the course of Persian dating, as young adults know how big of a role their in-laws will play in their married lives.
In a sense, Persian Jews marry families, not individuals.
Afshin met his girlfriend of seven months, Arezou (their names have been changed to protect their privacy), through a modern twist on khastegari, as a pair of cousins decided the two might make a good match. One of Afshin’s cousins called Arezou’s parents for their blessing to arrange a date, then called Afshin’s parents for their permission, and somehow Arezou’s number made its way into Afshin’s phone.
They did make a good match, and after a first date at a Santa Monica bar, Afshin said he was surprised by how easy it was to connect with Arezou based on shared cultural background and values, as vetted by their relatives.
“Persian-Jewish women’s mental algorithm might be stronger than, like, dating apps,” Afshin said. He thinks it is the primacy of marriage in Persian culture that lends Persian women their sharp instinct for matchmaking.
“In American culture, if you want to stay single, that’s an acceptable lifestyle choice,” Afshin said. “In Persian-Jewish culture, if you want to stay single, then there’s something wrong with you.”
The tight-knit nature of the Persian-Jewish community provides the intimate knowledge of who’s who that strategic matchmaking requires. Coupled with the fact that Persian Jews tend to travel in familiar circles, khastegari can happen anytime, anywhere — even on Tu b’Av, a Jewish holiday of love, which starts on Aug. 6.
“Ashkenazi women are not going to do matchmaking in the parsley section of Elat Market,” Afshin said, referring to the kosher Persian supermarket on Pico Boulevard. “When they go to Whole Foods or Ralph’s, they’re probably not going to bump into a bunch of people they know.”
Among the qualities matchmaking mothers look for are a similar degree of Jewish observance, an education level and profession that match the caliber of one’s own family, and, above all, a solid family reputation in the Persian-Jewish community. Stains on a family history could be a deal breaker, Afshin said. People talk.
In traditional Persian circles, if a woman dated a man for too long and the relationship fell apart, she was marked as damaged goods, said Homa Halimi Nassirzadeh, a Persian-Jewish marriage and family therapist.
Nassirzadeh, who was courted by a number of khastegars when she was young and single, said she appreciates that modern life in Los Angeles has dissolved much of the intimate knowledge Persian-Jewish families have of one another. She said it’s good for kids to approach the dating scene without too many boundaries — save, perhaps, that they date someone Jewish.
Nassirzadeh said she finds that some of the Persian parents she counsels are apprehensive about today’s upside-down approach to dating, in which children introduce their parents into the equation only after their relationship has gotten serious.
“The biggest struggle for my generation is to shut our mouths,” Nassirzadeh said. “My advice to parents is usually, ‘Leave your kids alone and let them live their own lives.’ ”
Shirin Kohan, 32, said she feels strongly that a relationship between two adults is none of their parents’ business. She thinks some of her Persian peers mistake parental control for parental care.
“I think ‘khastegaring’ is the first step where marital problems begin,” Kohan said. “If you’ve started allowing other people into your relationship from the beginning, it’s a step in the wrong direction.”
Kohan noted that khastegari generally involves a man and his family soliciting a younger woman’s family, which she said objectifies women by denying them agency apart from their parents. The language surrounding the ritual suggests the same: The khastegar is the only named actor, whereas a female subject is only implied.
Delijani said it is not unusual to hear of Persian adults keeping an eye on girls in elementary school as potential spouses for their teenage sons, focusing specifically on the girls who come from prominent families.
“[Khastegari] is dehumanizing,” Kohan said. “It’s unhealthy and I don’t think it’s working in California in this day and age.”
To young Persian Jews like Afshin and Arezou, however, khastegari is a valuable tool to meet a compatible partner, no better or worse than a dating app.
“It feels natural [with Arezou] because we have a common cultural connection,” Afshin said. “I can’t say that it isn’t organic. It is.”
Khastegari is yet another iteration of the eternal contests that play out in Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities alike — tradition vs. modernity, parental oversight vs. independence, and arranged vs. spontaneous dating. It’s another gray area where Persian-Jewish families can negotiate the lines of assimilation and identity.
“[Khastegari] is just part of being a first-generation insert-something-here American,” Delijani said. “Everyone has to deal with these cultural clashes. But at the end of the day, these are our traditions.”