May 20, 2019

The norm, not the exception

Last month, I was honored to be included on the Jewish Journal’s mensch list, and what’s more, I was featured on the cover. The headline read “Not a Typical Persian Girl,” a title I’ve been introduced with just as many times as “executive director.” As you read the artfully written profile, you are able to see why the statement is true. Many know me for opting for a Prius over a BMW or for starting a nonprofit rather than starting law school. As the piece states, not being seen as following the path of a typical Persian girl gave me the space “to make choices that were different.”

Yet, I want to be a typical Persian girl. Or rather, I believe that it is time to redefine what “typical” means, as it is quickly becoming outdated. Every few weeks, I have dinner with a small but growing group of Iranian Jewish 20-somethings that has dubbed itself “Persian Women in Tech and Innovation.” The women in this modern-day “doreh” are establishing their own entrepreneurial companies, influencing national policy and filling out their LinkedIn profiles with master’s degrees and philanthropic work. As much as we discuss upcoming tech or community events, we empathize over relationship pressures and our identity as Iranian women. Just as it did almost 40 years ago when our mothers emigrated to the U.S., what it means to be an Iranian-American-Jewish woman has changed. 

With this new perspective, I realize that each time I was told that I am “not a typical Persian girl” and I nodded in agreement, I did the opposite of what I wanted: I reinforced an outdated and incorrect definition. I think we should be known for more than a closet full of beautiful, black clothing. 

Please know that I have a deep respect for Persian culture and its importance. I studied the Persian language and now spend Sundays with my grandmother reading Persian poetry. I hold a leadership role on the board of 30 Years After and can cook you a khoresht lapeh that could compete with your grandmothers’. These are beautiful traditions. We don’t need to give up big crazy weddings or Shabbats with all 70 of our cousins to create the shift I am asking for. As Persian Jews, we know that our tradition is essential, it is core, but it must evolve to consider where our community is today and how we hope to grow. 

I am writing this follow-up because I want my 13-year-old cousin to know that I am not an anomaly within the community. I want her to know that there are no boundaries that can confine her choices. She can study medicine or architecture and then continue to pursue her career into motherhood; she can struggle like lots of other women to find a work-life balance. She can straighten her hair, wear all black and go to a liberal arts school in Ohio. She can search for her perfect match and for each of these choices, she won’t be judged, one way or another. I want it to be typical for a Persian girl to feel encouraged to choose her own path.

I am deeply thankful to the Jewish Journal for giving me and my work a spotlight. I feel fortunate to have had family and community members who ensured that I followed my passion and only grew my ambitions. This encouragement led me to found Swipe Out Hunger, which has grown to serve 1.2 million meals nationally. Now, I cannot wait to support the next generation of typical Persian girls, just like me.

Rachel Sumekh is executive director of Swipe Out Hunger.