September 18, 2019

My First Chanukah Gift

I received my very first Chanukah gift when I was 26 years old. But that is only because it was my first Chanukah in the United States.

In Iran, we did not exchange gifts on Chanukah. So when my friend Cindy placed the huge gift in my arms at a Chanukah party, I asked, embarrassed: “Oh, do you give gifts on Chanukah? I didn’t know that! Sorry, I don’t …”

Cindy, with a big smile, stopped me and said, “Don’t worry, welcome to America.”

I looked at the big wrapped gift on which Cindy’s handwriting read: “Dear Mojdeh, welcome to the United States/ From Cindy and Tom.”

I opened the package, and there was a big U.S. flag-patterned blanket inside. Overwhelmed by my first Chanukah gift ever, my bed has been covered with that U.S. flag blanket every day since then.

Lt. Col. Cindy Rosen, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, was one of my very first friends in the United States.

Despite the fact that I had many relatives in Los Angeles, I had decided to move to Washington, D.C., where I had only a cousin, with the plan of mingling with American Jews and finding new friends there and pursuing the career I loved.

I arrived in this country on a Wednesday, and after some research and discussions, figured that a Conservative synagogue would be closest to my Persian Jewish culture. Only four days after my arrival in this country, I was sitting in the big sanctuary of Adas Israel Congregation of Washington, D.C.

Right after the Shabbat service, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked back and there was Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, the military chaplain of the U.S. Navy. He spoke with me, asking a few questions, and warmly introduced me to so many other great people over the next few minutes in the shul, among whom Cindy Rosen was the first one. That day, I, as a lonely newcomer who did not know anyone except a cousin in that city, became friends with tons of wonderful people who touched my life deeply. That Shabbat, after the services, time flew by faster than I realized, and I was concerned that my cousin would be worried, wondering where I was. In the apartment where many of the young Jews of the synagogue were invited for a Shabbat lunch, Cindy guided me to a bedroom from which I could call my cousin without anybody seeing me using the phone on Shabbat! In reply to my cousin’s question, I said, “I am with my friends, and I am at a friend’s home for lunch.”

I will never forget her surprised and concerned voice: “Friends? Which friends?”

In this way, my unforgettable days in D.C. started. Lt. Col. Cindy Rosen’s life was so inspiring, and I was so proud to have people like her around me. Her devotion to her job and her country, her hard efforts and passion during her tough job, understanding that she was one of few Jewish women who could reach this rank in the Marines, made me a prouder Jew. And, of course, her life and work has inspired so many other people, I am sure. The appreciation ceremonies held for her, the articles about her courageous life published in the media Is all proof.

Although I left D.C. in about a year, my connection with Cindy continued. Shortly after, Cindy moved to San Diego to run communications for Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. She attended my wedding in Los Angeles. And I was delighted to hear that she met someone and was planning to get married soon. Then the war with Iraq began. I was shocked when I heard she was going to Iraq before getting married. She was in my prayers every single day until she came back; I remember I read somewhere in the news:

“Lt. Col. Cindy Rosen was sent to Iraq in December but hopes to return to the States by the end of June (2004) in time for her July 4 marriage to Rob Schwartz, a programmer/analyst at the University of California, whom she met in San Diego at a UJA Young Leadership social.”

I was relieved when I heard she had returned safely, and I was proud to be able to attend her wedding, as scheduled on the 4th of July,  2004. Her beautiful ceremony by the beach in La Jolla, Calif., along with the amazing ceremony of the bride walking down the aisle under the spears of two lines of Army officers on both sides, and the 4th of July fireworks right across from the wedding hall.

And I, of course, brought her a gift.

Mojdeh Sionit Afshani is a mother and writer in Los Angeles.