Transforming the warmth of the Persian community into something new
As an Iranian Jew, I take pride in the warmth, hospitality, and intense affection and love that is displayed in my community. We greet each other with two kisses and warm hugs. Grandparents do not gently kiss their grandchildren but inhale them with affection, often whispering “gorboonet beram,” — I will die for you — as they shower them with love. We are a community that has survived and thrives on attending social gatherings, whether it is weekly dorehs (card games) held in people’s homes, massive weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, brises, funerals, or the weekly Shabbat gathering.
It is not uncommon to have three to four generations in one home for Shabbat dinner. If you are lucky enough to attend an Iranian Shabbat, you will be inundated with delicious and bountiful food, the chaos of children running around, and the adults joyously gathering together. And Shabbat dinners are not the only time when we visit family.
Because it is common for Iranian Jews to live next to their families, or at least in the same city, seeing your grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins numerous times a week is common for most families. Social cohesion helped us survive as a religious minority in Iran and it is what keeps the community thriving in secular America. For better or for worse, the community is interconnected in many ways and has maintained its insularity because we have had the luxury of doing so.
Thus, the pandemic has hit the Iranian Jewish community in a very difficult way. Our big Shabbat dinners, dorehs, and parties have been put on hold indefinitely. More importantly, grandparents, who play an active role in raising their grandchildren, cannot spend time with them and truly feel the loneliness of isolation.
Who knows what our tight-knit, affectionate, “invite everyone and their mother to a party” community will be like after the pandemic?
Are double-sided kisses going to be replaced with the hand on the heart bow that is common among older men in our community? Are people going to feel comfortable going to synagogue or attending a 500-person wedding or funeral? Social cohesion has maintained a tight family dynamic and has defined our community for centuries. How will the community rebound and interact with each other after the pandemic? How will the community be transformed?
I have spoken to Iranian Jews who have said they cannot wait to start seeing friends and family at dorehs and parties. They plan on attending social gatherings once the pandemic is over, but they are going to be mindful of kissing and hugging people. Iranians are social people; I do not think they will be able to truly give that up.
However, what people might give up, at least for some time after the pandemic, is the desire — or at times, the pressure due to social obligations — to invite what feels like everyone in the community to their celebrations. While some people love having large social gatherings and inviting immediate and distant family members, relatives of relatives, friends, and business associates, others find it financially burdensome and socially exhausting.
The pandemic will provide a socially acceptable way to have more intimate gatherings and excuses to not attend larger functions. It will mostly transform the way Iranian Jews show affection: Physical affection will most likely be reserved for close family members in order to protect the elders in our community.
There is a deep respect and veneration of elders in the family. They are our lifeline to our past — a past that as first- and second-generation Iranian Jews, we will most likely never experience firsthand in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I have faith that members of the community will do everything they can to protect the vulnerable in our community. If that means we need to forego large social gatherings and physical greetings for a while after the pandemic to keep each other safe, we will.
While our matriarchs will shower us with affection and whisper gorboonet beram, we definitely do not want that to be taken literally.
Dr. Saba Soomekh is the Assistant Director of Interreligious and Intercommunity Affairs at AJC-LA and a lecturer at The Academy for Jewish Religion-CA. Professor Soomekh is the editor of the book Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in America (Purdue University Press, 2016) and the author of the book From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women between Religion and Culture (SUNY Press, 2012).