My younger brother is currently a bona fide atheist who observes Yom Kippur because my mother stopped ordering him to. Ten years ago, post bar mitzvah, he had a revelation and decided to observe the sabbath. “Why are you doing this to us? We didn’t raise you to this way!” was my parents’ outcry. They have a fear of fundamental observance of Judaism–or any religion for that matter–and believe in a more moderate, traditional form of worship. They have never explained why, not because they’re keeping their reasons a secret, but because they think it’s obvious. “Religious people are crazy,” they say. Granted I agree with them, I want to know why they have not tried to compensate for being ostracized and persecuted by being more “Jewishy” like many immigrants do when they move to the States and relish in their new found freedom.
My family and I are Sephardic Jews from Iran and moved to the States in the early 90’s. I was in the third grade when I started going to a Jewish private school that resembled a refugee camp more than it did a school. They catered to a large immigrant population, mainly kids from Iran and Russia. I’m sure my parents figured since there were other Iranian kids at this school, the transition wouldn’t be much of a shock; they were right. The language transition was doable, especially since my little brother and I were young and absorbed English quickly (thanks to “Saved by the Bell” and other television shows that supplemented our ESL lessons). The bigger cultural shock they should have been concerned with was the transition to orthodox Judaism with its strict rules – 613 of them to be exact – labeling us as idol worshippers for drooling over teeny-bopper movie stars, and pagans for giving out Winnie the Pooh Valentines.
It was very difficult to learn the difference between religion and tradition; what’s worth practicing and what’s just a bunch of archaic lies. In school we were taught every rule that must be complied with during the holiest holidays. On Yom Kippur, for example, we are not allowed to wear leather or gold, brush our teeth , wash our hands past the knuckles, or gossip. While I can care less about not being allowed to wash my hands past the knuckle, I refuse to not brush my teeth, if not for the sake of hygiene, at least for the sake of those around me. Gossiping and updating my knowledge about the community is part of the whole spiritual process. When and if I go to synagogue, I solely go for the gossip. It is much more interesting to know who got a boob job and for how much rather than listen to a bunch of men moaning in a language they don’t understand to a god they can’t prove exists.
Not that we are an exception. My parents still listen to the Muslim prayer, the namaaz on the Iranian radio, especially on the eve of Yom Kippur. Our highest holiday coincides with Islam’s holiest month of Ramadan, where they too fast but for a much longer period of time. My parents have learned to associate the two grave holidays together and don’t leave for synagogue until the mullah is done singing. The Arabic prayer is as foreign to them as the Hebrew prayers but equally beautiful and sacred. “What’s the difference?” my dad defends, “both our heavens hate ham.”
Despite what conclusions you may have come to by now, I do fast on Yom Kippur. My favorite part of the holiday is obviously when it’s over. After hearing the shofar, we go home to eat the chilled, sugary dish called faloodeh reserved for this occasion. Days before the holiday, my mother invests in ripe green and red apples and shreds them into strings of crisp strands, covers them with tons of rose water and sugar and lets it sit in the fridge. If not for my ancestors, god, or the guilt my mother drives in me, I fast to earn the flavor of cold fireworks in my mouth after 25 hours of dry hunger. Meanwhile, the phone doesn’t stop ringing, and when it’s not ringing, one of my parents is dialing friends and family to say “Ghabool baasheh inshalah,” (may god accept your fast). He better.
I don’t believe god cares that much whether we go a day without food. If he does exist, and is as omnipotent, omniscient and other omni-related adjectives, then he is probably not too impressed by a fast–would you be if you had created the world in seven days? I can’t even finish doing laundry in that span of time. He’s seen it over and over again, much like with New Years resolutions; we repent and promise to be better but of course, it never happens. We continue to lie, cheat, steal, gossip, humiliate, and exploit (not necessarily in that order) and most of the time we are not aware of it because our daily lives consist of more important things, like funding your Starbucks coffee addiction.
My parents could care less about the superfluous details of Yom Kippur (mainly because they don’t know of them besides the not eating part), but god help us if we don’t fast or make a cameo at synagogue to hear the shofar. They found a spiritual release in the process of denying yourself the basic needs such as food and water, and bowing your head as the commanding sound of the shofar reprimanded and reminded you of your infallibility. But as a child I didn’t know how to separate secular spirituality with rules and commandments. I often confronted my dad with the lessons we had learned in school, hoping he would clarify some of their teachings that contradict what we do; his answer was, and still echoes today, “We’re Sephardic.” In other words, “rules we find inconvenient don’t apply to us.”
Being a Sephardic Jew is a blessing especially during Passover. While the Eastern European Jews are restricted in their diet, we can eat all the rice, legumes, chick peas, popcorn and peanut butter-covered Matzahs we want. This is due to geographical misunderstanding, and since these grains are a staple food, the ancient rabbis decided it’s okay. (They checked with god and he gave them the holy thumbs up.) In reality, this has nothing to do with what’s considered divine. It’s just practical; if we followed the rules of Eastern European Jews, we’d starve to death.
Passover was the most difficult holiday to observe in Iran because there were no kosher-for-Passover cereals, chocolates and cakes like there is here. Fortunately, because I was so young, I don’t remember being deprived. But my mother never fails to remind me, when I prefer to sleep in than go to synagogue on the first or second day of Passover, how spoiled and ungrateful I am. “We couldn’t even eat cheese!” she would recall as she shook her head in disappointment at my negligence.
She’s right. We are spoiled today. Passover has turned into a multi million dollar industry where kosher-for-Passover everything is sold in every Jewish market defeating the whole point of having to suffer in the first place; our ancestors did not have coffee cakes and macaroons while stranded in the desert. Of course if I really cared about empathizing with my people, I would boycott any imitation desserts altogether. But I’d like to think that if the Jews had a choice not to suffer in the desert, they wouldn’t.
Besides a lucrative food industry, the holidays are also mating season for most Iranian Jews. Although this is not necessarily a bad thing–many have been happily married as a result of the pheromones of Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana or Passover–it’s not how I prefer to meet my future ex husband. For one, no man is worth spending a day hungry, hot, and bored, listening to the sanctimonious preaching of a rabbi who interrupts himself every so often to remind everyone to donate money. “ ‘Great is repentance, for the deliberate sins of one who repents become as inadvertent ones.’ By the way, we are selling the yad Torah starting at 150 dollars. Please start your bids.” This after you have already invested a fair sum for a seat in the synagogue (or the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel disguised as a synagogue by some Jewish businessman who probably spends Passover eating a BLT sandwich).
Besides the hypocrisy, I avoid synagogue because of the mothers whose eyes wander away from the heavy book in the palms, lip-syncing the prayer along with the congregation, all the while scavenging the room for girls to offer as eligible wives for their sons. Like NFL recruiters, they watch, observe and come to conclusions about whether the modestly-put-together girl is the right shape, type, social class and complexion for their lawyer, doctor or engineer son, who in reality is in the lucrative business of insurance fraud.
But the mothers are not the sole culprits of this subtle, legal form of human trafficking. The girls are themselves on the prowl and use this occasion to get dolled up with a new suit, waiting for someone to notice them. They exaggerate their virtues and pray ardently with their heads bowed, holding a heavy sidoor, pretending to follow the cantor with eyes glued on the page. Chances are they are wondering why they have not yet been approached by one of the mothers for their phone number. They send a desperate and urgent glance at their mothers who are having similar concerns. Something must have gone wrong. Do I look fat? Am I on the right page? Do they know I made out with the rabbi’s son in eighth grade? Is my lipstick still on? Or maybe some go because they genuinely want to repent. What do I know, anyway? I never attend, but my failure to do so does not secure me a place in the nose bleed seats of purgatory.
It may be out of strong morals and principles or just laziness that I don’t don on a new outfit and squeeze my way into the crowded congregation. Many people find it ironic that someone with an orthodox Jewish education for eight consecutive years can be so dismissive of her duties and obligations. It’s precisely because of the eight years of education that I have the authority to come to the conclusions I do.
At school we memorized the 10 plagues and even did a demonstration of the bloodshed using grape juice as wine. We had lectures in the assembly room where the boys were separated from and seated in front of the girls (whom, if we’re going to adhere to the principles of the Torah, are second class citizens). The rabbi spoke to us matter-of-factly about the dangers of not observing Passover; we would be cut off from the Jewish religion, disowned by your own people! There would be no place for us in heaven. To a group of elementary school and junior high kids, it is traumatizing to be told you will be ostracized from your faith and family. In retrospect, this is a form of child abuse.
Passover in our home is not an excuse to scare children into false righteousness (leaving them without a trust fund is). It is just another holiday where the family gets together to eat, abuse each other verbally, and in this case physically as well. Somewhere between the first prayers for wine (done in three languages for insurance purposes), the dipping of the Matzah in charoset made of walnuts, cider, honey, and wine, a holy war takes place; we grab fist fulls of green onions, and as soon as whoever is leading the seder gives the cue, dayenu (enough) the onions turn to weapons and everyone is fair target. This is to symbolize the end of persecution from slavery and other forms of oppression. Or the only occasion where you can whip your 92-year old grandmother with an onion and not be reprimanded.
For a good few minutes there are green onions flying across the room, hitting your aunt in the eye, your uncle on his bald head, or your mom’s back while she crawls on the floor cleaning up the mess, pleading with everyone to stop before we ruin the rug. “Please! I just had the carpets washed!” Should you run out of onions, you can throw the nearest produce; cucumbers or lettuce leaves until the one sincere patron attempts to stop the fight and return to prayers (there is always a token religious person to bear the burden of our guilt so we don’t have to). But by the time we do stop, we have forgotten where we left off. In which case the men spend the rest of the night deciding where to continue the Seder from and by the time they decide we have already eaten dinner and on way home. Months later, you will still find strands of dried green onion in the back of the TV, under the couch or in the plants behind the dining room table. The remnants serve as a reminder why you have not run away from home to join the circus, for nights like those.
Whether this is a rite of passage to heaven, no one cares. After all the hustling, drama and hard work everyone goes through during the year, there is nothing more “spiritual” or cathartic than enjoying the living, breathing company around you instead of dwelling on your company in the afterlife.
With my school’s far-fetched rules and antiquated ideas, and my family’s disregard for the soap-box version of god and religion, I don’t know why I still associate with and practice Judaism. Why do I still celebrate (most of) the holidays? Fast on Yom Kippur and even go to synagogue to hear the shofar? Why do I have a strong aversion to pork, know the words to the stupid Dreidel song, want to feed my children excess amounts of guilt and gondy, and relentlessly and beg them to give me grandchildren? I used to believe that I’m no better than the religious people who practice with blind faith when I practice with the full knowledge of its absurdity. But my culture’s practice of Judaism is based on traditions, a passion for life and family, not god. And our tradition dictates that your eldest uncle get drunk on Rosh Hashana and tell you in stealth about how he has slept with every woman from Tehran to Tabriz to remind himself of his lost grandeur; it is tradition for the city of Beverly Hills to cite you for noise violation on a Friday night Shabbat celebration; and it is tradition to ask who’s responsible for the watered-down stew or the anorexic chicken even though we all know exactly which aunt to blame.
Our private school failed to understand the cultural values that supplemented our faith. And while I don’t claim that green-onion warfare is considered a “cultural value,” I would have to argue that if holidays are meant to nurture family bonds and friendships, our somewhat eccentric customs have managed to always encourage and maintain a full house. As I slowly begin to study and understand my family better, I’m learning to be grateful for what they had to go through to maintain their conventions and customs, and give us a strong foundation to build our lives on. I am even considering repressing some of the angst I associate with religion to keep a traditional Jewish home myself someday; sans god, scriptures and ham.