September 20, 2001
Holy Day Matchmaking
Finding a prospective spouse is a part of Yom Kippur in the Iranian community.
In the closely knit Iranian Jewish community of Los Angeles, just about everybody shows up on Yom Kippur for a day of devout prayer -- and for boy to meet girl.
More accurately put, it's the day when the family with a young man of marriageable age looks over the families with young women of marriageable age, and vice versa.
The custom of combining the Day of Atonement with preliminary matchmaking originated in Talmudic times in Jerusalem, in the courtyard and outside the synagogue. In past centuries, young unmarrieds signaled their availability by wearing white shirts and dresses, says Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center in Santa Monica.
Shofet is the foremost spiritual guide of the 30,000-strong Iranian Jewish community and represents the 13th generation in an unbroken line of rabbis. His venerable father, Yedidia Shofet, bore the honorary title of Chief Rabbi of Tehran in the old country.
So important is the introductory ritual, that if a family does not find pleasing prospective partners in one synagogue, it will move on to a second or even third synagogue.
The role of the immediate and extended family in the matchmaking process cannot be overestimated.
"In the old days, young people of marriageable age didn't talk to each other," Shofet says. "It was the parents and other close relatives who explored the social and economic status of a potential partner's family and conducted the negotiations."
With assimilation, some of the old family ties are loosening, but it is still extremely rare for a young Iranian Jew to marry outside the immediate community.
"I know of only one case in which a marriage between an Iranian Jew and an American Jew succeeded, and in that case both bride and groom were Orthodox," Shofet observes.
A second day for matchmaking is the 15th of Av, considered a day of rejoicing, for, among other happy occurrences, the end of the 40-year decree consigning the Israelites to wandering in the desert.
While Iranian Jews do not consider themselves Sephardim, "We follow the Sephardic ritual and prayers with only minute differences," Shofet says.
The rabbi abhors the divisions in American Jewry among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.
"Back home, we were a monolithic community, more or less observant on the outside, but without labels," Shofet recalls. "It was you Americans who taught us that there are various types of Jews, and it's a very bad lesson."
Even in today's Iranian community, "a belief in God and Torah is part of our culture," he adds. "We don't ask if the story of the Exodus is true or not."
The High Holy Days are also the time when Shofet's synagogue and school raise about one-third of their annual budget.
In Iran, the concepts of paying an annual membership fee to belong to a synagogue or purchasing High Holy Days tickets were unknown, a cultural difference that made for numerous misunderstandings when large numbers of Iranian Jews first came to Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early '80s and showed up at established Ashkenazi synagogues.
Until quite recently, the prevalent Iranian custom at services has been to auction off, among the wealthier congregants, such mitzvot and honors as opening the ark, carrying the Torah scrolls and being called up for the reading of the Torah.
These spot auctions often proved tedious and embarrassing, and at the Nessah Center, likely large donors are contacted individually preceding the services.
Shofet notes regretfully that with changing times, and the Nessah Center's planned move to Beverly Hills, "We will have to learn and institute an annual membership fee. Otherwise we can't function."