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Jewish Journal

Persian Youth, Parents Grapple With Culture Gap

"You are American enough to see both [cultures]."

by Mojdeh Sionit

March 6, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Picture a middle-aged Jewish Persian couple who have lived in the United States for years and are concerned about what goes on with their children in this strange and foreign country. They are upset that their daughter disobeys them by studying photography, not medicine, at college, and they cannot understand the comings and goings of their English-speaking younger daughter, because they don't speak English very well.

This dramatization, set on stage at Sinai Temple last month, symbolizes the plight of many Persian families in Los Angeles. Some 200 young Persian American Jews attended "Who Are We Today? Where Are We Going?" a panel discussion on immigrant Jews and their problems, featuring Dr. Mojgan Hakimi, a psychologist who addressed the difficulties new families face in adjusting to life in the United States.

For more than a century, Jews have been immigrating to the United States from around the world, hoping to avoid persecution, enjoy democracy and flourish economically. Most groups follow a similar trajectory -- setting up miniversions of their home communities, such as the Russians in Brighton Beach, or the Germans on the Lower East Side.

Los Angeles is home to 15,000-40,000 Persian Jews, most of whom began arriving in the United States more than 20 years ago. Like many new immigrant communities that have been in the U.S. for some time, the Persian Jewish community now faces a disconnect between the generation born in Iran and those raised primarily in America. It's Tevya's age-old complaint in "Fiddler on the Roof": How does "tradition" fare in the face of modernity?

Rabbi David Wolpe, who hosted the lecture, suggested that it was not the classic generation gap that many families must contend with; Persian Jews must deal with a culture clash between older Iranian Jews, who emphasize respecting elders, insularity and old-country values, and the younger generation who have Americanized enough to absorb individualistic values that fly in the face of the older generation.

Hakimi, who has taught at UCLA and Tel Aviv University, explained that the older generation also has a "fear of being abandoned by the community." Unlike other Jewish American groups that have tried to lose their Jewishness and fit in with American society, many Persian Jews try to segregate themselves from American society, creating a mini-Iran here in Los Angeles, which has its own stores, language culture and entertainment.

"Persian immigrants in Los Angeles, by relying on a materialistic life and practicing a Hollywood [lifestyle], try to avoid being abandoned by society. This is a way they have chosen to be able to keep their identity, to say who they are," Hakimi said.

But this identity, this community enclave, comes at a price: without a solid knowledge of English and America, they cannot understand their children.

One of the few parents in the audience said, "I hate this society, which is keeping our children away from us. They feel shy to introduce us to their friends, they make fun of our English accents, do not like to join us in Persian parties, they keep themselves separate from us."

But the fact is, Wolpe said, the parents themselves chose to live here; they brought them to Los Angeles, yet they are trying not to have them affected by its culture. "And that is the most difficult task," he said.

Haikimi also addressed the marriage problem: In the old country, parents controlled the process, selecting and approving the match. But that process often is at odds with America's dating culture.

"I do not want to marry whoever my parents think is good match for me. This is the old tradition of ... I don't know, maybe the Stone Age! I want to choose my future husband myself," said a 20-something woman in the audience.

Another audience member, who is in his 30s, complained, "I hate when my mom gets me a phone number of someone I have never seen and asks me to call her and to go out with her."

"I am not against Persian traditions for marriage," said Sherry, who is in her early 20s. "What I am mostly against is the control and pressure the parents put on their children in marriage, which leads to their stubbornness."

One solution, Haikimi said, is to learn how to integrate both American and Iranian traditions. "What I want the Persian parents to do is to hold on to those traditions [that] have the potentiality to be practiced in the society," he said.

You cannot force young people to marry the match you have chosen for them or decide what they should study, Hakimi noted.

But the communication problems go both ways. Wolpe told the younger audience members that they should attempt to understand their parents' point of view.

"Now you cannot understand the loss your parents feel; you will feel this loss when your next generation will know nothing of the bit of language and culture you know and learned from your parents," he said. "Even if you cannot read and write in Farsi, you can understand the language of your parents and laugh at the Persian jokes. But, when you face the next generation who will know nothing of these, you will feel the loss, which your parents feel now."

This generation -- whose parents were born in Iran, but who themselves were raised in America -- is in a unique position, Wolpe said.

"In this generation, you are American enough to see both sides of these cultures and lifestyles, so you will [be] the most helpful people to bring the two generations together and solve their problems."  

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