First, an apology.
To the good men and women of the LGBT community at Sinai Temple and everywhere else in the world, on the subject of said temple’s recent announcement that it would henceforth perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, in reference to the mindless, intolerant and hurtful remarks of a few individuals as expressed in letters and e-mails and (it must have been a slow news day at The New York Times) the national press, about the issues of homosexuality, gay marriage and the proper role of rabbis in helping their congregation maintain the standards of decency to which we should all aspire: I’m sorry.
I’m sorry that some people have the audacity to want to deny others the rights and privileges that they, themselves, take for granted. I’m especially sorry that any Jew, ever, would advocate or take part in the exclusion and persecution of another minority; we, of all people, should know better. Finally, I’m sorry that some of the intolerance has been expressed by some members of Sinai Temple’s Iranian-American population. I’m here to tell you that these individuals comprise an unfortunate and quickly fading consortium of little tyrants with big mouths among an otherwise broadminded, albeit too-silent, community. They do not represent me nor any of the legions of Iranians, Jewish or not, who understand the meaning and value of tolerance especially because they’re Iranian.
I realize I have no right to tell people how they should feel about another person or way of life. That some people believe same-sex marriage to be a violation of Jewish law is, really, none of my business. We’re all entitled to our opinions, and, in this country, we all have the right to express those opinions. As this publication’s executive editor, Susan Freudenheim, reported in her column last week, it’s not only the Iranians, or all the Iranians, who have registered displeasure with Sinai Temple’s chosen path. Many have, in fact, come out in support of the rabbis’ decision. Nevertheless, it’s important to me to say this: The Johnny Letters who fire off vitriolic e-mails to Sinai’s leader, Rabbi David Wolpe, have the right to write or say what they want, offensive as it may be to some sensibilities, but, I must repeat, they do not speak for me or the vast majority of Iranians I know. Most of them, I suspect, don’t even speak for their own children. They’re small-time dictators who dream of ruling the world but cannot see or influence beyond the reach of their very narrow minds.
Next, an observation.
I’m often amazed at the audacity of Muslim immigrants to the West who, having escaped poverty and persecution in their home countries, use the freedom and security their host nation provides in a jihad to restore here the very “caliphates” they ran away from. They wouldn’t go back to Saudi Arabia or Yemen or Pakistan if you paid them, but they’ll commit murder and mayhem to turn Sweden and France and the United States into those places.
If the past was so good, why not stay in it?
I was reminded of this last week, when I read first in Susan Freudenheim’s column and later in The New York Times, that some in Sinai Temple’s congregation had expressed a longing to “return home” to old traditions. I wondered just how far back these Jews wish to go. Thirty years, give or take, to when Iranian Jews took refuge in Los Angeles and New York and Tel Aviv from their own, millennia-old homeland? Sixty years, when American “Jews or pets” were not allowed into respectable hotels in Florida? Ninety years, to when they weren’t allowed into “genteel” professions such as publishing?
If the past was so glorious, why is this, now, the best that Jews have known? Could it be because, in this city at least, there is greater tolerance of us as a people than in the past? That the laws of this country protect us from discrimination or worse? That someone decided we should have the same rights as everyone else, no matter how much they may dislike or disapprove of us? The mullahs in Iran say on the record (indeed, on camera) that Jews have tails, members of the Ku Klux Klan in America have swastikas tattooed on their bodies, and plenty of people everywhere believe we Jews are at the root of the world’s problems. Like the unhappy members of Sinai Temple, these others are free to think and say what they want; you and I are safe from their prejudice because of the courage and leadership of those who stepped up to call the so-called longing for traditions just what it is — bigotry disguised as conservatism.
[Related: David Suissa on Sinai's gay marriage debate]
Not that I intend to change anyone’s mind by saying all this, but I can’t help being especially galled that this latest debate over the limits of acceptance of the other is taking place at Sinai Temple. I don’t believe there’s a single Iranian Jew of my generation in this town who doesn’t remember the great resistance on the part of some members of Sinai to the great influx of Iranians into their shul and their day school in the 1980s. Yes, they said, we’re all Jews, but the Iranians are different, disruptive, bound to change the nature and the shape of Sinai’s congregation. Like the present crop of rebels, some of those Ashkenazi members, too, threatened to vote with their feet or to pull their kids out of the school. But the Iranians were allowed to stay and participate, and their children were given a chance to excel and contribute, and Sinai Temple grew stronger because of the courage and wisdom of its leaders at the time. So leave Sinai if you want, because Rabbi Wolpe gave a sermon about the story of Passover that you didn’t like, or he and the other rabbis sanctioned behavior you don’t approve of. Just remember that, not so long ago, it was you who stood knocking on the door, hoping for inclusion and acceptance.
Finally, a prediction.
It seems to me that those Iranian Jews who resist change in the name of safeguarding their religious and ethnic character are, in fact, trudging dangerously into the unknown. In recent years, our community has struggled with the tension between a new (for us) orthodoxy of European origin and a more familiar, perhaps more pragmatic, conservatism of our own ancestry. This latter is the hybrid child of a forward-looking, open-to-change-and-modernity Persian culture and a repressive, unforgiving, Jewish and Muslim ethic. It’s a compromise that has allowed us to maintain, for thousands of years, both our Jewish and Persian identities. We were nothing, we Iranian Jews, if not able to see the future and embrace, or adapt to, or at least accept it. That’s how we endured war and famine, invasion and revolution. It’s why our great grandparents sent their sons and daughters to school the minute Jews were allowed to become literate in Persian and the first Alliance teacher arrived from France at the Tehran ghetto. It’s why our grandfathers were allowed to travel across continents, without money or contacts or even a way back, to pursue higher education and establish businesses in Russia and Europe and the United States; why our parents gave us the great gift of a life in this country. They didn’t long for a return to some idealized former existence. They understood there was more to gain from being exposed to new and different faiths and philosophies, even ones they did not agree with, than from shutting off their eyes and ears and clinging fast to the ghetto’s walls.
Then we came here and — having basked in the unprecedented safety and freedom this country provides specifically through secular laws that apply equally to everyone — some of us started to forget just why we left Iran. Women started to wear wigs on top of their own hair, and men grew beards and peyot; children wouldn’t eat their parents’ food because it wasn’t kosher enough, and mothers taught their kids to disbelieve science and distrust everything and everyone but their own — so many little Ahmadinejads running around, telling the world there are no homosexuals among true believers. Our ultra-Orthodox rabbis accused our Orthodox rabbis of not being observant enough, and our Orthodox rabbis blamed the Conservative for losing the youth to Rabbis Wolpe and Harold Schulweis and the like. Some of the most religious among us turned out to be also the most crooked, and everyone else …
Everyone else has lost some degree of trust in the sanctimony of community, culture, and tradition. Among them, I dare predict, will soon be a few of the children who are being pulled out of Sinai Akiba because their parents don’t want them corrupted by its gay-friendly approach. Keep the temple and the school free of potential contaminants. Like when Jews weren’t allowed into schools or shops or homes of Muslim Iranians, because they — the Jews — were believed to be ritually impure.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.