Jewish Journal

An insider’s story: when an American Jew marries an Iranian Jew

by Karmel Melamed

August 28, 2007 | 6:35 pm

Gerald Bugoff is a very close and dear American Jewish friend of mine who has been married to my second cousin Dorit for nearly 40 years. “Gerry”, as he is affectionately referred to by everyone in the family, is among the first group of non-Iranian Jews to have married into our large extended family. While Gerry and Dorit live in Long Island New York, we often get together at family gathering when they annually visit us in L.A. for family functions. I particularly enjoy chatting with Gerry because he’s one of the few folks I come across that enjoys intellectual conversations about history and American Jewry. As most of the folks at our family gatherings primarily speak Persian to one another, often times Gerry and I end being the only English speakers. Recently I chatted with Gerry about his experiences as an outsider who married into an Iranian Jewish family and his insights were surprising.

Everyone in the family has the utmost love and respect for Gerry but it seems as if he ends up being the odd man out at some of our functions. Nearly everyone who is of Iranian background chats among themselves in Persian. Aside from myself, I haven’t really seen too many people engage Gerry in real conversations. I asked Gerry about this and he told me that since his marriage, he’s made many attempts to get his wife and her family members to teach him Persian but for some reason they’ve refused. “When we visited Iran (before the revolution), I was hoping to learn the language by speaking to my wife’s relatives but instead everyone was speaking to me in English because they wanted to practice their English!” said Gerry. In addition he said that many Iranian Jews he knows tended to speak in Persian to one another at family events because of their desire to stay together with a common bond which is their language. After realizing that he would never be taught Persian by his wife or her family, Gerry gave up his quest to learn the language. “If we’re sitting at a table and everyone is speaking Persian, I usually leave because I don’t know what is being said,” he said. While Gerry and Dorit are in a loving marriage and both have the affection of their family, indirectly or unknowingly Gerry becomes the outsider at certain gatherings because of the language barrier. Despite the differences in language, Gerry said he still appreciates Iranian food, music, culture as well as Iranian Jewish traditions.

Yet what surprises me whenever I chat with Gerry during our family gatherings, is the odd reaction I receive from my paternal grandmother. She has said to me on a number of occasions, “my god, you’ve been speaking to Gerry for four hours! What is wrong with you, why don’t you go and speak to someone else?”. I think my grandmother was frustrated that she could not understand our conversation in English and wanted it to end. Nevertheless, I still continue chatting with Gerry because I enjoy his insights into the world of Iranian Jewry from the perspective of an American and honestly I feel bad that there really isn’t anyone else engaging him in conversation.

(my paternal grandmother, Ghodrat Shaboui, a.k.a. Azizjoon)

While Gerry is not fluent in Persian, his two children do not speak Persian either but do understand some words. Surprisingly, Gerry’s American Jewish son-in-law, Steffen has tremendous languages skills and has begun learning Persian. At a recent Shabbat dinner our family members were quite surprised to hear him singing to us in Persian! While Steffen has an American accent when speaking Persian, it was delightful to see him make an effort to bond with the Iranian side of his wife’s family. As Iranian Jews have remained longer in the U.S., it seems more common place for them to inter-marry with other Jews who are not Iranian. You could say that Gerry Bugoff is among the pioneers of other Jews who decided to marry into an Iranian Jewish family.

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Karmel Melamed is an internationally-published freelance journalist based in Southern California.

Since 2000, Melamed has specialized in covering the growing influential...

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