October 13, 2007
Iranian Jewish couples trapped by six-figure party dilemma
Sam Cohan recently completed his residency. As he looked for a job locally, his student loans weighed on him. The 30-something Iranian Jew had grown up middle class in the Valley and had to take out the loans to pay for his education at a prestigious medical school.
With no immediate prospect for income, he found himself caught between feelings of frustration and guilt as his fiancee, her parents and his parents pressured him into a wedding he couldn’t afford.
Cohan didn’t want to break with Iranian tradition or disappoint either family, so he borrowed nearly $100,000 to cover the wedding expenses.
“I felt trapped with the whole situation and wanted to call everything off, but I decided to take the loan in the end because my wife agreed that we’d both work and pay it off little by little,” said Cohan, who asked that The Journal not reveal his real name.
Cohan is one of a growing number of young Iranian Jewish professionals who, due to family pressure, are incurring large debts to pay for lavish weddings.
Somewhere between keeping Iranian hospitality traditions and one-upping displays of wealth, a growing number of Iranian Jewish families today are inviting upward of 500 guests to weddings, with budgets in the six-figure range—typically from $150,000 to $300,000.
The strain of such expectations has led to infighting between families over who should cover the cost. Young professionals are also postponing marriage plans or opting instead for a destination wedding to avoid the financial pressures of holding the event in Los Angeles.
Most local Iranian Jews acknowledge the situation, but few in the community are willing to advocate for change. Rabbi Hillel Benchimol, associate rabbi of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills, wants a greater dialogue on the issue.
“The problem is we are taking out the spiritual and emotional aspect of the marriage and instead it’s become a business with all the unnecessary spending,” Benchimol said. “People forget the spirit of the wedding—all you need is love, and everything else falls into place.”
Some young Iranian Jewish newlyweds say that while they did not necessarily want a large wedding, they feel pressure from their parents and extended family to put on a more lavish affair. Their parents, they say, feel an obligation to invite people whose parties they have attended.
“Persians have much more of a tight-knit community, and it’s very respect oriented—that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it leads to 300- to 400-person weddings,” said Ario Fakheri, who was married last year. “People get upset if you don’t invite their kids or grandmothers, they look at it as disrespecting them—there are so many ways to disrespect them.”
Fakheri said that while he and his fiancee invited almost 600 people to their wedding due to family pressure, many of his friends in the community are opting to have destination weddings.
“You can tell how bad they don’t want people to come to their wedding by how far away they go,” Fakheri said. “It’s basically code for how bad you want to have a normal wedding.”
Iranian Jewish religious leaders said the cost has resulted in several weddings being called off and some couples divorcing within a few months of getting married. There’s also concern that local Iranian Jews will marry outside of the community or outside of the faith in order to escape the mounting six-figure wedding pressure.
Community activists trace the growing trend back two or three years ago when local Iranian Jews began inviting 100 to 200 guests for their children’s bale boroon parties.
The bale boroon is a traditional Iranian courtship gathering prior to the engagement, during which a dozen members from the male suitor’s family visits with a small contingent from the woman’s family. During the gathering both families acknowledge the upcoming union and offer a small gift to one another.
“Today, when they have these large parties for the bale boroon, they must then top that with something bigger for the engagement party, and as a result the wedding must be an even bigger extravaganza than the other parties,” said Asher Aramnia, events director for the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana.
Aramnia, who also volunteers as a Jewish matchmaker, said the recent trend of expensive weddings were not the norm in Iran.
“In Iran we didn’t even have catering. The family members cooked the food or those who were well-off hired one private cook,” he said. “Here I’ve been to a wedding where the groom bought the bride a cherry-red BMW and put it on display at the entrance of the hotel for all the guests to see.”
Aramnia said at another wedding he witnessed a diamond-encrusted tiara being lowered from the ceiling onto the bride’s head.
Venus Safaie, a local Iranian wedding planner with 85 percent of her clients hailing from an Iranian Jewish background, said the highest costs for most weddings she helps organize come from securing a venue at a hotel and finding Persian-language singers, who charge $8,000 to $15,000 for two or three hours of entertainment.
“Well, you have to realize that these Persian singers charge more because the cost of living has gone up, and there are not that many of them around, so they can ask whatever price they want,” Safaie said. “Also people agree to pay them these high prices, so you can’t blame the singers.”
Dara Abaei, head of the L.A. nonprofit Jewish Unity Network, said his organization has been urging families to have smaller weddings. The group has also negotiated with certain vendors to give reduced fees to couples struggling to pay for their weddings.
“We’re trying to break the cycle in the community, to get them to not have engagement parties or get smaller engagement parties and try to share the cost of wedding,” he said.
Abaei said couples can save between $7,000 to $15,000 if they hold their weddings at the banquet halls of Iranian American Jewish Federation’s synagogue in West Hollywood, the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills and the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana.
Another group, Woodland Hills-based Mayan Kheset, provides silk flower centerpieces in lieu of real flowers. The organization’s volunteers drop off and pick up the arrangements, and only ask that couples donate the money they would have spent on flowers.
“We encourage people to try to support a wedding of an orphan in Israel,” said Hirbod Cohentoe, Mayan Kheset’s founder. “We encourage couples not make their weddings so fancy, but donate some of the money to Israel or their favorite Jewish charity.”
While many local activist and religious leaders are trying to encourage Iranian Jewish families to have smaller weddings, others are calling for more radical steps to be taken.
“I have always wanted to see a revolution occur in the community when two or three affluent families that everyone knows very well, invite only 200 or 300 close relatives and friends for their weddings,” Aramnia said. “This will cause others who are trying to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ to copy them, and it may help solve our problem.”
Despite the community’s struggles to keep with old traditions and grapple with the high cost of weddings, experts said the pressure on young couples to have larger weddings is common in almost every culture worldwide.
“Well, there’s an old saying, ‘Every woman gets to plan a wedding—her daughter’s,’” said Dr. Sharona Nazarian, an Iranian Jewish psychologist. “It’s not just because we’re Persian or Jewish that we’re concerned. It’s universal, something that many brides and grooms have to deal with.”
While members of the local Iranian Jewish community said they were not opposed to those who had the financial means to have expensive weddings, they hoped others without such means would reconsider spending when they have to incur large debts.
“If someone can comfortably afford to spend lavishly on the wedding, that is their choice,” Nazarian said. “But it’s also important for families to work within their own means and be more concerned with their own needs as opposed to what others think about them.”