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March 22, 2013

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but those green onions scars will eventually heal

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Growing up Iranian Jewish in LA, our Passover Seders were like long, annoying road trips, where instead of the kids asking, "Are we there yet?", our parents were subjected to repeated questions about the order of the Seder:

After the first cup of wine:
Is it Dayenu time yet??

After the bitter herbs:
Is it Dayenu time yet??

After the charoset/halegh:
Is it Dayenu time yet??

After Dayenu, dinner, and even dessert:
Can we do Dayenu again??

In fact, the whole Seder seemed like one long, drawn-out series of mechanically-offered blessings designed to torture little Persian kids by taking as long as possible to finally arrive at the moment we had so desperately waited for all year: the annual green onion beatings of the Persian Seder Dayenu ritual.

In my experience, non-Persians that live in Los Angeles and interact with Persian Jews know generally two facts (and one crucial piece of advice) about our community and Passover:

1. We beat each other with green onions during the Seder
2. We enjoy rice the entire week because it is not considered chametz for our community
3. Don't ever go to one of the Persian kosher supermarkets within a 72-hour vicinity of Passover

There are a few different explanations for why Iranian (and Afghan) Jews gently hit each other with green onions during the Dayenu tradition of the Seder, but most are rooted in the theme of a physical, tangible reminder that we should never long for Egypt or what it represented (see Numbers 11:5-6). Also, the long tails of the green onions are said to represent the whips of the ancient Egyptians, though the truly clever assailants, including my mother, not only whip forearms with the tails, but beat heads with the bulbs. It's really a beautiful sight.

But for most kids, the Persian Dayenu signifies the only time of the year when lightly beating one's parents seems acceptable and even religiously-sanctioned, or so we tell ourselves as we mercilessly hurl the onions across the room. One Passover, I even attacked the back of my mother's head because she had refused to buy me any video games that year. I was 17.

Some of our most beloved childhood memories of Passover Seders involve those crucial moments right before the Dayenu, when the kids anxiously grab as many green onions as their stubby little hands can hold, chase each other down hallways and under tables, flail their pungent weapons over the heads of parents and elders, and scream and giggle and turn red with laughter and energy. Of course, it's not only the children. Grandmothers beat grandfathers, uncles beat nieces and nephews, fourth cousins beat sixth cousins, and mothers beat fathers. It's all done with love, until one soul finally begs for peace and tranquility. The cease-fire usually takes effect once someone has been subjected to an onion attack in the eye, and is usually preceded by a desperate uncle yelling, "It burns! It burns!"

Yet these memories still seem empty as I grow older and learn more about the real depth of Passover, and I find myself wondering why I remember all of the fun and none of the meaning of childhood Seders here in the U.S.

My family embraced the Seder traditions in its own way. Even the Four Questions that were reserved for the children had a special Persian twist on them. We still had the questions, but they were more along the lines of our parents and elders asking,

1.Where is your meat? I don't see any on your plate.
2. What type of lawyer do you want to be when you grow up?
3. What's your backup school in case you don't get into UCLA?
4. Were you the one that threw that green onion at my eye?

As individuals and as a part of a greater Jewish community, we each struggle to tap into the unique energy of Passover in our own ways. Personalizing the theme of "We are still in Egypt" came much more easily to me when I lived in Iran as a child in the 1980s. There's something about living under the rule of powerful anti-Semites that makes the connection between your current life and the struggles of your ancestors in ancient Egypt more personal and palpable. 

But for those Jews that left Iran to live in the U.S., or were born in America altogether, the notion of still being enslaved while living in the freest country on earth might seem harder to internalize.  How enslaved could I possibly be, drinking a latte and people-watching on a sunny afternoon at The Grove?

Ironically, when we are feeling the least physically or mentally enslaved is the best time to ask, What does it mean for something or someone to enslave me? I believe that it simply means that someone or something is keeping you from reaching your full G-d-given potential.

In the U.S., the Iranian-American Jewish community also has incredible potential. It's not fair to generalize, however there do seem to be a few matters that keep us enslaved as well, whether on the individual or communal level. I believe the most important are as follows:

1. An Obsession with Saving Face
    Real life example: at 21, you're embarrassed that you have a boyfriend and at 31, you're embarrassed that you don't have a husband.

Our borderline-obsession with reputation and good standing has created an environment that pushes us away to deal with our struggles on our own, because we believe that our community might respond to us with alienation, gossip, and even scorn. This was the predominant theme of an important panel of young Iranian American Jews at a UCLA Fowler Museum event earlier this month.

2. Deflection of Responsibility for Things that Really Matter
    Real life example: You don't care enough about anything to ever vote, or to even register to vote, and you believe that you'll never make a difference anyhow. You go about life in your own way and leave others to make the decisions for you. Or, you're relatively proud of who you are, but secretly hope that no non-Persians will ever ask you to explain anything about what it means to be an Iranian American Jew, about the community back in Iran, about the gravity of Iran's nuclear pursuits, about if and why you support Israel, etc. because you won't really be able to answer any of these questions (or so you think).

3. An Over-Embrace of Insularity
   Real-life example: As one friend recently told me, "I always celebrate the Passover Seder in the Persian way, with my Persian family, and then after it's over, I watch the basketball game at home with my Persian friends."

Again, this is a generalization, but it begs the question of whether our community had found a healthy balance between insularity and openness. Just once, I would like to see an Iranian Jew from Beverly Hills attend a Shabbat dinner with a group of young professionals, mostly non-denominational Ashkenazim, from Eastside Jews at the Silverlake Jewish Community Center or somewhere else. He or she would learn so much about the amazing tapestry of the Jewish community all over this city. I would go myself, if I could find a place nearby to sleep so that I wouldn't have to drive on Shabbat. I love their self-description: "We hold monthly events at unlikely venues during unpopular holidays for Jews with confused identities."

And just once, I would like to see a group of young Iranian American Jews spend Thanksgiving volunteering at a food shelter on Skid Row in downtown LA, rather than taking road trips to Las Vegas with 60 of their closest friends.  Vegas is fine, but it will still be around for Christmas, New Year's, Spring Break, Persian New Year, birthdays, bachelor parties, spontaneous weekend getaways when you need some space from your mother, clandestine weekend getaways with your secret boyfriend/girlfriend, and much, much more.

How about this as a starter: let's each take a moment to reflect on whether we have a Jewish friend that for whatever reason, will not have a Passover Seder to attend this year (and probably won't care). What if each of us invited one non-Iranian Jew to our family's Seder? (please ask your mother first and warn relatives in advance that this person is NOT your lover nor does he/she work in Admissions at USC). Or what if this year, you join a non-Persian Seder or a Passover meal and see how different Jewish communities celebrate this incredible holiday? Perhaps by showing each other the beauty of our traditions, we may begin to appreciate them ourselves, to contemplate the "mental chametz" and noise that continue to enslave us and drive a toxic wedge between us and our potential, and the powerful and auspicious spiritual energy of Passover that makes liberation truly attainable.

Plus, it never hurts to have an extra set of hands armed with green onions...on our side of the table.

30 YEARS AFTER is a civic action organization (501(c)(3) that aims to promote the participation and leadership of Iranian American Jews in American civic, political, and Jewish life. Founded by a group of young professionals in 2007, it has chapters in Los Angeles and New York.

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