Eric Herschthal is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week.
It's All Part of My Heritage: A Profile of Said Sayrafiezadeh
Originally published in The New York Jewish Week July 22, 2009 under the title "An Iranian (Jewish) Manifesto." Reprinted by permission.
August 17, 2009
Last week, I spoke with the author Said Sayrafiezadeh, 40, whose debut memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free has been receiving widespread praise. The book describes how he was raised by committed members of the Socialist Workers Party--his mother, Martha Harris (nee Finklestein), and his estranged father, Mahmoud Sayrafiezadeh. The following is an edited transcript of our discussion at the Housing Works Bookstore in Soho, which ranged from the recent elections in Iran and anti-Semitism, to why he now considers himself a Jew.
Jewish Week: In your book you say that your mother’s fierce commitment to the Socialist Workers Party stemmed from her self-sacrificing manner. You wrote that there was something very Christian about her sense of suffering, even though she identified as atheist. But might her Jewish roots explain her habit of suffering, too?
Said Sayrafiezadeh: Honestly, I’ve never thought about that, but it could very well be. But I’m always hesitant to attribute things to her Jewishness because so much of her upbringing was influenced by the fact that her mother had become an invalid when she was a child. It was because she had rheumatoid arthritis, and so I think that deeply affected my mother.
You’re quite critical of the socialist movement in your book. Did you ever really believe in the movement?
Yes, I did.
So what made you change?
I don’t think it’s entirely spelled out in the book, but it was a gradual change over time. The example I use in the book is when Karen [his girlfriend in the book, who is now his wife] asks me what I am, and I say ‘I’m a communist,’ and she asks, ‘What does that mean?’ and I start to explain it to her and I realize that I’m pretty much a [phony]. She asked me very basic questions that I could not answer.
Your father divorced your mother and left the house when you were 9 months old. But you say that he had a profound influence on you as a child, even though you’ve distanced yourself from him as an adult. How has that affected your sense of being Iranian?
It’s very complicated. I identify with Iran and I don’t want anyone saying anything bad about it. Only Iranians can say bad things about Iran, so as soon as [President] Barack Obama, The New York Times started to criticize the recent elections and the clerics, I began to feel very defensive of them. It always to me feels that beneath the surface there’s this xenophobia. You know, it could just be my own paranoia. But it seems like xenophobia just bubbles beneath the surface, like anti-Semitism.
So you opposed the Iranians who protested the election results?
No, no. I didn’t oppose them; it’s just that on a deeper emotional level the criticism of the clerics I took personally. I’m not saying it’s completely rational either.
I assume you accepted this interview because you identify as Jewish in some way. But you say that you don’t have any kind of visceral reaction to Jewish issues nor do you partake in Jewish culture or religion.
You’re right, I don’t. I don’t have a dream to visit Israel, though I know that is a dream for a lot of Jews. If anything, it’s the other way around. I always identify with the Palestinians. I think I was taught to identify with Palestinians, so if I’m going to have an initial emotional response it’s going to be that.
Is it possible to consciously identify as Jewish even though you have no immediate connection to the culture or people?
I think so. It’s all part of my heritage. Here’s a good example: not long ago I was with someone who was saying things about Jews, making anti-Semitic comments. And I said, ‘I’m Jewish.’ I’ve never done that before. I don’t know if I would have been bothered by it before, but I was bothered by it then. She responded and said, ‘Oh, I’m Jewish too.’ Then there was this thing where it’s OK to be anti-Semitic. I think I was proud of myself because I don’t think it’s OK anymore.
What brought about that change?
I’ve always bristled when people say you need to stay within your own race, and my wife, who’s Roman Catholic, is very interested in religions. Here, I’ll tell you this: We went to the Chabad Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights recently. We went on a group tour; it lasted four or five hours. I highly recommend it. We went into the synagogue and had a kosher meal. The rabbi found out that I was Jewish and put the tefillin on me, then he said some words that I was asked to repeat and asked us to dance. And, you know, it was quite poignant.