Tiffany Collins is the founder of Jewish Persian Connections.
Born Without a Name
In 1976, I was born without a name. I continued to be nameless for two weeks because my parents could not agree on one. At the time they may not have understood the source of their problems, but today, I know with certainty that it was due to their cultural differences. They finally agreed on the name Tiffany, which they chose in reference to a friend's daughter. I've never really felt like a Tiffany. As the child of an Ashkenazi (of Eastern European origin) Israeli Jew and Iranian non-practicing Shi'a Muslim, I never quite felt my name reflected my spirit.
Prior to my birth, my parents decided that I would be raised Jewish. I often consider myself lucky that my mother is Jewish and my father Muslim. This combination automatically gave me the choice of being either of these religions: in Orthodox and Conservative circles of Judaism the religion is inherited through the mother, and in Islam, through the father. Nevertheless, I was thankful my parents chose my religion for me. I was Jewish. It kept things clear.
Yes, I have suffered ignorance and pettiness by those people who can't understand how my parents could marry out of their faith. But, truly, more difficult than the religious difference has been the socio-political divide between Israelis and Iranians. In a world where politics has become infused with religion, choosing "a side" almost feels like an issue of safety--as if a hypothetical voice would whisper to me when I was alone, If a war breaks out between Jews and Muslims, whose side would you stand with?
I did not grow up in a religious home. To my parents, who met and fell in love in the liberal and exploratory university environment of California in the '70s, traditions had more merit than religion. My parents, both quite independent in nature and enjoying their cultural similarities, never really pondered how more conservative members of their individual faiths might view their union.
My fondest childhood memories paint a picture of my double life.
My favorite Jewish moments came from Shabbat (Sabbath) songs at Jewish summer camps and annual trips to Israel to see my extended family, which spoke Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian, and ate borscht! Those who could, spoke to me in English. Those who couldn't, spoke to me in Hebrew and Yiddish. To me, Judaism was Mediterranean beaches, Passover singing, and everyone treating me like family.
My favorite Persian moments were weekends at my paternal grandmother's house in the United States, where we would savor saffron-infused rice, potato taddik (fried rice and potato crust) and kabobs. Islam was warm kitchens, people dancing and singing to Middle Eastern music, polite social gestures, family respect for hierarchies and colorful holidays. At these gatherings everyone would speak to me in Farsi, and say hello with cheek-to-cheek kisses.
But as I aged, the hidden religious symbols became more evident.
My father and his immediate community in the San Francisco Bay Area came from a pre-revolutionary Iran where culture took precedence over religion. In 1979, this community's identity was transformed by the Islamic Revolution. The transformation of their country from a seemingly secular state to a religiously orthodox one left them feeling stateless. I, too, took on the identity of a refugee; this model world that they were raising me in, in which being both Persian and Jewish was safe and accepted, no longer existed, if it ever had. There was no Iran to which I could go back as a part-Israeli Jew to find my roots.
As I got older, my religious identity became more confusing. Moments like when my Persian grandmother would bless me with her Koran as she sent me off to a trip to Israel come to mind. My religious identity came under the greatest scrutiny when my parents divorced when I was 9. No longer bound by the compromises of interfaith marriage, my parents naturally migrated back toward their origins. My father, especially, became more and more attracted to his homeland. He began taking me to Persian concerts, speaking to me in Farsi and courting a Persian woman. Hitting my teenage years, insecurities due to not fitting the standard religious mold took their toll.
At 15, I made a radical decision that would change my life. After spending the summer with my family and friends in Israel, I announced to my parents that I absolutely had to live in Israel. Looking back, it's quite obvious to me that my decision was based on an extreme thirst to connect with an identity, and I had been given a Jewish one. I went to a French boarding school in Jerusalem where most of the students were of Sephardic (descendents of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews) origin and from more Orthodox branches of Judaism. The nationally mandated Zionist curriculum infused our day-to-day experiences. The following three years in that boarding school were a time of religious awakening for me. I became immersed in Jewish life. I felt at home among the Sephardic Jews. Their culture brought together elements of my Jewish and Persian cultures more than the traditional Ashkenazi culture I had become accustomed to in the U.S.
The only problem was that I didn't want anyone in the school to know I was different. My strategy of pretending to be just like everyone else came to a crossroads in my second year in that school (eleventh grade), when my father decided to move back to Iran to settle old family financial matters. How could I explain having a father who lives in Iran to my Jewish friends in Israel? I ended up sharing this information with only my closest friends, who took it quite well. But of course, I lived in Israel in the early '90s when the hope for peace in the region was still quite alive.
I wondered how I could talk to my father about such things as wanting to join the army to serve the Jewish homeland. In Israel, everyone goes into the army when they turn 18. It's not a political statement; it's an expected step on the way to adulthood. It turned out that my father preferred not to discuss such matters. He felt that just mentioning the topic could be dangerous to him within the Persian community and Iran. At the time my feelings were hurt as I felt he was embarrassed by his Jewish daughter. Now, with a more mature understanding of the politics of the Iranian regime, I understand that his concerns were legitimately connected to his personal safety. Also upsetting was the fact that I could never visit my father in Iran given my Israeli connections. In those years of living in Israel, I became quite religious. Somewhere deep inside, I felt a need to know as much as possible to compensate for not having a Jewish father.
After five years in Israel, I decided to come back to the U.S. Attending university enabled me to gain the maturity and cognitive skills necessary to create my own identity. I re-connected with my Persian side after years of pretending to be a purebred in Israel. I realized that being Jewish and practicing Jewish traditions were my birthright and no one could take that away from me. The ability to combine my newfound analytical skills with my solid knowledge of Judaism gave me a great sense of empowerment, enabling me to create my own personal religious practices and cultural traditions.
The day I finally felt liberated was my wedding day. I hand-picked every tradition, color, and rite that was to carry me into my future life. I chose a ketubah (Jewish wedding contract) with a Persian design created by a local artist. I held two weddings, a secular Persian one with religious symbols, at which my aspiring-actor cousin married us against a backdrop of Persian wedding motifs, sweets and festivities; and a Jewish one that had everything from Israeli live music to a chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) held by my best friends.
I did not marry a Jewish man. My husband is part-Japanese Buddhist, part-American Baptist--a hybrid, just like me. We've had many cultural elements to subsume into our life as a couple, yet our respect for multiculturalism has prevailed. Before marrying, my husband asked me if he should convert to Judaism. I said no, because I felt that this is something that he should want to do for himself, not just to satisfy me. I did tell him, though, that I would need his consent to raise our children as Jews.
We now have a beautiful little boy named Raphael who has been circumcised. He's learning French, Hebrew, Farsi and Japanese. We take a Shabbat class together at the Jewish community center. My husband and son have both been to Israel. While we're not your typical Jewish family, we are Jewish nonetheless. The last time my husband flew back from Israel, separately from me, the security guards on the flight asked him if he was Jewish. He said, "Yes, by marriage." The guard responded, "That's not exactly the same, is it?"
Being Jewish and multicultural is not always easy. Not everyone accepts our way. I've had close friends from high school lecture my husband on how he must convert. But ultimately, that's not my immediate community or the people I seek to learn from. In creating my own traditions, I have combined the histories and stories of Persians and Jews to give richness to my life--discovering how to learn from the practices of others and adapt them as my own.