Jewish and Muslim? Yes. Interesting? Maybe.

By Rochelle Terman


White picket fence and house

My parents met in the hallways of University of Minnesota’s Mathematics Department, where they were both graduate students. My father was in a Ph.D. program and my mother, though seven years older, was finishing up her masters degree. Their first date was a Doc Watson concert in the park, and one year later they agreed to marry.

It would have been a very mundane story, if not for the fact that my father was Jewish, and my mother Muslim, and for that reason, I guess, most people consider it extraordinary.

I, on the other hand, never considered my family extraordinary in the least when I was growing up. My parents had two daughters they raised in a two story house with a porch and white picket fence in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. We had a cat, which as a child I found much more interesting than my parent’s religious backgrounds. We named her “Gorbeh”, which means “cat” in the Persian language, my mother’s native tongue. Gorbeh was interesting, our neighborhood pool was interesting, chocolate cake with white icing was interesting, and so were birthdays. My parents, in my mind as in the minds of most children, were not interesting.

When my schoolmates went to church, I felt different but not out of the ordinary. Just like they all had blonde hair and blue eyes with tiny noses, my skin was olive and there was a growing bump on top of my nose. Different, yes, but not extraordinary. My new rollerblades that I got for Hanukkah were extraordinary.

I always knew that my mother was Iranian; her thick accent left no doubt about her foreignness. But that didn’t make me feel particularly foreign. We sometimes lit Hanukkah candles and would visit my father’s family for Passover seder, but I wasn’t raised with any particular identity or strong notion of religion. When the time came when I was the youngest person in my family who could read, it was my job to read the Four Questions during Passover. But my parents never sent me to Hebrew school. Wanting to do it right, I made my father write out the words in Hebrew transliterated into English letters. When I stood up and read, “What makes this night different from all other nights,” my cousins giggled at my ineptitude, as I mispronouncing all sorts of things I couldn’t even understand.

My mother felt different too, and it wasn’t until I was older that I fully understood this. She was raised in Iran, the eldest of four children her mother began to produce when she was 16 years old. My mother never went to school until she was 14, somehow graduating from high school at the top of her class, the only one of them accepted to university.

She came to America on a tourist visa a year before the Iranian revolution, and decided to stay here to attend graduate school. Knowing no English when she arrived, she learned the language in six months at the age of 29 by watching American soap-operas. She still has problems differentiating between the words “he” and “she,” as these don’t exist in the Persian language.

When my mom and dad got married, my mother’s parents were happy and excited for her. Although they were devout Muslims, and Islamic law prohibits a Muslim woman from marrying a non-Muslim man, their love and devotion to their children’s happiness stymied others’ dogma. Theirs was a religion of acceptance and devotion to their family.

My father’s parents, on the other hand, were not so accepting. Although their Jewish faith made them who they are–loving, kind, and strong–the fear of the unknown, of an Iranian, Muslim woman, made them pause. My mother was no longer a practicing Muslim, but she was also not a practicing Jew, and did not feel comfortable converting to a faith in which she lacked the utmost devotion. So my parents married unorthodoxly, in a synagogue that would take them, and it took years for my father’s family to fully accept my mother and their marriage.

Eventually they came around, after my mother learned to cook matzah ball soup like a pro, raised two daughters with dedication and attended all Jewish family events with vigor and commitment.

And for the first time in his life, my father is now traveling to Iran to visit my mother’s family, where they still live. He will feel different too, surrounded by a language and culture he has only seen peripherally, learning to eat on the carpeted floor and to understand taarof, the intricate and complex mores of politeness and social interaction. Maybe he’ll even learn a few words of Persian, after my mother transliterates them into English letters in his notebook.

I, on the other hand, still feel pretty normal, pretty American, pretty ordinary. I celebrate Passover, and am learning Persian. I make matzah ball soup along with kabobs and french fries. I don’t feel Jewish, or Iranian, or Muslim, or American, but all of these things together, along with a student, a daughter, a sister and a run-of-the-mill 20-something woman.

But looking at my parent’s story, I now do find it interesting. Most partnerships are, in fact. Anything involving love, difference and understanding is usually just a little bit interesting once you delve deep enough, at least to those living outside it.


About Rochelle Terman

Rochelle Terman is the recipient of the Dr. Aizik Wolf University of Chicago Human Rights Fellowship, researching women's rights movements in the Middle East for Women Living Under Muslim Laws, where she also helps run She currently resides in Montreal, Canada.