Friday, April 06, 2007

An Iranian Passover

This Passover was quite a monumental time for us. My husband’s parents did not feel like celebrating the holiday and one of our friends with whom we would usually spent one of the first two nights had moved out town. We decided to spend the first night with one of our Iranian Jewish friends in Long Island.

Ilana and Hamid are from Hamedan, an old historical city “Hekmataneh,” in western Iran near another old historical city, “Susa,” apparently the original hometown of Jews in the world (according to Hamid and Gore Vidal). Queen Esther was from there, and so was Mordechai, and their tombs are located in

"Queen Esther and King Xerxes"

Hamadan, and are a source of pride to the Iranians of all religions, who make pilgrimages to them. While driving home from the train station, Hamid and Evan, my husband, decided that there were many Iranian Jews who are direct descents from Aaron (Cohanim, or Priests), versus the Ashkenazi’s who have many descendants of their aides (Levi’im). I have no idea if these matters are decided in this fashion, but who am I to say?

It was the loveliest time I ever had on Passover. The lengthy ritual of reading a text whose language I do not know and the assigned repetitive questions raised by the children and the uncomfortable chairs that one has to sit on for almost four hours (there is no comfortable chair in the world) leaves me with nothing but exhaustion on Passover nights. However, not this time.

Ilana and Hamid are both very political, unlike most minorities in Iran, who believe politics have nothing to do with them, even though they both are mellowed down a bit. They do not pretend to be just guests in this world. I hope this partial withdrawal is the side effect of the life in the Diaspora rather than a philosophical one. In any case, we always have very engaging discussions with them which adds more grace to their Iranian hospitality.

Their two daughters, Sarvin and Nasim, have grown to such admirable gracious ladies. It was so delightful to see them participating in the ritual, so graciously carrying the pitchers of water and basins in which only men wash their hands, without the slightest sign of resentment or embarrassment. In their young age they seemed to be wise enough not to expect modern social agreements from a five thousand old religion. They seemed to grasp and appreciate the essence of the faith which has been good enough to survive this far.

In addition to us, Hamid’s mother, Bahiyeh Khanom, and his brother, Homayoun, were there to form a Seder of three generations. Casual as everything was, still one would not miss that within this family there was a natural order and hierarchy. Each person has his/her place and duty, which they filled so nicely. There was no clash, no rivalry, and no tension. The tone was nothing but balanced, peaceful and harmonious, but light and happy.

If I have to label Ilana and Hamid's sader, I would call it highly secular. There was quite a bit of negotiation taking place as to how to perform the service, read the text, rushing through certain parts or eliminating others. Ilana announced right at the beginning to cut everything short since she had worked hard and seemed hungry; Hamid very politely tried to keep up with my husband and did his best to show that he is Jewish too; Hamid’s brother, Homayoun, who seemed more knowledgeable than Hamid and at least had stepped into a synagogue a few times, did not need to go through that pretense, and gave a nice humorous reading of text and added his witty, clever remarks. Hamid’s mother asked repeatedly that the section of the plagues and the curses be eliminated, even though the Iranian text in this section is somehow different than the Ashkenazi’s, and the entire table and food and drinks are covered so that the curses won’t enter the edibles. Her insistence on eliminating the section was remarkable and I took it not only as an aspect of her very compassionate motherly personality, but as indicative of the humane culture she is from. When all was said and done, the service took place, everything was read, questions were asked, answers were given, and all the symbolism was mentioned, but no horseradish and no gefilte fish was served. These are not included in Iranian tradition. The food was excellent as always in Ilana and Hamid’s, their indoor and outdoor Iranian kitchen is nothing to be missed.

The whole service was of course the men’s show and nobody minded. It was held mainly in Persian with a very little Hebrew sprinkled in here and there. The text was read by Hamid, Homayoun, and Evan, who stumbled when reading in Hebrew just to be a good sport. Homayoun did really good job; he was really funny and added his humorous commentary to the text and, being the youngest male child, read all four children’s questions and answered them all as well. Evan said he wished he would have recorded it.

Those four women did not seem to have any less presence than men, if not more. Their arbitrary place in the service had nothing to do with their real positions in life and they all seemed very assured of it. No, there was no orange* on the Seder plate, and Ilana, a veterinarian and sonographer and a champion horseback rider, was perfectly and graciously happy to provide all those wonderful meals.

As for the Iranian tradition of beating each other with scallions? You bet, it was the most fun. We all participated fully and vigorously in it. I did not make the mistake I made in my first Iranian Seder some thirty three years ago, and picked up few big scallions instead of one tiny one! Oddly enough, in spite of all the fun and laughter we had, all the discussions, all the political talks, and all the disagreements over various issues, the religious aspect of the Seder was still not lost. Not even a moment past without feeling the grace and the blessing which one ought to feel on these holidays. Their acceptance of faith, their peacefulness, their order, their love, their humanity was all that was written on the tablets brought down by the prophet some five thousand years ago. With all their avowed secularism, it seems they always live in accordance with the Holy Scriptures, with no alteration. In this family religion works perfectly well in its secular form, whatever this means.

In the Haggadah it is related how the five great rabbis gathered on Passover night to discuss the Exodus from Egypt. They were only roused from their discussions by a student rushing in to tell them it was time to recite the morning prayers. Just like these ancient sages, we did not notice how time passed by, it was one thirty and we should have gone home long ago. Our dog was waiting for us to have his nightly walk, and it would take us at least two to three hours to get back. We arrived at four in the morning. Those who know us can imagine what it meant for us and how much we could have enjoyed the night.

* When Jewish feminists complained to grand rabbis about their exclusion from the services, one of the rabbis responded: "the place of women in the services is like having an orange on the Seder plate." Jewish feminists, to prove their point, placed an orange on Seder plate afterward.

1 comment:

stu said...

It sounds like a wonderful time was had by all.
I only wonder at the sexist nature of the seder, in which only the men take part in some of the activities. Despite the rather modern and secular approach taken by the participants.