Black Hats and the Shame of a Persian Jewish Girl
The air stood hot and heavy in the San Fernando Valley, and to me, Eminem was everything. Only his music could pierce through the hypocrisy ever present in my life: a first generation Persian Jewish girl living in the confines of a highly circumscribed Eastern European Ultra-Orthodox Jewry.
As an adolescent I relished the rapper's tongue-in-cheek rhymes. In his unbridled anger and rebellion against society I found layers of my own angst. His irreverence empowered and reassured me. His rhymes not only carried his wounds, but they unapologetically exposed injustice; and this was exhilarating to me. Before I would begin to find my real power, though, I would have to lose it all.
At six years old I began my adventures in Ultra Orthodox schools, where I learned how to be an outcast. The Ultra Orthodox community was an insular bubble that my family did not fit into. But oh, did I try to make it work. I was the only student of Persian heritage in the all-girls school at the time. My parents were raised in the traditions of Persian Judaism and knew little of the Eastern European Ultra Orthodox traditions. The other students were from large families of typically six children or more. Their fathers were revered rabbis with black hats—leaders in the Ultra Orthodox community. My odds of fitting in looked tough, especially since my dad was not a rabbi and my mother did not wear a wig. My parents were Iranian-Jewish people who fled the quickly developing threat of persecution by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Anti-Semitism in Iran grew quickly until they knew they had to go, in 1987. It began with teachers who refused to make physical contact with a Jew because it would contaminate them. Soon, Jewish schools were shut down and replaced, as part of what has been referred to as the "Islamization of Iran." In regard to their Judaism, my family, like many Persian Jews, was mainly traditional. We followed the customs but valued family and connection before the vast and minute technicalities. My parents wanted to send me somewhere where my Judaism wouldn't face the same hate and discrimination they experienced in their home country. But I was totally unprepared for the level of religiosity I faced at school.
I would soon find that the deck was stacked against me beyond what I thought. It was a rude awakening that didn't quite make sense until I was older. Newsflash: the Ultra Orthodox community harbored some dislike for our kind. They generally looked down on and discriminated against Persians for their differences. It makes sense enough: ignorance and fear produces intolerance. But I didn't understand that at that age. In an effort to be accepted despite my family's differences, I fervently internalized and prioritized the Ultra Orthodox rules and expectations. I even learned to like gefilte fish.
Communication with the secular world was highly discouraged: television was banned (except for repeat videos of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s speeches), as was contact with secular people, secular clothing, secular music, secular haircuts (i.e., bangs that were considered to be "provocative" and "immodest"), and obviously, secular (or non-Kosher) food. And so, any part of me that did not fit into a certain Ultra Orthodox Jewish mold needed to be thrown off the ship if I ever wanted to make it through alive. And if I didn't win their approval, there would be no hope of friends or acceptance anywhere else. All other sources of connection had been lost.
I became estranged from my connection to my cultural heritage. My only exposure to other Persians or Iranian culture in Los Angeles was my own extended family, and I distanced myself from them like the plague. The community set rigorous moral standards that my family failed to meet, and my peers' and their parents' behavior toward me and any references to my culture were constant reminders. The sideways glances, the whispers, the giggles, the blatant exclusion, the condescending "helpfulness," and the moral imperatives they touted quickly solidified the idea that my family was "less than." The few children at school who did give me a chance at friendship were forbidden by their parents to spend time with me outside of school. This was out of a fear that in our inferior observance there was a chance we might put their children at risk of sinning unknowingly.
I was a good sport. I smiled and played the part of the very understanding child. But there were repercussions that took a hold of my soul. I learned to denounce my needs and to excuse others misbehavior towards me. I began resenting my idiosyncrasies, the things I find to be beautiful and honorable now, because they caused me pain. These differences included my parents, their inconvenient Persian accents, the "weird" Persian music they listened to, the smelly food they fed me, my extended family, my cultural heritage, my language, my hair, the awkward olive tint of my skin, the wavy sound of my voice, the look of my body, the clothes on my body—everything about me was unsatisfactory. My peers, it seemed to me, proudly upheld their authority and taunted me when I deviated from their norms. They would perform their taunts with the Persian accent, and they did this quite well, I might add. Anything representing "Persian" became dirty in my mind, and I readily whitewashed my behavior and language. I wanted to rid myself of my roots to fit in.
In my early years, I wondered for hours on end about a life in which the "governing power" was not a fanatical religious ideology that shunned and mocked my family and me for our differences (gastronomic, phenotypic, cultural, and beyond), and shamed us for our "immodest" dress—because my mom wore pants and did not cover her hair, for example; or because my collar bone peaked out of my collared shirt. I imagined a world where I was not the Other, where I didn't have to pretend, and where my friends' parents actually welcomed my family, instead of banning their children from spending time with me.
I never thought of attending a less religious school. I learned from certain peers that all less observant Jews were also undesirable—they were sinning in the eyes of G-d—and so I kept away from them, even though I probably would have been safer there. When we drove by Hillel Hebrew Academy (a school considered to be Orthodox by most standards) on the bus, we scoffed at the looks of their inferior devotion and observance of Judaism. I scoffed heartily along with the rest, desperately hiding the fact that behind closed doors my family was even less observant. We were "just traditional." "Please don’t find me out," I thought. I bullied my parents and started to police their behavior to make sure they didn't give our secret away.
Even when I was not in school, I was still confined, and confined myself, by their rules. At home I found my Christian next-door neighbors so alluring in their free spiritedness, playfulness, and ease, but I kept a distance from non-Jews because of programmed fears of lurking Anti-Semitism. I was told that most non-Jews are secretly hoping for and possibly, perhaps passively, plotting the destruction of our people. Little do they know, I heard, that at the time of the redemption they would become our servants. Our servants? This was all very confusing for the mind of a youngster. I was more afraid than confused at the time though, and I desperately hoped that G-d would forgive me for my family's sins of being "just traditional" when the time came.
My little mind tried to put the puzzle pieces together to make sense out of it all. Would God make us servants to these people too? I began to wonder. Are some people "better" than others? Are some people just bad to the core?
At the same time I yearned for connection from somewhere, but I felt ostracized from my Ultra Orthodox peers because of the differences I could not escape no matter how hard I tried.
Back to the drawing board: How must I avoid being shunned? How can I redeem myself? I was painfully shy; desperately hiding the despicable inside myself. Is this what it takes for me to belong? I pondered.
Do I need to die a little inside?
I started to. But I was determined to win.
My self-esteem was brittle, but I soon became nouveau rich in my "yiddishkeit." I had excelled by studying for my Jewish classes as if my life depended on it. Throughout the entirety of my Jewish schooling, however, I never learned how to pray—the most basic and regular part of every Ultra Orthodox person's day. I followed along the movements of my peers, too terrified to ask, lest I be exposed as an imposter.
At around 10-years-old my parents moved me from the Ultra Orthodox Jewish school to another school: an Orthodox Jewish school. Instead of an all-girls school, the boys and girls were on the same property, but separated by different floors. It was a little less severe: there were less black hats and more yarmulkes, collarbones were okay if they slipped through your blouse, but knees weren't. At first I excelled in all my classes and my teachers celebrated my great pride in my "yiddishkeit." But soon, I started to realize the stark differences from the last school. I started to become aware of the injustices, the subjectivity, and the hypocrisy. My self-esteem started to improve slightly, and I began to feel angst, confusion, and an undeniable zest for life. Also, I found that I felt an uncontrollable curiosity about the boys on the third floor. I wanted to shatter the rules and hypocrisy, but my need for love and approval from those around me held me perpetually prisoner. The more aware I became, the harder it became to stay blindly obedient. And that's around when I found my wacky, tongue-in-cheek role model: Slim Shady.
One day, at around 12 years old, I was sitting in computer class. I reached into my backpack to retrieve my brand spankin' new Eminem CD, giddy to present to my classmates. It was a big deal. Only one other person in the whole school had one. He was in the boy's class (boys and girls were strictly separated, but we communicated in secret). I basked in the attention from my peers, enjoying the astonished looks on their faces as Eminem, a symbol of fierce individuality and disobedience entered their insular and controlled worlds. My insides danced and my eyes twinkled in the excitement of our hushed conversations when suddenly a hairy arm swooped over my shoulder and snatched the CD right out of my little hands. I looked up to see my computer teacher towering over me. "I'm confiscating this and it's going to the principal." Mr. Taylor said.
I played it off cool and turned to my friends like, "whatever." During the next couple of periods though, I remember starting to feel somewhat dazed and separate from myself—a feeling that became familiar later on. I walked and laughed with my classmates, but inside I started to feel numb and lifeless, estranged from myself. I learned later that this was my reaction to fearing shame. I knew this wasn't good. I took a stupid chance on revealing some of myself that was different, and I was going to be exposed for the popular music listener (it was condemned) that I was. It was the culmination of everything I had feared in my childhood.
An analogy from the wild captures my experience: When an animal senses inescapable doom, being eaten by a predator, for example, the response is to freeze, to dissociate from the body in order to avoid the inevitable pain.
A couple periods later I heard my name on the intercom, summoning me to the principal's office. The time had come.
I knocked faintly on the door and waited until I was granted permission to enter. I creaked open the door to reveal Rabbi Wachsman, the principal, and Rabbi Stepen, the dean, seated behind a desk, solemn and stern. These were the predators. Rabbi Wachsman had a glass eye and Rabbi Stepen had a ferocious white beard; both making the encounter significantly more intimidating for me back then. I continued to scan the room in a slow motion daze and an image of my mother and then my father came into focus. They looked back at me, like ghosts, horrified and sad. I didn't say a word, nor do I remember anyone asking me to speak in that meeting. I sat on the side as the adults spoke about me and my wrongdoing. To my dismay, the Rabbis had printed out the lyrics to Eminem's songs and highlighted the profanity in his lyrics (like, every other word). I felt I had learned my lesson but the meeting went on. With every declaration the Rabbis made about how terrible my actions were, I watched my parents shrink smaller and smaller into the corner. The Rabbis suggested expelling me from the school. My mother cried out in protest. It was an abomination, the Rabbis countered, that I would listen to such music, that I brought it to school to share with others, how my incompetent parents let something horrible like this happen. I hated seeing my parents be hurt on account of my actions. I wanted to protect them, to call out and claim responsibility for the wrongdoing.
It's not their fault, it's mine! It is I who is bad! Me, not them! I wanted to say.
But no words came out. I just sat there as the tirade continued.
It was like a whirlwind until Rabbi Stepen launched the final incursion. He shifted focus from my parents, demanded my attention, insisting that I look up. I remember this as clearly and profoundly as it was that day. From the depths of his ancient beard he uttered a statement that pierced my little heart.
The rabbi looked into my eyes and said: "You. You should be going into the ground with shame."
I looked to the adults as children do to read their facial expressions for context. I looked up to see Rabbi Wachsman's cold stone face. I turned to the left, but my parents seemed helpless and horrified themselves. I wanted to cry out but the statement was like a punch to my stomach and I had lost my breath. I couldn't respond. I was helpless. The conversation was over.
Thus began my relationship with shame. Shame, who banished my true self; shame, who discounted my true feelings; shame, who silenced my voice. I was silenced so long, I had internalized the oppression and learned to protect my oppressor. I kept these experiences under wraps.
I've learned some things since then. The real abomination is not a child listening to "obscene" music. The real atrocity is to discipline a child by feeding her the toxic medicine of shame, to destroy an internal world of an individual to encourage the homogeneity of a community, to discourage deviation, to hate difference, to strive for mind control of the masses. In the field of psychology, shame is understood both as an agent and as a symptom of interpersonal traumatization. Associated reactions to interpersonal traumatization and shaming may include depression, anxiety, mood swings, identity issues, and excessive guilt. Furthermore, shaming and interpersonal traumatization stunts the healthy development of the self and reduces the chances for successful relationships in adulthood. The main factor that contributes to an experience being traumatic is feeling helpless in the painful situation, which is usually the case for children, who rely on adults in the caregiving system to live. Children are almost completely reliant on their caregivers, teachers, school administrators, and other adults to provide a safe place for healthy development, and do not have the resources to stand up for or to protect themselves. When they experience threats, physical, emotional, or psychological, they are not equipped with the capacity to remove themselves from the situation or context. They do not have the resources to understand that it is not their fault, that they don't deserve it—they need our support.
What I ventured to find and develop is the simple self-respect and ease that "normal" people seemed to possess so naturally. Through my adulthood I went back to heal my sweet, fiery inner child, to teach myself that I have always been a beautiful, worthy human being, that I deserve to take up space, and that I never, ever needed to discount or diminish myself or any part of myself in order to belong to any community.
When we teach our children through our cultural norms (like those in some collectivistic cultures, including Iranian) to value the opinion at the expense of themselves, we may be hurting them more than we are helping them. Without access to, and respect for the inner experience, an individual loses direction in life. How can I know what feels "right" in my gut, or what true, healthy love or friendship is, when I have lost connection with my internal experience? When I don’t know what feels right, how can I live?
The challenge of living in some collectivistic cultures that are more regulated can sometimes be this. There are many wonderful benefits to being part of the tribe but there are also strict, rigid implicit and explicit rules we are expected to abide by. We often blindly follow and even subconsciously perpetuate the same rules upon others, despite our own discomfort and true feelings and opinions about them. Perhaps some have thrown their true feelings and opinions overboard because they believed that's what they had to do to make it through alive.
We might think that with this self-sacrifice we are only, if at all, hurting ourselves. But there are no passive-observers in the game of life. By our own self-denial and refusal to accept the challenge to live truthfully and authentically, we are communicating to our youth, our brothers, sisters, and friends, our parents and grandparents and cousins, that it is not safe to be yourself and there is no room for the real you in the group. I don't deny that we have good reasons to do this. There is a constant looming threat of being shunned, which many studies demonstrate is akin for us, evolutionarily, to death. In the Persian community we may discount our real feelings out of a belief that somehow we need to sacrifice ourselves for the betterment of our families (though, we all know that never works) or out of a pathological fear of impending doom or terrible repercussions for deviating from the norm ("you will be divorced and worthless," "you will be miserable," "you will be a loser," "no one will love you!")
Historically, it may seem as though regulated collectivistic cultures and religions grant little room for the exploration and respect of individual differences and identities. We all had to be the same. But I think that is changing now. I used to think it was just me that felt this way about the Persian-Jewish community, but the more I healed out of my isolation and spoke to others about my truth, the more I realized that this experience is not so different from those around me.
If so many feel dissatisfied with the state of the community now, if so many feel isolated and estranged from their own people, why do we keep perpetuating the same rules and traditions? Why are we acting as if we are imposters in someone else's culture? Why don't we rise up as leaders and change what we don't like?
We need to show our parents the light. We need to find courage to be ourselves, and to create the culture that we want. Because we are not the imposters—we are the community.
It has been my experience that often in our rigid collectivistic cultures we are taught to narrow our life's focus on avoiding doom and developing our "reputation" and the image of perfection at the expense of the true self. When we deviate from expected norms, there is a clear and predictable response from others that alerts you and others of a violation, to encourage your submission and obedience. If you pay attention you can become aware of variations of these tactics, often subtle, that pressure us into obedience and making decisions that are often at odds with the pursuit of our own inner bliss. Growing up, I didn't have the privilege of ignorance in this sense, and developed a hyperawareness to this phenomenon. I became extremely aware of shaming and tactics of control in all their forms and as I healed myself, it became imperative that I respected myself by making conscious decisions that developed from my heart, and not out of fear.
The fear is a myth.
The sense of impending doom affecting many in our community is not adaptive; it is not connected to the present circumstances. The threats they are desperately avoiding are over and it hurts us to entertain these phantoms of anxiety. There is often a generational transfer of trauma, and that is what first generation youth are dealing with. What I have learned personally and what I have seen in working with my clients is there will always be serious and unavoidable consequences for denying the true self. The best way we can help those who are still trapped is by healing ourselves of the remnants of their trauma, and by honoring their sacrifices by healing and unleashing our true selves.
I wish I knew that people who hurt others, who make unreasonable demands and expectations, are often lost, in pain, and desperate for a sense of meaning to hold onto. They may use shame because in their own distress and in the chaos of their fear and anxiety they cannot fathom other tools.
I wish I knew that I am and we all are totally and completely safe to be ourselves. Don't get me wrong—I internalized much of the fear and shame I covered in this essay for a long time. I was for a long time petrified—like that little girl was that day—too frozen with fear and shame to stand up for myself and live the life that I wanted to live. The greatest challenge has been confronting myself and examining the internalized nonsense and choosing to let it go. That required me to stand up to the internalized Rabbi Stephen and the internalized girls taunting me and condemning me in my own head. But I did. It is now my responsibility to be here, healthy, vibrant, and in love with life, for the members of my community who might be experiencing variations of shame and a struggle for a real identity.
Feeling ashamed of who you are or feeling pressured to be something or someone you are not is not your burden to carry. We each deserve to be nourished and supported to be the best version of ourselves. It is a basic human right to be yourself and that's the nourishment a community should provide. It is a huge and miserable task to overcome pressure from an unaccepting community alone, and you might feel that the whole world is against you. I come forward now to support the individuals in our community, perfect and exquisite exactly as we are in all our diversity—because when we are stronger as individuals, we are stronger as a community. I want to provide a safe environment for our youth to flourish and to feel accepted, seen, and heard like they deserve. We ought to give our brothers, sisters and children opportunities to develop identities, happiness and self-worth rather than renditions of our own wounds.