Jewish and Persian Connections Mission

In response to statements emanating from the Middle East regarding nuclear threat to both the Jewish and Persian peoples, we seek to project an alternative voice on Jewish- Persian relations that disseminates knowledge about the historical and cultural ties between these two peoples, fosters friendship and openings for creative exchange, and contributes to the identity of adults and children of mixed Jewish and Persian ancestry.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

The Dating Game

An anthology prepared by students in Professor Gissler's 2001 seminar
Shandray Mehdian
Accessed 06/ 25/2007)

It was not a typical teen-age fight over a girl. The outraged student at Great Neck North High School in suburban Long Island was defending the honor of his Jewish-Iranian sister who had been smeared by what he deemed a vicious rumor. She had been accused of dating an American boy.

To the Jewish-Iranian community, the rumor was double trouble. Any form of dating by teen-age girls is prohibited, and dating outside the faith deepens the disgrace. At stake is the family's reputation and the girl's chance for marriage. So the brother punched out the Jewish-Iranian student who had spread the false tale - and was suspended for two days.

"My best friend went crazy," Sasha, an 18-year-old senior, said of the fist swinger. Like many other Jewish-Iranian students, Sasha asked that only his first name be used.

However, schools officials familiar with the Jewish-Iranian community, were not shocked by the fight. "For a girl to be seen with someone, or even a rumor about her, can get brothers and fathers excited," said Angelo Sabatelli, assistant principal at Great Neck North. "Because then the marriage proposal is gone. Now everyone thinks she is not pure."

Though the fight was unusual , the issue of dating plagues many of the Jewish-Iranian teens at Great Neck North, which has a 38 per cent Iranian student population, most of them Jewish. Not only does the strict bar against girls dating or socializing with the opposite sex collide with American popular culture, but the rule, under Jewish-Iranian tradition, also exempts boys who are free to date any and all girls - a double standard that sometimes creates puzzlement and resentment among Jewish-Iranian girls.

The remarkable situation at Great Neck North can be traced to the 1978-79 revolution in Iran. Waves of Jewish Iranian immigrants fled to the United States, finding new homes all over the country, with the largest populations in New York and southern California. In Great Neck alone, Jewish Iranians estimate that there are nearly 3,500 families. With so many families packed into a small town of about 37,000, they say, a close-knit subculture inevitably emerges and defense of family integrity - and particularly the reputation of young women - becomes crucial.

In the Jewish-Iranian culture, women uphold the values and virtues of the community. When it comes to dating and socializing with the opposite sex, women must abide by the strictest standards and remain a symbol of purity. Thus "casual" dating by females, with no intention of marriage, or dating outside the community is out of the question, said Shanaz Goldman, a social worker at Great Neck North since 1994. "I have not yet met a Jewish-Iranian mother who'd feel comfortable with her daughter having an American boyfriend," said Goldman, also a member of the Pupil Personnel, a group of psychologists, social workers and mental health professionals.

Usually, the slightest deviance can mar the reputation of a young woman and her family's integrity. "God forbid that a girl have a bad name in the society," Goldman said. "Her prospects of finding a mate will be doomed."

On the other hand, the opposite is true of Jewish Iranian boys. Not only are they expected to date at an early age, but they are encouraged to date non-Iranian women. "Boys can do whatever the girl cannot," Goldman said. "Parents will encourage him to have a girlfriend - it's like a badge of honor."

Sabatelli agreed. "While Iranian girls are not permitted to date, Iranian boys are encouraged to 'have fun,'" he said. "The boys are not discouraged from dating the American girls." Sabatelli, who has been at the high school for 20 years, says 60 per cent of the Jewish-Iranian male seniors are dating non-Iranian females. "But you'll never see an Iranian girl holding hands with another boy," he said. "You just don't see it -- not even at the prom."

Though the double standard is deeply rooted in the traditional Iranian culture, Sabatelli, who has studied European and Middle Eastern history, feels it has also become a "macho thing" among the high school boys at Great Neck North to date American girls.

According to Goldman, who puts on parenting workshops for adults throughout the academic year, several factors explain the double standard. First is the influence of the Islamic culture that, some critics say, dictates the second-class status of women. "The woman's job was to be subservient," Goldman said. "She had to stay home and take care of the children." In present day Iran women must still wear the traditional head covering, the chador, and are forbidden to ride bicycles in public parks and streets.

A second factor is class, Goldman said. In Iran, a country based on a class system, the upper echelon could afford to send their male children abroad for education. Thus the men had greater opportunities and freedom to mingle with Western women.

A third factor, according to Goldman, is the fact that Jews in Iran were a minority and consequently adhered more to their cultural ways. Most considered pre-marital sex and intimacy unacceptable, as stipulated by Jewish laws and mores. Here in America, Jewish Iranians again represent a minority community. "But because mainstream American culture is so different, some values are played out more strongly than they were in the homeland and adhered to with greater tenacity," Goldman said.

In Iran this system seemed to work well, observers say. But America is a different story, especially for the new generation of youth born and reared in a culture so different from that of the older generation.

"If their culture means that much to them, that's great," said Jessica, a junior who has been in the Great Neck public school system since elementary school. "But I think it's overdone a little." Jessica says she comes from a Jewish-Iranian family that is more open-minded but she must still marry only a Jewish-Iranian male.

Jessica said her parents, who "love each other to death" and who have been together for 25 years, met each other in Iran and were married six days later. Those sorts of marriages were common in Iran 20 or 30 years ago.

But now times are different. And tension and conflict arise when the older generation demands to uphold the traditional values of the Jewish-Iranian culture and their first- generation children wish to follow the ways of their non-Iranian peers. And in no other area does this tension surface more clearly than when it comes to dating and socializing. At times Jessica feels confused. "Iranian girls aren't supposed to date until they want to get married," she said. "But how will you gain dating experience for marriage when you haven't had any relationships?"

As for the double standard, Jessica thinks it's wrong for parents to impose a set of strict standards for one child and not for the other. "It's so annoying," she said. "My brother was allowed to do everything at my age - had no curfews and about a hundred girlfriends. If I had one boyfriend my parents would say 'what's going on?'"

"There's definitely, definitely a double standard," Goldman said. "All these girls want is to have a normal adolescent life. But their parents are so fearful that they place restrictions on behavior. They have limits on their freedom-no sleepovers, no camps, early curfews, and no unchaperoned parties."

What sometimes happens, said Goldman, herself a mother of three, is that the children who face restrictions without any knowledge of their culture or understanding of their values, end up with resentment, fear and anathema. "Those are the ones who hate the culture, who don't like to speak Farsi, or be called Iranians," Goldman said. "They have no sense of identity with the culture."

On the other hand, Goldman argues that the Jewish-Iranian children who "embrace their heritage" and have a good sense of their culture and where they come from are more accepting of their parent's values.

"All the kids my age are still living in that mentality, in the shadow of their parents," Jessica said. "And as long as that happens, it's never going to end." But after a moment's thought, Jessica modified her conclusion: "It's stressful, but it works out well in the end because it leans towards a more disciplined life."

Mark, a 16-year-old Jewish-Iranian student with spiked hair, has no problem with the double standard. "It's better for Iranian girls to be like that," he said. "When an Iranian guy is ready to get married he's not going to look for the girl who's been dating ever since she was a teen-ager." Sabatelli explained it further. "When it comes to marriage, the boys know they must marry a 'nice, Iranian girl,'" he said. "The parents want to hold on to those values to ensure that their daughter or son marry within the Iranian culture."

"The young boys want to marry someone pure," Goldman said. "That's what's been ingrained in them."

Mark said his sister didn't date until she was ready for marriage. He estimates that at Great Neck North 15 per cent of Iranian girls date casually but 75 per cent would do it "if they could."

So are there any signs of change in how Jewish-Iranian traditions play out at Great Neck North? Yes and no, say students and school officials. While basic values remain in tact and dating is restricted, "girls and guys can hang out [???] when they wouldn't even think about that years ago," Mark said, referring to groups of friends going to see a movie together.

Sasha, the senior, agreed that "times are changing," but only in limited ways. He sees more Iranian girls casually dating than in the past. "Now we're in America," he said. "American guys are out there." But the traditional values ingrained in first-generation Jewish Iranians are still strong. "Iranian girls really respect their parents, they're really into the family thing - very traditional," he said. "They really do care." Therefore if they do date casually, said Sasha, the boy has to be very special and it must be secretive. "Iranian girls are still uptight about it because they think about marriage - it's on their minds."

"A very little portion of society has become open-minded," Goldman said. "There's still so much concern about what others think." Goldman refers to the Iranian concern with "keeping face" in the community - or aberu. If aberu is gone, then so is the family's name and honor.

Preoccupation with aberu - denying one's self in order to be well regarded in the community - continues to impel parents to restrict their daughters' dating. "Even those parents who have lived here longer, who are more open-minded, don't allow their kids to go out with non-Iranians because they fear what others may think of them," Goldman said.

Even the younger generation practices this concept. "At a party you want to drink with your friends but you feel uncomfortable doing it in front of other people because you know they'll say 'Oh she's such a slut, you should have seen her this weekend…,'" said Jessica.

"The kids are very confused," Sabatelli said. "They want to uphold the old Iranian traditions and culture. They can't break away from it because then they'd have to break away from the family, but there's also a lot of resentment."

In past years Goldman put together an Iranian girls group that would meet to talk about their experiences growing up in Iranian families. "It was great support," she said. "One girl would talk about her experience and then another would say 'I can relate to that' and so on and so on."

"You have to understand how different cultures operate," said Sabatelli, who believes he understands the Iranian culture better because of his own Italian background. "Or else you make mistakes." Sabatelli said that Great Neck North began noticing differences between Iranian and American cultures once the number of Iranians started to grow. Then in 1994, the school decided to hire a Farsi-speaking social worker to deal with the teens and their families.

Today Goldman says she sees some change in the families with which she has worked. For example, more and more Iranian parents allow their daughters to go away to college, a privilege traditionally reserved for young males. "These girls come to me and beg me to speak to their parents," Goldman said. "I work together with the families to open the communication lines and break that resistance." This year, she says, is the first year that no one came to her. She attributes that to parents' better understanding of the issues that their teen-agers face.

Sabatelli is also optimistic. "Though the majority are still holding on to the traditional ways, they are changing somewhat," he said. "When this first generation has children, they will continue to assimilate more and more. Within two generations it will be mostly assimilated. The shift will be towards greater liberalization and acceptance."