Chanukah gelt. Photo from Wikipedia
I don’t know what it was like for the others, but, for me, Chanukah as a holiday has been a complete revelation.
I don’t think I had heard mention of it growing up in Iran, and I certainly don’t remember lighting a menorah or indulging in any kind of frivolous food or activity at this time of year. We weren’t big on “indulging” in Iran anyway, and we took religion too seriously to greet most occasions lightheartedly. We did celebrate Norouz, which is a Zoroastrian holiday that Iranians of every faith observe, and we got together in small and large numbers all the time, especially on Friday nights, and we had birthday parties and engagement parties and weddings and brit milahs to keep a person busy five nights a week. But in our family at least, being Jewish was all about sacrifice and oppression, seven plagues and 40 years in the desert and stoning the disobedient son in the town square and thinking of your sins on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah was less about apples and honey than ushering in the Day of Atonement; Passover was less about reclining on a pillow and hiding the matzah than the 1,001 things you couldn’t eat.
Partly, I believe, this was a factor of living in a Shia Muslim country, where most people’s idea of “celebrating” a religious holiday — Ashura — was to dress in mourning clothes and self-flagellate with heavy metal chains and sharp butcher knives until they passed out from blood loss.
Partly, too, it was a byproduct of being a nation with a long history, much of it marred by strife. Life had been hard and opportunities had been too rare for too long for too many people. We took things — religion, education, duty, responsibility, aabehroo (family reputation) — too seriously to allow an occasion to come and go without serving a useful purpose. We knew better than to expect, much less feel entitled to, happiness as an end in itself. Even today, the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” sounds like a uniquely American fantasy to me. In the Iran that I knew, Life was supposed to be hard, Liberty was an idea that ensured you a good 10 years in prison, and Happiness was making sure one had met one’s obligations correctly.
Which doesn’t mean I was any more or less happy than your average Jewish-American child. But I have a feeling I had a lot less fun growing up. The way I knew it, religion was something you carried — like a cross or a scarlet letter — defiantly and at personal sacrifice. It wasn’t fun; wasn’t supposed to be fun. Like most everything else — school, home life, entertainment, even literature and poetry and art — it was a learning, growing, maturing experience that lent to a young person the emotional tools with which to endure what would surely be a challenging adulthood.
Imagine my apprehension, therefore, at discovering, as I attempted to raise semi-normal children in Los Angeles, that much of what I “knew” to be true about religion, education and all that makes a person more or less whole, just wasn’t. Or maybe it was true, but not relevant. Not if you wanted your child to grow up in the mainstream, such as it is in this town, as opposed to one of the more reclusive, hell-bent-on-repeating-the-past Iranian or Ashkenazi communities. I use the word “apprehension” deliberately, though I realize it sounds counter-intuitive: Why not rejoice, you ask, in finding that my children could have a lot more fun being Jews than I did? That they could have an easier time in school, rely on their parents to a greater extent to soothe them at home?
Because, you see, the way I knew it, fun wasn’t necessarily a good thing. It could be a waste of time, or a source of unreasonably high expectations, or a way to desensitize children to other people’s pain, or to turn them into lazy, entitled adults. Fun could be the Trojan horse that ushers in any number of long-term pathologies.
Too many sweets, too much fat, too many gifts, too much time off school, and we wonder why they remain children into their 20s, expect a medal for getting up in the morning, feel cheated if they make less than seven figures by the time they’re in their 30s.
My children may beg to differ, but I don’t think I was exactly a fascist as a parent. Not by the standards with which I was raised, anyway. For the record, I did celebrate Chanukah every year and still do, latkes and gelt included, but for too long I did it with one eye closed to what I feared was looming disaster.
I’m exaggerating, but only a little. Chanukah, for me, became a metaphor for a certain way of seeing the world and preparing one’s child for it. I didn’t fear the holiday so much as the reason so many parents in our day school liked to celebrate it — to give their kids a Jewish alternative to Christmas. “We don’t celebrate Christmas because we’re not Christian,” I would tell my kids, and expect that to be enough. I didn’t see the need to add, “But we celebrate Chanukah, which is equally fun.” My way had worked just fine in Iran. It was the kind of tough-love “life is hard, better get used to it” approach that I grew up with. But in L.A., among my children’s friends and their families, it sounded almost draconian.
I could see this — that the way I was preparing my children for their adult life and responsibilities might be depriving them of some of their childhood. That childhood as we knew it in our part of the world was a shorter, harder, more austere and unforgiving time — a different animal, so to speak — than its American namesake. I just didn’t know which was real and which was a fantasy.
For most of my children’s formative years, I vacillated between wanting to give them everything I was able to and holding back lest they take things for granted; between trying to comfort them emotionally and expecting them to comfort themselves; between “I feel for you” and “snap out of it”; “let me hold your hand” and “get out there and manage.” I struggled to find the sweet spot, the right balance, the proper combination. Chanukah came and went, and my kids became adolescents and young adults and, finally, despite my many mistakes, what I believe are excellent human beings. Only then, as I looked back on my fumbling, stumbling search for the correct formula, did I realize that I had been looking in the wrong place all the while.
There’s an internal logic to every universe that makes its existence possible and its survival probable. In a different context, that logic may be defunct or nonsensical or, at the very least, useless. Never mind that there’s no “correct” way to raise a child (which is why the experts rewrite the bible on parenting every five to 10 years). I’ve come to learn that, with few exceptions — the need for love, care, stability and trust — there’s no common way to define or understand or treat a child correctly either. Chanukah as a metaphor for a gentler, more indulgent upbringing might have made little sense in the stringent, often exacting country that was Iran as I knew it. But my children were neither entirely Iranian nor growing up in Iran. They were, in many ways that greatly mattered, entirely dissimilar creatures from what I had once been or remembered.
I try now to remember this. I hope younger parents from other immigrant families do as well.
Gina Nahai’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”