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As an American, I’ve known that I was different since I went to public kindergarten and was the only kid who didn’t celebrate Christmas.  Many of the residents of my hometown were of Scandinavian descent in those years, so if you look at class photos from the public school I attended through half of 3rd grade, I’m easy to spot with my dark, curly hair, light-olive skin, and ethnic features among a sea of lily-white towheads.

The kids at that school would pick on me—if not for my ethnicity then for the shape of my eyes, with their prominent lids in comparison to their slanted, lidless ones that I think were referred to as Norwegian folds.  They called me names since I was Jewish and I didn’t understand any of it. I was always a small, thin girl who liked art and books and they were so big and tall and sporty.

I remember that when I had a bad day, I would go home and look for my father.  On a day that I was teased about my eyes a lot, I recall I found my father primping in front of the mirror in the master bathroom—a testament to his vanity.  I told him about what the kids were saying to me at school.  I have my father’s eyes—right down to the unusual color—and he told me, “Actually, our eyes are very attractive,” while he continued to pick out his kinky hair.  I no longer cared about how different my eyes were after that.

However, the slurs got worse and I was sent to a private school halfway through 3rd grade.  Suddenly, there were Chinese kids and Persian kids and Jewish kids, too.  It was a Montessori school, which was a really good fit for an independent-type like me, and my father even entrusted me with the big, tuition check that I was instructed to drop off at the principal’s office.

I remember the Persian girls at my school, and there weren’t any boys for some reason.  They had come in ’79 with their families, fleeing for their lives after the coup because they had connections to the Shah.  I knew something had happened in Iran; I recall watching the blindfolded, American hostages and the huge banners of the Ayatollah on T.V. and thought Iran was the scariest country in the world, but my Persian friends were so American and they looked somewhat like my father and me.  They had different names, but they didn’t have accents and I had no idea they spoke Farsi, but they must have.  So, I never have really had a problem with Persians in the U.S., despite what people probably think due to Iran’s intolerable stance towards Israel.  In the end, this is America, and I’ve always felt more comfortable around other minorities.

After a lifetime of passing for so many ethnicities: Italian, Arab, half-black, Latina, Spanish, Greek, and yes, Persian, I found myself at my new, Persian kabob restaurant this week with the masses who don’t celebrate Christmas, as Christmas has somehow become a week-long holiday nowadays.  A party had been booked and the small, casual restaurant was packed full of Persians.  Most I have known aren’t religious, but all the women had their hair covered. They were dressed a bit more like Muslim-Arabs, but spoke Farsi.

I found this new spot a couple of weeks ago and after chatting with the owner, I learned he came to my city in the desert in the ’70s before the coup.  After I explained my food allergies, we haggled over a price for 3 orders of beef shish as they say—a shortened version of shish kabob.  It’s the only protein I get, so I’m a bit particular.  I didn’t want salad with mystery dressing, rice (mine is better), grilled onions and tomatoes, sumac, or secret sauce full of spices, all of which leaves me scratching my skin open for days due to some bizarre complication from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

However, when I made my way to the counter to order this time, a woman with very curly hair like mine was working, but it was naturally blonde.  She had an accent, but I wasn’t sure where she was from with her hair color and light skin.  She asked me in English if I was with the party and I said that I wasn’t.  She looked like an Israeli to me or possibly a Persian Jew since she worked at a Persian restaurant, but I had no time to ask since she was trying to charge me full price for only ordering the beef shish.  I was back to explaining my special order and haggling over the price, so I showed her my last receipt that I’d saved in the event the owner wasn’t in and then I saw him working in the kitchen and got a smile and a nod and all was settled.  I had my sclerals in since I had to drive and while I was waiting after I ordered, something amusing happened that represents my experience as a minority in America.

I was leaning against a curved, deli case at the side of the restaurant stretching out my achy back and I could see all the patrons who were gathered for this party.  Everyone had light-olive skin and dark hair, or at least the ones who didn’t cover their hair.  They had facial features that were not so different from mine and while they didn’t look like my people exactly and I didn’t see my eyes anywhere, there was a familiarity as there often is.  Yes, my sclerals work quite well at certain distances in dim lighting, even if my eyes hurt so badly I want to rip them out of the sockets.

I remembered how a former friend’s mother had once told me to become a spy because I could pass for so many ethnicities. I wondered if this huge group of people—all Muslims of Iranian descent—knew that I was different like all those kids back home did.  Was my Jewishness blinding them?  I felt at home with so many people who shared a similar look and regardless, the huge flock of Persians in Los Angeles ask each other if they’re Muslim or Jewish out of curiosity when they meet, so I wondered.  Would I pass for a Persian like I had so many times before?  Did I fit in, even if I was different?

Suddenly, an older woman with a headscarf looked at me a few times and then got up from the table and approached me.  I’m petite, but I seemed to tower over her.  She was very close to me, such a taboo in America, and spoke in Farsi.  I had a feeling she wanted to know where the bathroom was, but I don’t know any Farsi at all—only some words in Arabic. I told her apologetically, “Only English,” and she repeated a heavily accented, “English,” and we smiled and she found the woman with the blonde, curly hair and big eyes like mine and off to the bathroom she went.  I guess I should have gone with my gut and just pointed, but she quelled my curiosity: I passed.

Finally, my take-out order of beef shish was ready and the blonde woman rushed it over to me, apologizing for the wait. I asked her if she was Persian and she said that she was. She asked me if I was and I told her that I was Jewish, but people often think I’m Persian.  I said that I thought she was Israeli, but apparently not.  Then, she wished me a Merry Christmas—the two words I’ve heard non-stop the whole month—but she quickly corrected herself.  I gave her a big smile because for once, I didn’t have to do it myself.

I’ve never been much of a patriot, but the one thing I love about the States is that on the most boring of weeks for non-Christians, so many minorities can come together and find commonality.  At the end of the day, we all want to fit in one way or another in this country called America.

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  1. cheriblevy says:

    Great description of the time of yr for non-Jews. One of the reasons I love living in Israel, it barely comes up in conversations here. Happy December 25th!

    • Hi C!
      I rather dropped off of the WP map this summer, so good to hear from you. I always wonder what it would be like in Israel where I would be the majority and not the minority, but I think in the end that I love diversity too much. Never say never though–I know you’ve experienced both worlds.

      I hope you and your family had a nice Chanukah…
      A 🙂

  2. ShimonZ says:

    Very beautiful testament to the gracious freedom of American society. Though those kids may have given you a hard time as a child, it is wonderful to live in a tolerant and open society.

    • Thank you for your comment, Shimon. I was just replying to another Israeli I know on WP–it’s the middle of the night over here. In America, we are such a small minority as you know and as I went through life, I found that I just tried to get in where I fit in as the saying goes and things got better with time. I love the diversity in my country–especially where I live now–and the fact that people who might be arch enemies elsewhere can be friends here. While we still have the rednecks in large parts of the US, I do think that overall we are a more tolerant and open society and I’m grateful for that–it wasn’t always so. However, I do wish that people could grasp the concept that more and more Americans do not celebrate Christmas, and to not use that as a salutation for the entire month of December!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Lovely story! I TOTALLY relate. Though I mostly grew up in NYC so the minority experience not so much.. but when I traveled cross-country it was pretty surreal to see the response I got from people. I was asked more than once if I was a real gypsy. Apparently I look really eastern european.

    • Hi Jennifer,
      Thanks for the follow! I have you bookmarked as it’s hard for me to follow people due to my vision (crazy inbox), so I’ll be back. Yes, if I’d grown up in NYC, etc., I don’t think I would have stuck out like a sore thumb, but I was born and raised in Seattle–home of the Scandinavian fishermen. Lol! My family relocated there from Chicago in the ’40s, so there we were.

      I don’t think anyone has ever asked me about being a gypsy–too funny. You do have a bit of a gypsy-look, actually! I always wonder what questions I’d get if I just showed up in Iowa or someplace. I’m really just waiting for big, ’80s hair to come back so people can stop me at the store again and say, “Omg, tell me who perms your hair and every product you use to get it to look just like that!” Seriously, I had to explain that it just grows out of my head that way one too many times.
      A 🙂

  4. dyspatient says:

    I was just watching a silly show, comic book hero stuff, and one character asks another “so what are you doing for christmas” the first character replies “lighting my menorah”. Made me chuckle. I was raised christian-ish, certainly celebrating christmas, and personally it is one of my least favorite holidays. Some years I handle it better than others. This year, not so much. So I feel a kinship with your post on some level, at least on the level of not feeling like christmas belongs to me.

    • Hey D,

      Haha to that comment–it’s like going out for Chinese and a movie. I figured you would get it on some level. You see, even if 23andMe states X, Y, and Z about your ethnicity, I see you as totally Italian via your personality (won’t your father be proud). Italians are good at being the squeaky wheel, very into their communities, and proud of their heritage, so I’ve always found commonality with Italians, especially as the ones I’ve known have been louder than I am. Lol. Sicilians have that different look that I pass for–especially around the Scandinavians (or Scandihoovians as I call them). So, I see you as a member of the club, probably doing the obligatory Christmas things due to your upbringing, but secretly dreading it, like I did when we had to participate in Secret Santa at every job I had (or else).

      Also, I have this issue with Christmas in the US and how it’s all about going into debt, shooting Walmart flockers over a TV, forcing people in retail to work these insane hours, and the aforementioned Santa Clause, who doesn’t seem to be in any biblical stories to my knowledge, but if he is, then I guess he’s a Jew, hence the big beard. Maybe I’ll ask him next year. I actually found Christmas to be rather interesting when I lived in Mexico and it was a very religious holiday, much like our own. If you recall, I grew up across from a huge Catholic church and all my neighbors were Catholic–more WASPy than anything else, but all very nice to us. I liked how they celebrated the holidays and would go to my English neighbor’s house over Christmas and go crazy over her advent calendar, which is something I don’t think most Christians have. So, even I have some good memories from the devout Catholics who I watched walk to Mass every Sunday from my window and who truly had no problem with the only Jewish family in the neighborhood, which sounds odd, but it’s the way the rest of the people treated me that left a sour taste in my mouth.

      Btw, per this post, the best part is that I got bad meat from that place, which is really a hole in the wall. By day 2, I knew the beef was off but was convincing myself it was just over-marinated so I wouldn’t throw all my money away. Come day 3, with the massive GI issues, it was just b-a-d and even Moush wouldn’t eat it. By Sat at 1 am, I went to urgent care, where I sat for 5 hours in a room full of people with whooping cough, holding my poor intestines until I could get a script for Cipro from the P.A. Eating at the Afghan kabob place again that I never got sick at. Oy.

      Long reply!

      • dyspatient says:

        :/ oh crap, that sucks that you got sick. Poor lady.

        Santa is totally pagan, right? Ridiculous that the public right in this country has gotten so up in arms about “war on christmas” and all that. I had a prof who was from Italy and he was just horrified at how we celebrate christmas here. “it is a religious holiday! We go to de church, we sing, we do not make de deal as you do here” he told me. Easter on the other hand, apparently a very big deal in Italy.

        Oh I could probably pass for middle eastern. My skin tone, no. but my features? Heavy lidded eyes, dark brows, high cheek bones and thin slightly arched nose with a bit of a bump in the bridge. I have an old driver’s license where I came out looking distinctly Lebanese. LOL.

      • Haha. I get Lebanese too because so many have lighter skin. Yep, I figured that about you. The eyebrows are really fun when the vision goes I tell you. When I have to put the sclerals in, I’m like, “Oh no, what have I done?” and now I have these chola brows since they’re such a mess and I try to fill them in with dark eyebrow liner as best as possible. It’s horrible and the closer I get to the mirror, the worse my vision gets from the damn convergence issue! If I just let them go, I’ll look like Bert from Sesame Street. :/

        Per Easter and the Italian prof, that was the same in Mexico too with semana santa (not to be confused with Santa Clause). Oh my, they do the thing where they walk through the streets carrying a huge cross. Then on Lent I believe, or is it Good Friday (is that the same?), everyone walks around with that smudge of ash on their forehead. The first time I saw it, I thought someone just had something on their face, until I saw more and more people like that. I think the best is that the buses always drive past the central cathedral in any city and everyone on the bus, except for me, crosses themselves. I really thought it was all very interesting and as everyone presumed I was Mexican, I could have cared less. 🙂

      • dyspatient says:

        Good Friday ashes freaked me out the first time I saw them too! it’s funny, you’d think growing up where I did, I’d have seen people with them at a younger age but I don’t remember seeing it until later in the 80s and I had the same reaction. Like “hey, you got something on your face…” lol! It’s an interesting gesture, but when it is worn by someone who is the opposite of humble and all that, I can’t help seeing it less as a gesture of faith and more as a sort of in-club fashion statement. Where’s my sackcloth!? My shirt of nettles? Holy damn, I want to feel penitent!

      • Okay–so it is Good Friday. I think I’ve seen it here due to all the Latinos, but yeah, if it’s like what you describe, then whatever. Sort of a holier-than-thou thing going on.

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