Persian Jews love food. Yes — I know, I know: All Jews love food. Everyone knows that being Jewish and eating basically go hand in hand. I mean, each and every weekend we have a holiday that surrounds us with food.
But, as a Persian Jew myself, I can attest that Persian Jews really, really love to eat. So, it’s no wonder that, for so many Persian Jews, who immigrated to the U.S. in the years following the Islamic revolution in 1979, we wholeheartedly jumped on the Thanksgiving bandwagon. Plus, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t a sense of thankfulness the essence of Judaism?
Of course, true to our fashion, many Persian Jews have put our own twist on this most of American holidays. For many families, including my own, this includes the seriousness with which we make plans for the big day. Every year, we could begin discussing the Thanksgiving menu during Sukkot, when the scent of fall begins to fill the air.
Like most American families, turkey is the main dish at our table. But oftentimes, it’s not the only fowl served — oven roasted chicken with apricots and prunes, or pan-seared cornish hens, lightly seasoned and perfectly cooked, might make an appearance. There’s always a plethora of various colorful stews and rice dishes, too, including rice with lima beans and dill; sweet rice with candied orange peel, pistachio and almond slivers; and, my personal favorite, a green herb stew that’s slowly simmered and ever so aromatic. My family and I have been celebrating Thanksgiving for 30 years, and I’ve yet to taste cranberry sauce or stuffing made with breadcrumbs.
I believe one of the reasons Thanksgiving has been embraced so fully by the Persian Jewish community is because it gives us a chance to remember how very blessed we have been to be able to lay down roots in this country. Yes, these are troubled times for many across the U.S., but we continue to be grateful for having escaped tyranny of the Islamic republic regime.
Plus, what’s special about Thanksgiving is that we get to celebrate with family and share delicious food, but we don’t have to sit through hours of synagogue services. And yet, Jewish flavors and traditions are important, even on this secular holiday — we begin Thanksgiving dinner with the motzi, the blessing over the bread, and the challah we enjoy with our meal is likely homemade.
For many of us, the gratitude associated with this day is personal. Many of us fled Iran in a hurry — leaving our livelihood, history, and homeland behind. My family may not have traveled here on the Mayflower, but we arrived on these shores tired and seeking refuge, just as the pilgrims did all those years ago. Having grown up in a culture that forced us to wear the chador, the fact that we can live freely as Jews here in the U.S. is something we don’t take for granted. Only in America could my family openly attend synagogue or send our children to a Jewish day school, without fear of being ostracized — or worse.
This year, a year unlike any other, the approach of Thanksgiving feels bittersweet. Like so many other firsts, this Thanksgiving will be a quieter one for us. Instead of our usual gathering of extended family and friends — there’s usually a crowd of 35 or so — this year’s celebration will be a mellow one; just our immediate family of five. Given our small numbers this year, gone are the variety of different stews and colorful rices. But the deliciously juicy turkey will still take center stage, along with my mother’s stuffing recipe, cooked right along the turkey all day long. There will be authentic Persian meatballs, a family favorite, and white rice with a delicious crispy bottom that everyone is sure to fight over. Plus, like so many other American families, we will take advantage of the technology available — we’ll connect with parents, grandparents, and cousins via Zoom. (Yet another thing to be grateful for!)
In a year that’s seen so much turmoil, loss, and divisiveness, perhaps it’s time to count our blessings with even more heart and meaning. So many comforts and necessities that we had taken for granted — traveling, eating out, school, family gatherings — have become challenging or impossible. So this holiday, as we gather around our more intimate tables, we have the ability — responsibility, even — to be thankful for the greatest blessing of all: the knowledge that everyday is a gift. This Thanksgiving, let’s remind ourselves again of how truly blessed we are, and, despite the challenges in life, we must continue to hope for a better tomorrow.
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