2020 has been a momentous year — the conversation on diversity has never been more important. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Vice President of Community Engagement Mary Kohav has made diversity a priority. As a Persian Jew, Mary believes in the importance and richness of sharing untold stories within our own Jewish community. Read along to learn about Mary’s own experience growing up as a Persian Jew in Michigan as she shares her story (originally published by HuffPost) with the hope of impacting how we think about the Jewish future and inspiring us to share our own unique stories.
The Coleman went with us on every family road trip – to Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio in the summer and for ski trips to Boyne Mountain in the winter. Coleman was there on drives to visit family in D.C. or to Lake Charlevoix in Michigan. Some trips were a few hours, some a few days, but on every trip there was Persian music. Five hours straight in the car listening to Morteza and Hayedeh might seem exotic but back then my sisters and I would just feel nauseous and make vomit faces to each other while my parents would snap their fingers and sing and get all nostalgic.
A bigger issue on those trips for us kids was the food, and that was Coleman’s fault. We just wanted Doritos and Whatchamacallits and Burger King chicken sandwiches but as far back as I can remember, we had this supersized sewage green Coleman cooler. My mom filled it with cotlet (potato and hamburger patties seasoned with cumin and turmeric) kookoo sabzi (a frittata made of parsley, scallions and cilantro cut into pizza size slices) pita bread, and more grapes, oranges, watermelon, and plums than you can imagine. That was Coleman.
You know how parents walk on either side of their toddler holding her hands and swinging her? My parents Mahnaz and Manoochechr did that walk with the Coleman, heavily stocked with all that was spicy and ethnic about us, one on the left and one on the right, their arms taut, gripping the awkward metal handles, my dad walking with his familiar gait. My sisters and I trailed behind with our feathered hair and safety pinned jeans holding a few small bags and whining “will you please stop touching me” to each other.
My father loved driving on the lush foresty interstate highways of the Midwest. He would always get the maps and highlighted triptiks from AAA and sometimes I’d get to sit in the front and navigate. He’d ask me how many miles we had left and I’d add them up and watch the odometer and track it. We’d get excited when were close. Then we’d laugh about names of towns that meant silly things in Farsi like “Macon” which translates into “my butt,” or funny last name’s of the other doctors he worked with at Holy Cross Hospital. Some of my best memories of childhood are from those long and boring road trips he so masterfully navigated.
One winter my parents bought a glorious mini black and white 5-inch TV for the car. The tube in the back was bigger than the screen and we would afix it on the middle of the front seat bench of our tan Oldsmobile Toronado. We watched anything we could catch on that screen while driving like Leave it to Beaver, The Little Rascals, Fat Albert. If it got fuzzy I’d hold hands with my sisters and one of us would touch the TV and we’d all take on various poses until we could get another image.
A later experience I recall with multimedia didn’t have such a happy ending. It was the mid 80s and my sister and I were obsessed with Milli Vanilli; we loved the hair, the biker shorts, the dancing, the dudes and we knew every song – Blame it On the Rain, Baby Don’t Forget My Number, Girl You Know It’s True – by heart. Determined to replace the sounds of the Persian music in the car as we got older, we had brought our coveted cassette on a trip through Canada and upstate New York and we got into a screaming match over which Milli Vanilli song we wanted to hear. Ultimately my dad eject-buttoned the cassette and chucked it out the window somewhere near Woodstock and that was that. No more Milli Vanilli. Michelle and I were weeping about it for days. Sort of a foreshadowing in a way I suppose.
I think Macon (the town called my butt) was on our way to Daytona Beach. I’m sure we even took Coleman on that trip. My parents would people watch muscle cars and almost-bare bodies on the strip and mock the rowdy spring break partyers while my sisters and I tried desperately to blend in. On the way back one year we were going to spend the night in Orlando and go to DisneyWorld. We were so giddy with excitement and were up late making each other laugh because my mom had just figured out how to make fart noises under her armpit. Then the phone rang. We were sure the call was for us to be quiet but my dad’s worried face gone white told a different story. It was a bomb threat with specific details about our room. We immediately notified the hotel and had the cops pack up our entire room while we stood in our pajamas in the parking lot with other guests on our floor.
I found the whole thing amusing and imagining the Orlando police carefully sifting through and packing up my Persian parents toiletries, our shoes and undergarments, our Coleman, just kept making me giggle. Thinking back it seems odd that they didn’t evacuate the floors above us. The cops brought our luggage downstairs and my dad drove for 22 hours straight home. One look at our parents’ somber expressions told us it was not a time for questions or complaints. We were disappointed but we knew it had to be done.
As I think about Hanukkah and the miracle of this holiday, I am reminded of my grandfather Abraham and Aunt Homa’s escape from Iran after the 1979 revolution. After finally arriving safely in the US, they came to visit us in Michigan. We headed up to our lakehouse in Charlevoix where one afternoon my dad and grandfather took this mini Persian rug with them as they walked out towards the water. They sat on the rug right on top of all the perfectly shaped Petosky stones that lined the lake and took turns taking shots of Vodka from a large serving spoon. I’m guessing they couldn’t find a shot glass that day.
In Farsi, vodka is called aragh which also means sweat and so I was a bit confused as to exactly what they were consuming. They did have much to celebrate as it took my grandfather, 65 years old at the time, and his young daughter several weeks to escape Iran into Pakistan where a Jewish family there was helping other Jews flee to Switzerland and then Israel. Grandpa was a 6’ 5” gentle giant and understandably afraid to ride on the camels for one part of the journey through Iran’s desert and so he chose to walk alongside the secret gang of smugglers and refugees through the dark night. At one point on the trip they nearly perished due to a fire and miraculously escaped the flames. So I figured if he wanted to drink sweat on the Persian carpet with my dad from the spoon it was okay.
As a child, I saw my parents as foreigners in a strange land and I know many of their peers also did. But the thing is, they didn’t see themselves that way. From across the world, they left everything they knew, and without any family, voyaged to Michigan to provide a brighter future for their family. They learned a new language, new traditions, faced racism and made friends with people so very different from them and found community for us. I’m so grateful for all the rich and beautiful traditions they shared, the values they passed on, the way they treasured our time together as a family. They were doing what their Jewish ancestors before them had done and will continue to do: trailblaze, uproot their families and begin anew, push ahead in hopes of survival and a better life.
Just knowing my kids are coming home from school is stressful to me, let alone having to pack and plan for a road trip in freezing temperatures to go skiing! But I’ve had my share of struggle and credit my strength to the resilience I saw in my parents, their unending optimism and zest for life, their ability to persevere and fight for their right to live fully and freely.
And what a journey so far… with amazing friends and family, without the Milli Vanilli tape, and with our trusty treasure box of Persian goodies, the Coleman.
Special thanks to Stuart K. Robinson, Lia Mandelbaum and my fellow community members at Temple Beth Am alongside whom I had the honor of sharing this story as part of a recent Hanukkah Monologues storytelling program.