I had a very traditional upbringing. I grew up in a Persian-Jewish household with two amazing parents and two wonderful siblings. We celebrated Shabbat together every Friday night with both sides of my parents’ family – 40 people easily! I would sit in my grandmothers’ kitchen trying to learn their amazing recipes in a wonderful mix of broken English and Persian. My connection to Judaism was always evolving, but at its core was very strong. I have been attending Sinai since Mommy and Me classes. So my story for tonight is a different one, but nonetheless important.
When I was in the sixth grade, I decided to apply to Harvard-Westlake and leave Sinai Akiba a few years early. I was excited for this new educational opportunity, but I had a feeling the change was going to be weird. I would be leaving all of my friends I’ve made since birth and going from a totally awesome Jewish school to a completely secular one. I had no idea what to expect. Sinai was my home in more ways than one. My parents got married here, and my mom was always involved in the PTA and Sinai temple board.
Socially, when I started Harvard Westlake, it was a scary change. 50% of the kids in my new school were Jewish by association, but I was one of only 4 Persian kids in my grade of 260 kids, which meant that I couldn’t really identify with anyone there. So although there were lots of Jewish kids there, I felt pretty alone as someone who is both connected to Judaism and to another ethnicity. I remember going home to my parents asking why I couldn’t have boyfriends or go out on Friday nights like all the other kids. I felt frustrated because the answer was usually “Lauren, this is just the way it is. We value our heritage and so will you.” Kids were having birthday parties on Friday nights – what? That was so strange to me. Friday is for Shabbat not birthday parties! Of course that meant that I couldn’t go. I was battling between fitting in at my new secular school and holding on tightly to my rich Jewish traditions – no matter how much I may have resented them at the time.
The crux of feeling like I was between two worlds came during my bat-mitzvah. I invited all of my new friends to my service and luncheon. As it turned out, my bat-mitzvah was the same day as homecoming at Harvard-Westlake. We were just kids, not even in high school yet, and homecoming was still a big deal. I remember not seeing any of my Harvard-Westlake friends in the crowd at Sinai or at my house for the luncheon. They had said they were coming, but I guess they were caught up in the excitement of homecoming. No doubt, I was hurt. At Sinai, we couldn’t wait for our friends’ bnai mitzvahs. At Harvard-Westlake, it seemed to be just about the party. It was so foreign to me that a school event would trump a friend’s rite of passage any day.
Regardless of the pain I felt that day, my bat-mitzvah was one of the most special days in my life to celebrate with family and friends. I realized how important my Jewish identity was to me at that moment. We had a luncheon because my grandfather had passed away that summer and to honor him we did not have a huge night party. In lieu of candle lighting (since it was Shabbat) I planted a tree in Israel for each person honored at my luncheon. These two decisions connected me to my Judaism deeper than I ever had been before because I was the one who made the choice to honor my heritage instead of focusing on the party aspect of it all. I felt accomplished and nothing was going to bring me down! As time moved forward at Harvard-Westlake, I began to find a balance between my secular life there and my Jewish life at home. For example, when I got my license, I balanced Shabbat and friends by spending time with my family for dinner and then meeting up with my friends afterwards. And this is a balance I strive for now daily.
As I continue to grow and individuate here in LA as a professional and as a young Jewish woman, I continue to draw lessons from my bat mitzvah day: Family always comes first, and yet friends are significant, too. The way I was hurt on my bat-mitzvah day was not something I would want anyone else to feel, so I understand how important it is to support your friends no matter what. I also realize how crucial it is for me to renew my connection to my Jewish heritage each week at Shabbat; I understand that sometimes work, life, other commitments can get in the way of my Jewish roots, but that’s exactly what they are – roots – and it would take a lot to destroy them. I am in control of the decisions I make for my life and as I look to my future, I know I want to raise kids in a Jewish home with a solid Jewish education. I want them to grow up connected to their Persian to their Jewish and to their American heritage. See, as we get older and these decisions become relevant, we need to keep our foundation, or our roots, solid. The wind and other elements may sway the tree from time to time, but the roots only grow deeper and more grounded as the years go on.
Lauren Maddahi is a Registered Dietitian practicing at UCLA. She loves anything and everything related to healthy food, and is always looking to create lighter interpretations of classic Jewish dishes. She remains very involved in the LA Jewish community through Sinai Temple and other organizations in the area.