When I first met Afshar(name changed) he had never met a Jew before.  This really astonished me as a Jew living in Los Angeles.  How can someone not have met a Jew before?  Is that possible in 2012?  But Afshar was from Iran.  A country not entirely friendly to Jews to say the least.

I could tell he was a little nervous to be around me.  But I tried not to let it bother me.  And instead laid on the Jewish part of my identity really thick.  We watched Israeli movies, ate Israeli food.  He asked questions about Judaism, about Jewish people.  And I was always surprised to find out what he didn’t know.  During one Israeli film an Iranian friend of his was surprised to learn there was such a thing as a poor Israeli.

“Are there poor Jews he asked? I didn’t know that.”

He learned Hebrew words, albeit strange ones he happened to find amusing (דקדוק, נקניק). And he always laughed at how many ch’s we manage to fit into one word.  I can’t tell you how surprised I was one night when he came to my room and asked, “What’s up?” “?מה קורה” in perfect Hebrew.  And I learned a few Farsi words in return.

But there were always barriers he was afraid to cross.  He was afraid of Hillel.  The idea of being in a room full of Jews scared him.  And there was always the lurking fear that Israel might bomb his country.  And yet I could tell, counter to what I had been taught, that at least for this Iranian, his fears about Jews came from a place of fear rather than hate.  His out of kilter questions came from confusion, not anti-semitism

So naturally, I took him Israeli dancing.  This was doubley scary.  Here we had not only a Jewish activity but an Israeli one.  Of course, I didn’t tell him where we were going.  I just dragged him along.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“You’ll see. You’ll see, “ I kept saying.

And then we were there, at the door to Hillel.

“We walked all the way here. You have to at least look inside, I encouraged.”  It seemed like sound logic.  We argued for a few minutes, and I pushed him through the door.

“What if they find out I’m Iranian?” he worried.

“Then, they will love you even more,” I answered.

And sure enough, he was greeted with smiles at the front door.  He refused to dance.

“I’ll just watch,” he vowed.  But that didn’t last long.  The whole room was screaming for him to come and join.  And after mispronouncing his name, the instructor even confused him for an Israeli, speaking to him in Hebrew. I answered so he wouldn’t feel embarrassed.  But the idea that he could be confused for an Israeli really weighed on him.

“Do we really look so alike?” he asked me.

The truth is that he was a far better dancer than me, as he took it upon himself to remind me daily for the next few weeks.  And I could tell he really liked ריקודים(Israeli dancing).

“I can’t believe I just did that,” he said.  “ I can’t believe it was so fun.”  “Half the Jews were Persian,” he exclaimed, confused. He hasn’t been to Los Angeles yet.

My relationship with Afshar is more than just a cross cultural dialogue between a Jew and an Iranian.  It is the story of how a person learns to see another person.  And it is the story of how peace can ensue between warring peoples.

As tensions build between Israel and Iran it is more important than ever to realize how similar we are.  We both drink coffee on our way to work.  We both study and go to university.  We are both just people trying to make our way in this world. And both Israelis and Iranians say “YALLA!” when they want someone to hurry up and get moving.  That is why along with a friend Sarah Katz, I have co-founded the Iran-Israel/Jewish Student Coalition at UC Berkeley that promotes intercultural dialogue between students of Iranian and Israeli/Jewish heritage as well as educational events.  From our Blast from the Past: Jewish Life in Ancient Persia night with a guest Iranian violinist and guest lecture from a local rabbi to an Israeli-Iranian film night, our first year in operation has been a success that I hope to inspire all of you reading this to continue as we will at Berkeley.

And it all started with Afshar, who spent his year learning about Judaism, celebrating his first Chanukah, and finding out what it means to have his first Jewish friend.