Rachel Wahba

Under the Chuppah — DOMA and the Persian “Revolt” in Los Angeles

On the heels of the demise of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), Los Angeles Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe’s announcement that he will be performing same-sex marriages in his synagogue has upset enough of its congregants to warrant a “revolt”.

“The Persian community is pretty heavily weighted against the idea of same-sex marriage,” Wolpe explained.

The Rabbi upset enough of the thousand strong Persian congregants of his high-profile Conservative Synagogue to warrant a front-page article in the New York Times.

Some families may leave as they threaten to go. I imagine most will stay. I know people grow. My family did.

Wolpe will raise the consciousness of many who are “revolting” in disgust at his announcement. Eventually this crisis will pass, and same-sex weddings will be part of the fabric of the community.

Ironically, the congregants threatening to leave Rabbi Wolpe’s congregation fled a country where historically they were the object of disgust and often persecuted simply for being Jews.

As non-Muslim minorities, Jews suffered deeply discriminating laws over many centuries in Iran.

Before the modernization of Iran, before the Shah, Jews were second-class citizens. With the revolution and the rise to power of Ayatollahs, Jews were at risk again. They understood the position of Jews under Islamic Law dictated by Shi’ite fundamentalists. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wrote in his book “On Islamic Government” that non-Muslims should be required to pay a special poll tax and be excluded from all roles of governance in an Islamic State.

In the worst of times, Jews in Iran were forced to run indoors when it rained. Rain falling on a Jew on its way down from the heavens desecrated the environment.

There were times in Iran where it was permitted by law to kill a Jew who dared to stand in (and thereby pollute) the rain.

With the demise of DOMA and Rabbi Wolpe’s announcement that he will now be performing same-sex marriages within the synagogue, congregants “staging a rebellion” must fear lesbians and gay men under a chuppah will “ruin” their sacred space.  Their thinking is not so different from their oppressors from not so long ago.

Eventually we will not be able to imagine keeping non-heterosexual Jews as second-class citizens in our synagogues, anymore than we could imagine terrified Jewish shopkeepers shuttering their stores as fast as they could at the sight of rain.

There is more hope for Wolpe’s synagogue than there is for an Iran run by the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini.  Whenever change forces itself on a community, there is a struggle when people feel like they are being challenged in their own congregation.

Challenging discrimination is not new to me.

I come from a family of Egyptian and Iraqi Jews who lived in Islamic societies for generations. At the time I was in my twenties and naively imagined that my parents understood persecution, so they would eventually outgrow prejudice.

Especially since my lover was a nice Jewish girl.

“What? You are choosing to be a second-class citizen?”

My Iraqi mother was in agony when I came out as a lesbian-feminist in the mid-seventies, two years before the Iranian Revolution.

“Are you crazy? The Jewish community will never accept you,” she cried. After a childhood in Baghdad and twenty years of statelessness in Japan, we were finally in a country where we could be safe as Jews. I was jeopardizing my freedom.

She was afraid for me and ashamed people would “pity” her for her misfortune of having a Lesbian daughter.

“Mom, this is not Iraq. This is America. I am living my life,” I told her.

“No! You can’t!” She screamed.

She came from a community where homosexuality was not possible.

You could not just “live your life” anymore than a Rabbi could marry gay and lesbian Jews in a synagogue.

My Egyptian father, who rarely raised his voice or said an unkind word to me, told me I was “in the gutter.”

I couldn’t help but make the connection of how they grew up discriminated against for being Jews and knew it was only a matter of time before they would have to change.

My mother told me about seeing her father do business in Karballah when she was a young girl, “they were mostly Shi’ites there, they washed their hands after doing business with him.”

To this day, among many in Iran it is a sin to say “Jew” without attaching a profanity next to it. Saying just the word “Jew” is unclean. We have all heard “dirty” precede “Jew” before, it is not uncommon across cultures.

It took my mother years before she could utter the word “lesbian.”

I, like so many gay and lesbian Jews didn’t give up on my family, my government or even my own Synagogue congregation.

What was once frightening and repulsive to my parents became normal. They grew to love my partner and “wife” of 31 years.

My parents grew to see a larger more inclusive world. Their hearts opened their eyes.

“I was so backwards, I didn’t know…” my mother said before she died.

“There are gays everywhere, my father said as he reflected on his life.

Remembering his synagogue in Mansoura (Egypt), he told me of a closeted young man his age. “He was gay for sure, but we acted as if such things did not exist… today here in our (Orthodox) synagogue in San Francisco there are gays but they have to hide it…it is sad, it should not be that way.”

He spoke about how many closeted gay men and lesbians he came across in his long life that encompassed four continents beginning in Egypt, then India, China and Japan to finally the United States.

So much personal and political work had to be done to get to this point in time, to get rid of DOMA.  And no matter what some in Rabbi Wolpe’s Sinai Temple Congregation think, the work for equality for minorities with “different” sexual orientations will continue until every single same-sex couple has the same rights as heterosexual couples everywhere.

About the Author
Rachel Wahba is a San Francisco Bay Area based writer, psychotherapist and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of her exile and displacement are a constant theme in her professional work as well as her activism as an advisory board member for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).