I don’t usually watch reality TV. But recently, I found myself gorging on the entire first season of Bravo’s Shahs of Sunset, which concluded earlier this month. The show depicts Iranian-American (Persian) singles partying and shopping their way through LA and Las Vegas in the highest of styles. Critics have focused on ravaging the shallow stereotypes of the Persian community, and decrying the predictable glitz and hyped-up drama of reality shows.
What drew me to Shahs was the unusual depiction of a close circle of Jewish and Muslim friends. Bound by their common experience as Persians from refugee immigrant families, their loyalty and affection transcends religious difference. I am struggling to come up with another such microcosm of intense Jewish and Muslim friendship on television, or in any other medium. If you can think of one, please post it in the comment section!
I find it interesting to note that the women featured on the show (MJ, GG, Asa) all come from Muslim families, though they also drink champagne with abandon and none of them is depicted as partaking in any sort of religious practice (with the possible exception of Asa, who considers herself a mystical “intergalactic Persian princess”).
The three Persian men in the circle all have Jewish ancestry. Mike’s family Shabbat was featured on the first episode. Mike worships his Jewish mom, who urges him to marry a nice, Jewish Persian girl. The characters discuss the fact that the chemistry between GG (Muslim) and Mike (Jewish), may be doomed because of religious difference, though Mike is currently dating a Latina (presumably a Christian).
But the most fascinating story line for me as a “patrilinial half-Jew” is that of Reza, born to a Muslim mother and a father who converted from Judaism to Islam in order to marry. Reza’s Jewish grandmother attended the wedding dressed in black. Reza lays the blame for the divorce of his parents squarely on the reaction of extended family to their religious difference, saying their marriage “never had a fair shot.” After the divorce, Reza’s father moved east, and essentially abandoned his son.
Despite being raised by his Muslim mother, with a Muslim first name, Reza explains that he has been to many family Bar Mitvahs, never been in a mosque, and “feels more Jewish than Muslim.” One could attribute this to greater exposure to Jewish religious practice. But I find it interesting that it fits into the pattern I see in Jewish/Christian interfaith children of Judaism exerting an outsized effect, even when it’s the father who is Jewish.
In the harrowing penultimate episode of the season, Reza travels to Great Neck, Long Island, for a reunion Shabbat with his extended Persian Jewish family. As the family gathers, Reza’s Jewish grandmother gives Reza what can only be described as the evil eye. When Reza confronts his father, the father admits that Reza’s grandmother considers Reza a “goyim” (non-Jew), and that she has been pressuring her son to ignore Reza.
In a series strewn with expensive baubles, drunken sprees and artificial catfights, the very real and poignant tears of an interfaith child excluded by his own family, and of a father who feels torn between religious loyalty and his own son, shocked and moved me. Reza embodies the “tragic interfaith child,” a character akin to the “tragic mulatto.” And yet, hope lies in the boundary-transcending friendships of Reza’s generation. Despite the caviar and fast cars, the real estate deals and the mean girls, I do not think I will be able to stop myself from tuning in for the next season of Shahs of Sunset this summer, to follow the interfaith story lines.
Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.