Spring Equinox, Interfaith Nowruz

On this spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, the light is returning, lifting spirits, bringing hope. This year, we are especially in need of that returning warmth, that extra sunlight, those longer days. A year ago, the cancellation of big family gatherings for Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, felt crushing. This year, we are more patient, more prepared. I have a Passover haggadah already loaded on my powerpoint for our zoom Seder with my Jewish and Protestant and Catholic family, and I’m busy editing the slides. We’ve got this.

To all interfaith families with Persian heritage, Happy Nowruz, the Persian New Year! Nowruz has roots as a Zoroastrian spring holiday thousands of years ago, before the advent of Judaism or Christianity or Islam. Today, it is beloved by people of many religions with Persian heritage, including Zoroastrians, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and people of the Baha’i faith. Nowruz (or Naw-ruz or Norooz) is celebrated by some 300 million people worldwide, including in Afghanistan, Albania, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan, and throughout the Persian diaspora, including in the Iranian American community around Los Angeles. While it is often called a secular holiday, people of different religions adapt Nowruz to honor their own religious texts. So Nowruz is perhaps more multi-religious, or interfaith, than it is secular.

As a lover of all things interfaith, I love that Nowruz is often celebrated together by Persian friends and family of different religions. To be honest, many Americans probably first became aware of Nowruz through the Shahs of Sunset, the long-running reality show about a group of wealthy Jewish and Muslim Persian-American friends in Los Angeles. (I stand by my affection for the interfaith friendships depicted on that show, even though it’s, well, hyped-up capitalist glamour trash).

My favorite scene of interfaith friends celebrating Nowruz together is probably in Darius the Great is Not Okay, the marvelous YA novel by Adib Khorram. Darius, an American teen from an intercultural Zoroastrian/humanist family, travels to Iran to visit his grandparents. In a key scene, Iranian Zoroastrian and Baha’i family friends celebrate Nowruz together.

Just in time for Nowruz, Khorram has now published a charming children’s picture book Seven Special Somethings: A Nowruz Story. The book centers on the Nowruz tradition of the haft-seen, a table displaying seven objects that start with the letter S in the Persian language, Farsi. The seven traditional symbols are sprouts (rebirth), garlic (health), vinegar (patience), coins (wealth), apples (beauty), wheat sprout pudding (bravery), and sumaq spice (sunshine). There may be many additional items, depending on family and religion.

Many haft-seen symbols refer to the ancient spring equinox themes of fertility, renewal and rebirth. For instance, painted eggs are often included, tying the holiday thematically to Passover and Easter and Ostara. Other haft-seen items may include a live goldfish in a bowl, and an orange floating in water to symbolize our planet in space. Through my own cultural lens, I cannot help but see a connection here to Passover symbols including spring greens (parsley), a carp in a bathtub, and an orange on the seder plate.

I am not saying that the orange on the seder plate (a new Passover symbol of the importance of LGBTQ people) was borrowed from Nowruz. (Although Zoroastrianism did have a profound influence on Abrahamic religions in ancient times). My point is that spiritual connection to the return of light, and the mating and planting season in the northern hemisphere, inspire the repetition of these primal natural symbols in multiple religions. We are all linked as inhabitants of this planet to our place in space and time, by astronomy and biology. The wheat starts to sprout, the fish swim and spawn, the eggs hatch. We celebrate it all.

Journalist 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 The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay

We need to listen to the voices of kids from all sorts of interfaith families, not just Jewish and Christian families. Darius the Great is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram, is a poignant, lyrical, hilarious novel, with an unforgettable protagonist from a complex interfaith family. This award-winning 2018 Young Adult (YA) novel stars Darius Kellner, an American teenager who happens to have a Persian-American Zoroastrian mother, and a European-American secular humanist father. The novel centers on a summer when Darius goes for an extended visit with his grandparents in Iran. While there, he meets a boy who happens to be Baha’i.

Darius may seem, on some levels, like a universal YA protagonist: awkward, insecure, and struggling with the feeling that he is disappointing his parents. He’s a nerd who loves Star Trek and Tolkien, and hates gym class. As the plot progresses, he faces some of his demons and bullies, comes to understand his flawed parents better, and grows into a more confident young man.

But this coming-of-age narrative stands out for multiple reasons. The author, who himself experienced clinical depression as a teen, creates a nuanced portrait of a teen with inherited depression who benefits from anti-depressants. His depiction of Darius as he begins to realize he is attracted to another young man is subtle and poetic. And the exploration of Iranian religions and culture is compelling, especially to those of us who are religious history nerds.

Most relevant here, Darius will fascinate anyone who is an interfaith kid. The novel, while absolutely unique, echoes some of the themes of previous YA books with protagonists from interfaith families, going all the way back to Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (1970), up through the more recent books My Basmati Bar Mitzvah, and Mira in the Present Tense and including the brand new All American Muslim Girl. But the closest parallel may be found in prize-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi. As in Darius, the protagonist of Habibi is a US-born teen with one European-American parent and one immigrant parent, who goes abroad to stay with grandparents, explores cultural and religious heritage, and makes a close friend of another religion. (In the case of Habibi, a teenage girl goes to stay with her Palestinian Muslim grandmother, and meets a nice Jewish boy).

Whether we grow up in Jewish/Christian, Muslim/Christian, or Zoroastrian/atheist families, interfaith kids share some common experiences. Darius describes himself as a “Fractional Persian.” He worries about whether he is Persian enough. He wonders whether he has the right to claim a Persian identity in Iran while feeling marked by his Persian identity back in the U.S. And he feels cut off from claiming Zoroastrianism because it is patrilinial (a barrier familiar to interfaith kids from other religions with gender-based inheritance traditions, including Judaism and Islam).

Darius also expresses a longing for unity across religious boundaries, and an attraction to learning about religious history, qualities many interfaith kids in my research share. He fondly notes the social solidarity of Persians in exile, who “celebrated Nowruz and Chaharshanbeh Suri together in big parties, Baha’is and Muslims and Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians…” And while in Iran, he speaks to the beauty of the muezzin’s call to prayer, the wonder of the Assyrian statues in Persepolis, and the power of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. Darius may identify with his father’s secular humanism, but he is also deeply engaged with his own complex religious heritage, and the religious landscape around him.

Last month, news broke that Darius the Great is Not Okay will become a film. And fans are eagerly awaiting a sequel novel due out in the fall: Darius the Great Deserves Better. A lot of the excitement around the sequel has focused on Darius’s coming out journey (Korram tweeted that one of the titles they considered for the sequel was Darius the Great is Not Straight). But I hope the film, and the sequel, also make space for Darius to contemplate his complex spiritual and cultural identity, as part of an extended interfaith family.

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.