Muslim and Jewish: Interfaith on “Shahs of Sunset”

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.

Three New Year’s Resolutions: Interfaith Mom

Entering the New Year, wearing the glittering, particoloured hat of an interfaith mom, I have three main goals for 2012:

1) Gracefully release my first child into the world. My daughter’s about to turn 18; she will leave for college this year. I have spent much of the past few months interviewing college students and young adults who graduated from interfaith education programs like ours, as part of the research for my book. I am examining the role religion plays in their lives once they are outside the protective bubble of an independent interfaith community. As she leaves our family, and, effectively, leaves the Interfaith Families Project in which she has been raised, I give my daughter this advice: continue to study and explore religion, deepening your knowledge, seeking the forms of spirituality that work best for you. Take advantage of the opportunities provided on campus to connect with both sides of your religious heritage. But also, feel empowered to create an independent space on campus for interfaith children to come together and support each other: to replicate in miniature the interfaith community that nurtured you. And also, feel empowered to explain the particular skills and experience you bring, as someone raised in an interfaith community, to interfaith dialogue and interfaith activism efforts such as the campus-based Interfaith Youth Core.

2) Figure out what an interfaith community will mean to me in my “post-mom” phase. I still have a son just starting high school, but he has finished his formal Sunday School training in our interfaith community. So far, I find that even without children in the program, I continue to be drawn to our community on Sunday mornings–to the songs and reflections, to the chance to celebrate joys and mourn losses together, to the deep friendships I have made in our thriving community, to the lively adult discussion group, and to the tempting yoga class our community provides.

3) Finish the book! This fall, I recorded dozens of final interviews with interfaith parents, interfaith children, and clergy working with interfaith families. Over the next six months, I will wrestle this new material, and my hundreds of survey responses from interfaith parents and children, into a book with the working title, The Joy of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Family. I cannot wait to bring you these new voices and stories from the emerging movement of interfaith families raising children with two religions. Next year, inshallah, the book will reach your bookstore and your e-reader, thanks to Beacon Press.

Want to help? I am still seeking to interview more families raising children in two religions other than the Jewish/Christian combination (i.e. Muslim/Protestant, Buddhist/Jewish, Pagan/UU, Hindu/humanist, etc.). Please contact me at susan@onbeingboth.com.