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.

Half-Jewish, Half-Christian, Raised Both: Baseball’s Sam Fuld

In the current issue of The New Yorker, eloquent sportswriter Ben McGrath profiles Tampa Bay’s superstar outfielder Sam Fuld, an acrobatic mensch with an unusual background. A Stanford grad raised by a state senator and an academic, a role model for kids with diabetes, and a statistics geek, Fuld has been described in multiple media outlets as Jewish. Bloggers gleefully claim him for fantasy “Jewish baseball” rosters, just as they have claimed many interfaith ballplayers in the past, including Ryan Braun, Mike Lieberthal, Ian Kinsler and Lou Boudreau (who was raised Christian, for Pete’s sake). The preponderance of Jewish(ish) ballplayers who are interfaith children probably reflects the simple demographic reality of increasing interfaith marriage (though it is tempting to theorize about hybrid vigor). Meanwhile, try to imagine if Christians had the chutzpah to “root for their team” in this context and claim these players for Christianity: it would be unseemly, even shocking. Judaism, as the spunky underdog, has the fan advantage.

Nevertheless, I wish high-profile interfaith children actually raised with both religions would dare to be more “out” and proud, that they would stand up and be counted, and help explain to the world the benefits of growing up interfaith. Instead, interfaith athletes and celebrities are often given special dispensation, and counted as Jews in situations in which interfaith children would be excluded.

For those of us who are “patrilinial half-Jews,” the irony of celebrity interfaith children lauded as Jews, no matter which parent was Jewish, no matter how they were raised, feels surreal. It reminds me of the hilariously transgressive “Racial Draft” skit by comedian Dave Chappelle, a must-see for anyone (over 18) interested in identity politics. I do understand and appreciate the effort to be more inclusive, to welcome any and all interfaith children who choose to identify as Jews. But the double-standard, when so much of the Jewish world denies the Judaism of non-celebrity interfaith children, is clear. Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun’s non-Jewish mother called this out, saying, “Ryan is proud that people want to claim him now, but where were they before?” She added, “You know how that stuff works.” Yes, I do.

In our increasingly diverse world, we must allow people to define their own identities. Here’s what Sam Fuld told The New Yorker about his religious upbringing: “I feel like I’m almost letting some people down when I tell them, ‘Well, my mom’s Catholic, and I was kind of raised celebrating both.'” He may be letting down those who want to claim him for the Jewish team. But as a fellow interfaith child, here is what I would like to say to Sam Fuld:

You aren’t letting down your fellow interfaith children, you are making us proud.

You aren’t alone. A growing cohort of interfaith children are being raised with both religions. Your parents chose a valid path for interfaith families: each pathway has specific benefits and challenges.

Don’t let others define you. You are not defined only by your Jewish fraction. Define yourself as interfaith if that’s who you are, and be proud of that identity.

Your mom and dad are equally important. You can claim both sides of your heritage.

If you want to explore your interfaith identity, in a neutral space, I invite you to guest blog at “On Being Both.” Speak out! Join us! 

Will Chelsea Clinton Convert? Why Do You Ask?

My Jewcy.com editor suggested I write a response to all the Jewish media interest in whether or not Chelsea Clinton is going to convert to Judaism. See my letter to Chelsea here. My heart goes out to Chelsea: she has to go through the entire interfaith journey in a very public way. You have to wonder if it made her hesitate about marriage. So many busybodies are going to have an opinion on how she should go about getting married, raising children, and having a fulfilling spiritual life. So I’m trying to avoid being one more busybody, and give some calm advice on staying strong and tuning out some of the extraneous voices. I’m hoping she will take time to walk labyrinths and meditate and listen to music and otherwise call on her own wise inner voice.

But my best advice is to have a really, really short engagement. That’s the way my interfaith parents did it. That’s the way my husband and I did it. Like me, like my parents, Chelsea and Mark  spent many, many years in courtship. Once you’ve made the decision, just go for it. Don’t give the buttinskys time to tell you how to do it or why it won’t work. Can I suggest February 13th? It’s my parents’ anniversary (yes, we started celebrating it three months early this year), and works nicely as a prelude to Valentine’s Day…

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