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How a singles column changed a Persian-Jewish girl's life

Chaya Leah Esakhan reading her story in the Off-Ramp studio at KPCC.
Chaya Leah Esakhan reading her story in the Off-Ramp studio at KPCC.
John Rabe

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Two years ago, Seth Menachem told Off-Ramp and Huffington Post readers about his young son Asher's desire to wear female clothes, and his acceptance of it. It was a long and heartfelt piece that was very popular. But for Chaya Leah Esakhan, a young first generation Persian-Jewish-American, it wasn't this serious piece that changed her life, but Seth's lighthearted dating column in the Jewish Journal.

My parents came to L.A. from Shiraz, Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. My father worked two jobs — as a rabbi at a shul, and at a car yard in Anaheim. And my mother worked three jobs — as a nightly mikveh lady, elder caretaker and mother. They always made sure my siblings and I had everything we needed and wanted — toys, games, our favorite treats and, since I loved art, my parents made sure I went to art class every week.

The little English they spoke had a strong fresh-off-the-boat accent, which the class clowns could impeccably impersonate. Their skits baffled me, because my parents were my rock and I was their precious princess. But eventually, the way my classmates made fun of Persian immigrants made me embarrassed by my parents’ struggles. And so, I distanced myself from my inherited culture and I stopped speaking Farsi.

Like many others who fled their homeland, my parents felt most comfortable in their ethnic Persian-Jewish enclave, and the obvious choice for them was to send me to a local religious Jewish girls’ school. I dared not voice my desire for a secular education. I already felt guilty enough for their sacrifices. 

But when I received the welcome packet, I cried. The school’s mission was to educate future Jewish mothers. The rules forbade any dress and behavior that could be construed as seductive — even bicycling. It was obvious: We girls were mere baby-making machines. Every two years or so a genetic company would come to our school to collect our DNA for matchmaking purposes. Matchmakers would call the school after graduation or seminary to ask about our prayer habits and modesty. We could wear a little makeup in 12th grade because that’s when we could begin dating for marriage. It was not a school, it was a shadchen — a matchmaker. 

I never fit in. Among my non-Orthodox extended family in L.A., my parents’ religious customs were strange. My father had a beard and wore a black hat, and my mother wore a wig and modest clothing. In school, I was also the Other — a dark-skinned Persian among Ashkenazim.

Where did I belong? The answer came in 2008, when I was in 10th grade.

Our curriculum included a current events class. Of course, the L.A. Times, Newsweek and many other secular publications were far too un-kosher to be permissible, so I picked up a copy of the free Jewish Journal to keep myself updated on current events. 

Considering that 75 percent of the school day was Torah-based, which you read from right to left, I instinctively started reading the Journal from the back cover. There was a singles column called “My Single Peeps” by Seth Menachem — and the very first article I read was Seth’s hilarious, laugh-out-loud description of the single friends he wanted to set up.

Shmuly is the least typical Chasidic Jew you will ever meet. He will never cut his beard, and he always wears a yarmulke, no matter where he goes, but he will go anywhere. You can find him backstage at a Paul Oakenfold concert, or running in a 5K to cure cancer. He was just asked to be in a Pink music video that would have required him to lie undressed in bed with Pink.

I was riding my bike and my friend Matt pulled up next to me in his car, with Meredith in the passenger seat. He introduced us, and she said, “You’re cute.” I said, “Thanks. I’m married.” With barely a blink, she asked, “Do you have any friends?” I remember thinking, “I’m a man-child doing wheelies on a little BMX bike. What’s wrong with this girl?”

— From Seth Menachem's "My Single Peeps," in the Jewish Journal

Rashi – a medieval French rabbi – says if you want your teaching to be effective, you start with a joke. The humor in Seth’s column opened me up to learning about arts, culture, religion, philosophy, science, history and literature — all covered in the rest of the paper. And as I learned about topics far outside my school’s narrow confines, I gained a strong sense of my intricate identity.

Through Gina Nahai’s poetic descriptions of Iran, pre- and post-Revolution, I became a proud Persian-Jewish woman. I was no longer ashamed of my genes but wore them like the gold bangles on my sleeve.

Through Rob Eshman’s columns mentioning his love of cooking and for his wife, a rabbi, I learned about the fluidity of gender roles, and the possibility of being something other than just a mother. I could do what the guys did.

Other writers helped me develop compassion and camaraderie for those of different  — and often marginalized — backgrounds outside my sheltered life, like converts and queer culture.

One week, all the Jewish Journals in my neighborhood were gone. So, I walked 40 minutes to Factor’s Famous Deli to discover some unclaimed Journals that uncovered sexual-abuse scandals in my community. The Jewish Journal’s chutzpah had rubbed off on me. 

I learned it did not matter how I prayed or what I wore, because I was a fabulous Jew simply for being one. Mostly though, I developed a more lighthearted, fun and loving relationship with the challenges of dating and marriage. It did not have to be black and white; it could be unconventional — like Seth Menachem’s matchmaking methodology. And so in the Journal, I found a shadchen that, unlike my school, was free-spirited and open.

This is all preamble for what happened the other day, at a rooftop bar near my apartment. It was a beautiful night and my friends and I decided we wanted a group photo beneath the starry sky. I turned to ask a nearby stranger to take it. And like magic, it was Seth Menachem. I was starstruck. There stood the shadchen that changed my life and got me on the very path to the double-date I was on.  

Seth Menachem, actor, writer
Seth Menachem, actor, writer
Courtesy Seth Menachem

With confidence and chutzpah, I pointed my finger straight at his face and said, “I know you. You are Seth.” He was startled by a stranger spotting him. My friends chimed in, asking him who he was and what he does. He was gracious and funny. I just stared at the scene with the biggest smile in the world.

That night, I did not tell him what his column, and the Journal, meant to a very sheltered, searching and mixed-up Persian-Jewish girl, who had her eyes opened to a big and more beautiful world. There really is no telling how one star leads to the next.

Listen to the audio for John Rabe's interview with Chaya and to find out what her parents thought of her article.

Chaya Leah Esakhan is at UCLA, studying physiology and gender studies. She writes and edits at UCLA’s Jewish newsmagazine Ha’Am, where she was just named Rookie of the Year. And in 2017, she will be the first in her family to graduate from a university.

This article appeared in longer form in the Jewish Journal.