The Fake Fire

Zoroastrian temple fire

If the Dar-e-Mehr were the world, the fire altar would be its center. A large brass urn, the altar looks like a giant’s burnished goblet. It sits at the front of the small room, surrounded by metal pokers, tongs and other paraphernalia, and it is protected on all sides—whether from impurity or more mundane threats—by a chest-high glass partition. When I visited this Zoroastrian temple in early spring, there was a steady stream of worshipers. Having donned white topes and fixed white headscarves, the men and women sat quietly among the orderly rows of chairs. Under the benevolent gaze of a portrait of the prophet Zarathustra, they recited their whispered, ancient prayers. Sanctified and sanctifying, the fire seemed the perfect image of the resilience and tenacity of this 3,000 year-old tradition.

The fire, however, is a fake.

Mobed Kobad Jamshid, one of the volunteer priests who serves the community, told me that the fire is unconsecrated, fueled by natural gas and only ignited for special ceremonies. A consecrated, wood-burning fire requires round-the-clock attention, Mobed Jamshid said, and the community simply does not have enough priests to ensure that the flames remain lit and free of impurity. Nazneer Spliedt, the president of the Indian Zoroastrian community organization, the Zartushti Anjuman of Northern California (ZANC), echoed this sentiment when I spoke to her a few days later. “People enjoy coming to the Dar-e-Mehr, but I like to remind them that it’s not even a consecrated fire temple, so they might as well be at home and say their prayers. Zoroastrianism is such an independent religion anyway: we don’t have to do what the priests tell us, we don’t have a fixed day to go to temple, and you can practice your religion by yourself, at home.”

This was not what I had hoped for. Don’t you know, I wanted to say, that fire is the son of Ahura Mazda, the good and perfect divine creator? That fire is one of the gods and evidence of God’s presence in the world? The great fires of ancient Iran were kept burning for hundreds of years, tended by kings and priests, and were the living, blazing image of one of the most powerful empires of the ancient world. Staring into the gas flames, I was suddenly back at Temple Shalom, a frustrated Jewish teenager all over again.

I went to the Dar-e-Mehr, the San Jose temple and community center which serves Northern California’s two-thousand-strong Zoroastrian community, to see real, live Zoroastrians. As a student of the religion who doesn’t belong to it, most of the Zoroastrians I knew were dead, long dead—those who lived, wrote books, and died in Iran before the turn of the last millennium. Like a visitor to the natural history museum who wants to rouse the taxidermized tigers, I wanted Zoroastrians in action, to see the ritual purifications, the vermin-stomping (really), and the dualistic theologians about whom I had read so much.

Deep down, though, I wanted to witness a deeper fidelity than in the Judaism I knew growing up. Yearning for some kind of rapture, I was always frustrated by the Saturday morning deviations—skipped prayers, shortened services and abandoned rituals–from what I saw as authentic practice. Even worse than the loss of prayers was what was added in their place: bland English readings or Buddhist-lite guided meditations, both designed to appeal to congregants bored by long Hebrew recitations. It was that desire for religious authenticity which pushed me to study Zoroastrianism and, ultimately, led me to Dar-e-Mehr.

I knew it was naive to think that the community in San Jose, a mix of new immigrants from India and Iran, members of the second generation born in America, and the partners of intermarried Zoroastrians, would appear in life just as described in the ancient texts. Since the Muslim conquest of Iran in the seventh century, Zoroastrians have adapted their tradition to changing religious and cultural environments, first in Iran, then in India, and later in Europe, Africa, and North America.

The Dar-e-Mehr lies in the San Jose foothills overlooking Silicon Valley and the Bay. Evidence of the property’s former life as a working farm—wire and post fences, buildings and open fields—still remains. The old farmhouse is there, though renovated to serve as the community center, with a kitchen, lecture space, classrooms and a library; the stables stand just beside it, untouched. The temple is new and small compared to the other buildings, with a tidy, squat dome.

Adil Engineer was standing next to me in the temple as Mobed Jamshid exploded my Zoroastrian fantasy. Later, over the communal potluck lunch–including six kinds of daal, rice and, my personal favorite, the deep-fried, radiation-orange Indian funnel cake called jalebi–we hit it off. Engineer is in his early thirties, is married, and has a young daughter who attends Sunday school at the Dar-e-Mehr. He has lived in California eight years.

In Bombay, he told me, Zoroastrians lived together, concentrated in nearly homogenous neighborhoods scattered throughout the city. Growing up, most of his friends were Zoroastrian. There was a fire temple around the corner, and participation in the religious and social life of the community was a given. “Every morning,” he said, “my grandparents go to their fire temple two blocks away and pray for two hours. It’s the center of their day. Here, we go to the Dar-e-Mehr once a month. That’s the reason they don’t want to come.”

As Engineer explained, the challenges of being Zoroastrian in America go beyond infrequent visits to the temple. Assimilation is a constant worry. According to some estimates, 50% of Zoroastrians intermarry, and there are heated debates between the orthodox and liberal wings of the community over whether and how to accept non-Zoroastrian spouses and mixed children. An even more apparent problem is the culture gap between Indian Parsis and Iranian Persians. After hundreds of years of separation, the two groups speak different languages and have developed different rituals. In Northern California, there are two separate communal organizations—ZANC and the Persian Zoroastrian Organization (PZO)—which hold events at the Dar-e-Mehr on separate weekends. The presence of the other is inherently disruptive. “Bowing at the altar, doing a namaste, is a given for us,” Engineer said. “But here, the Persians say, ‘Why do you need to bow?’ That’s an Indian thing.”

Delbar Jahanian, a board member of the PZO who helps coordinate community education, believes that these challenges cannot be met by adhering to orthodoxy. Zoroastrians have to respond in new ways to the new American environment. This is especially true with respect to education. Appropriately, the day we spoke the Persian community was celebrating the end of their religious school year. After watching each class’s presentation of the year’s theme of self-knowledge, we discussed her perspective on Zoroastrian education. “Our main focus in the Sunday school is to give the kids tools to live life,” she said, “to have a place for them to hang their hats.” As an example, Jahanian described a program in which children decorate the headscarves worn inside the temple. “I’m sure some elders would have a conniption fit that we decorate our headscarves. The headscarf should be white, they would say. But when a kid decorates her headscarf, she has more buy into it, she’s more excited to wake up and come to the temple. By the end of it, the kids will have an identity of being Zoroastrian.”

Jahanian’s own identity is part of what convinces her of the necessity of innovation. The child of an intermarried Zoroastrian-Catholic couple who met in Berkeley, Jahanian was born and raised in Iran. Even before moving to America with her family as a teenager in 1978, she confronted religious difference within her own family, going to midnight mass with her Catholic grandparents and spending time with her aunt who was a nun. “I was taught to respect their path and their religion,” she said, “but not to let it weigh or put a shadow on my own religious experience.”

Respect is also inherent to Jahanian’s personal theology. “The way I view it is that I have a car in my driveway. If I was born in a Muslim family, I would have an Islamic car. But I was born in a Zoroastrian family, so I have a Zoroastrian car. I want to use that Zoroastrian religion as a vehicle which carries me to have a spiritual experience, but I think you can have a wonderful spiritual experience without any religion.”

For non-Zoroastrian spouses and children of intermarriage like Jahanian, who make up such a large part of the community in America, the issue of adherence to old orthodoxies is personal and especially poignant. “Some elders wouldn’t allow me in their temple, because I’m mixed,” she said. “There you go, I would say, you lost a really good Zoroastrian for a silly rule.” Considering the consequences of the alternative, it’s hard to argue with her position.

Our talk still left me unsatisfied. Whether revealed by Moses or Zarathustra, the ancient texts make me I feel like I’m trembling before a law which overrides my own desires and despairs. Their law commands purity and ritual, charity and violence, but most of all, the struggle against itself. When the goal of religion is a spiritual experience, though, as for Jahanian, the specific means used to attain that experience, the legislated rituals, become unimportant: the fire can be wood or gas, the congregation can sing hymns or chant Zen koans. I would rather wrestle with a terrible command than drive my religious car to the spiritual mall. If there’s going to be a fire, I want it really to burn.

Samuel Thrope is a doctoral student in Jewish and Zoroastrian studies at U.C. Berkeley. His work has appeared most recently in Nextbook, Mima'amakim, and ZYZZYVA.