My Mexican Mom Goes to Kabbalah Class in Farsi

Posted on February 21, 2013

My mom (pregnant with my brother) hanging out on a rooftop in Tehran

My mom (pregnant with my brother) hanging out on a rooftop in Tehran circa 1973

“Sarita, you light the candles. Make your wishes. One for you, one for our family, and one for the universe. Shabbat shalom. (Insert tight hug and kiss on forehead here.) En el nombre de dios todo poderoso.” This was the start to every Friday night in my mock U.N. home when I was growing up. It usually led into a pretty large-scale dinner party production with friends, family, and neighbors for a feast marking the beginning of the day of chillaxation in the Jewish religion, aka Shabbat. Listen, we def didn’t take any of the religious stuff too seriously. But among the reliable and glorious staples were: homemade hummus and tortilla chips, khoresht eh badamjoon, and great people with interesting stories. Throw in a santur player and some cumbia music every now and then and you’re in business. My mom always managed to open the door to magic on each of these Friday nights.

So when you grow up with such diverse continents represented in your own mind, heart, appearance and kitchen, certain things become slightly confusing for others, but make perfect sense to you. One of the best examples came up about a year ago. My mom called me in the dead of New York winter to check in about the holy trinity – 1) Did you take your vitamins today? 2) Is your jacket heavy enough? 3) Are you remembering to eat salad everyday? The rest went down like this:

Mom: (Rushing) I don’t have a lotta time. I’m going to my new Kabbalah class. I saw Shahla and Tooran there last week.

Me: Wait, what? Shahla and Tooran, our Iranian cousins? They mainly speak Farsi. Is the class in Farsi?

Mom: Yes! It’s great! It’s really an intergenerational gathering of Iranian women exploring how to receive more fulfillment in their lives. Jhat khalee (your place is empty there).

Me: (Floored.) But do they know you’re a Mexican?

Mom: What do you mean? I asked questions in the class in Farsi so I’m sure they think I’m one of them. The teacher asked me after class where I was from and I told her.

Me: Dude, this is crazy! My Mexican mom goes to Kabbalah class in Farsi. That’s not something many people can say. Love you mama, you’re awesome.

Olivia Manzanilla Farzam was born on February 16, 19 something-something in a tiny and charming town called Guaymas in the Mexican state of Sonora. No, that’s nothing like cutting-edge Mexico City or Tulum or even Oaxaca. It’s a simple place in the desert with a beach that appears to have a gigantic mountain protruding out of it appropriately named teta cabra (goat’s tit), which gives way to sunsets to die for. (You’re all invited for a visit—my uncles will take good care of you.) Let’s just say, it’s off the beaten track.  She loved it there but with few options to excel in Guaymas she moved to the States for school at nineteen.  In Northern California, she enrolled in an English as a Second Language Class and met my Iranian father. One must question how these two immigrants communicated with such limited English proficiency… language of love maybe?! The analogies in their broken English love letters will have you laughing so hard you’ll cry.  Post college, they moved to Iran for ten years. Tehran in the 70s was like the Paris of the Middle East. Art and culture were rampant, they had good jobs because they both spoke English by that time, women didn’t have to cover or any of that malarkey, and the nightlife was proper to say the least (which actually it still is, you just need to watch your back and be willing to go underground). I have photos of my mom in dresses so fresh that today’s Silverlake and Williamsburg hipsters wouldn’t even dare to rock. In a completely foreign and far away land, my Mexican mother learned to speak, read, write, and dream in Farsi. She mastered some of the most labor intensive and delicious cuisine on the planet. (Why don’t you just google khoresht eh fesejoon and we’ll have a talk about it afterwards.) She gave birth to my big bro. And, she was even invited with my dad to a dinner party at the royal place with the Shah of Iran when the President of Mexico came to the Middle East for a visit. She is pure inspiration.

In 1979, my parents and older brother fled the Iranian revolution and moved to Israel. With my dad at work their first week there, my brother got sick and my mom had to navigate the Israeli bus system in yet another foreign country with a new language to find a hospital. In place of complaining and having a complete meltdown (I work with many new moms, it happens) she describes the event like this, “It was an adventure! For me it was exciting to figure it all out!” And of course she found her way to refuge and my bro was just fine. Her ability to shift her focus from somewhat stressful situations to fun light-heartedness is a skill she wove into my entire upbringing. And what a mystical skill it is.

After two quick years (and now quadrilingual) they returned to sunny California and I was born with a blue passport! My family’s enchanted story with all of its movement, languages and various spices is something I am profoundly proud of in more ways than you can imagine. In particular my badass mom’s capacity to transform like a chameleon in each stage of the game is a quality I hope to fine-tune in my own path. She has always been a spiritual person, whether it was teaching me to meditate in the backyard when I was too cool to pay attention, encouraging me to do positive visualization for goals I am trying to reach, or emailing me passages from her Kabbalah class. Last week she celebrated another birthday. Feliz cumple, tavalodet moborak and yom hooledet sameach to a woman unlike any other! Mama, thanks for always shining the light and showing me how to as well!


Your kid can benefit from this awesomenes. Bilingual Birdies is a product of open-minded thinking, embracing differences and celebrating culture. Come experience a class, snag a CD for your own dance party at home, or invite us to rock out for your birdie’s bday. for the latest updates.

6 Responses to My Mexican Mom Goes to Kabbalah Class in Farsi

  1. Dorita says:

    Happy birthday Olivia chanoom!! We love you so much! You truly are an inspiration and as Sarita says, very “badass”…plus, you make the most amazing food ! You have raised such an amazing daughter who has blossomed into the most beautiful woman, educator, cousin, friend, and mentor.

  2. Laura Manzanilla says:

    A truly amazing story for an amazing person. I knew my Aunt Olivia when she was attending college and living with our family. We missed her when she left, but truly enjoyed the reunion when the family returned. You both have that adventurous spirit of the Xochihua women.

  3. Olivia Farzam says:

    Sarita you make me blush. I’m so proud of you. You’ve accomplished so much in a short time and I know that the best is yet to come. I love you, keep shining the light.

  4. Raquel says:

    Hola Sarita!!! Hace mucho tiempo que no te veo, como estas? In this short piece you gave us such a colorful and vivid image of your linda madre and cultural experience– what a treat! Thank you so much for sharing that story. Keep doing what you are doing– sharing the light with others.


  5. david says:

    i am a mexican born feb 23 in guadalharia . adopted into an iranian jewish family mother from iran father blonde haired blue eyed american . i speak farsi , understand hebrew , only now learning spanish ,i study kabbal and things of the occult , i can def say i have a unique experiancing life too .

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