Zoroastrians across the world gather six times a year to celebrate Gahambar, a religious festival to honor the fruits of the seasons. One of the world’s most ancient religions, Zoroastrianism used to have millions of followers. Today that number has shrunk to around 200,000 people, mostly in India and Iran. But, last month, believers gathered in the hills of San Jose at one of the state’s only Zoroastrian temples to pray, eat, and keep their faith alive in the West.
At the Dar-e-Mehr Zoroastrian temple in San Jose, California, an elderly Zoroastrian priest is dressed head-to-toe in a white suit and shoes. He stands in front of an altar of fresh fruits, dried nuts and flowers and slowly sings from the ancient religious text called Avesta.
After the ceremony, a congregation of about a hundred Zoroastrians gathers for a huge feast of flat bread, various meats and asheh reshteh, a traditional herb and noodle stew.
Darab Bozorg Chami is a Zoroastrian-Iranian who lives near Sacramento. He says Gahambar is a time for people to share food and talk about their problems as a community.
“Those who have more money bring more food,” Chami said in Farsi. “Then we divide it evenly. So those families with less money can get help without feeling like they’re getting hand-outs.”
It’s part of the religion’s basic tenets: Good thoughts, good words and good deeds.
Saman, a thirty-three year Zoroastrian from Iran and helped organize the festival, describes the Gahambar festival this way.
“Gahambar is like a Thanksgiving,” Saman said. “But Thanksgiving is once a year, for us it’s six times a year.”
Saman says he has a lot to be thankful for. He and his wife left Iran five years ago, as religious refugees. That’s why he doesn’t want to use his full name — for fear of reprisal. Saman says he and other religious minorities were always marginalized in Iran. At school they were forced to drink from segregated water fountains. And they had to make sure the water didn’t splash onto their Muslim classmates.
“You know why? Because even when you drink water the extra water is splashing, so they get maybe wet,” Saman said. “So they say even the splash is ‘najess.'”
Najess means impure in Farsi. Saman says Zoroastrians and other religious minorities in Iran also are not supposed to share food or shake hands with Muslims. He says not everyone cares about those rules, but after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, that kind of treatment became institutionalized.
“It was hard for us,” said Saman. “But we could do nothing. What we could say?”
Saman went to the University of Tehran, but his career options were limited because the Iranian government restricts career paths for minorities.
“For example they couldn’t be a teacher, simply because their religion is different and the government doesn’t approve the Zoroastrian person be a teacher of a Muslim person,” said Jahannaz Afshar, a case manager at Centers for Survivors of Torture, a San Jose group working with refugees.
Afshar says people like Saman are among a new wave of young, college-educated Zoroastrian refugees in California. They arrive excited about new opportunities — but scared that future generations may lose their religious identity.
“The parents are living in that fear that what if their children decided to marry someone who is not Zoroastrian?” Afshar said.
That’s because the only way to be Zoroastrian is to be born into the religion, with two Zoroastrian parents. At least, that’s the official stance. Today there’s disagreement surrounding the recognition of interfaith marriages. But for young families like Saman and his wife, it’s important their kids grow up immersed in their cultural traditions and language.
Back at his home in Fairfield, Saman’s wife teaches Dari to their two-year-old son. The native Zoroastrian language is only spoken by eight to fifteen thousand people in Iran today. Saman was delighted when he found out there was a temple nearby in San Jose. He knew his son would get the chance to connect with others in their community.
“And we can have our ceremonies with nobody bothering us,” Saman said. “We can pray, we can say, ‘Ok we are Zoroastrian.’ That’s a good feeling.”
Back at the Zoroastrian temple in San Jose, a group of Zoroastrian pre-teens is selling ice cream to raise money for the next Gahambar festival in the winter. Keeping their religion alive is now in their hands.