Chicago Zoroastrians


Charges for Private Prayer Ceremonies








By Aban Daboo
(FEZANA Journal, Fall 1998)

On a recent trip to Mumbai a friend asked me "When are you going to the Udvada Atash Bahram?" and I replied, "I can't make it this time because I've come for a short while and have to make preparations for my son's wedding."  At that moment I wondered why I did not feel a need or a calling to visit Udvada this time, and the answer was very simple.  In Chicago we have a beautiful Darbe Mehr comparable in spirituality, surroundings, purity and simplicity to many places of worship I've visited.  Add to that a loyal and dedicated band of voluntary mobeds.  We are so fortunate to have a group of 10 to 15 voluntary mobeds in Chicago - some of whom (first generation Americans) were initiated in the early 1990's.  We are blessed with a thriving vibrant community of Iranian and Parsi Zarathushtis who have shared their religion and cultural backgrounds to foster better understanding amongst themselves and, more importantly, amongst their children.  Over the years we have become family and like all families we have our differences and arguments, but we can always come together and bond in our joys, our trials and tribulations.  It is a super support group and most of us do not get homesick because of the lasting relationships we have built over the years. 

The Chicago Darbe Mehr was born as a glimmer of hope in a few Zarathushti hearts with a dash of pure 'Zarathushti Jusso'.  With generous donations from the Arbab Rustom Guiv Foundation and a few members of the community, a lot of hope, hard work and dedication, the project achieved fruition.  On a beautiful day in September 1983 hope turned to reality when the Darbe Mehr was declared open with a grand Jashan and two days of continuous festivities. 

Our family had just moved to the area in late 1982 and from day one we got involved with the Zarathushti community.  We were welcomed with open arms and were never made to feel like outsiders, but were encouraged to participate in all the activities including the inauguration ceremonies and celebrations.  In the summer of 1983 (prior to the inaugu- ration), we were involved in finishing and painting the Darbe Mehr and this has given us a sense of ownership and commitment to our Darbe Mehr. 

The building is an imposing structure with a large hall which can accommodate 250 people comfortably for all religious and social events.  At one end of the hall is a stage with a back drop of a beautiful oxidized silver Farohar.  A well furnished prayer hall, library, kitchen and children's room were part of the original building which are now undergoing changes under the Expansion Plans. 

Our band of active mobeds include our head priest, Kersey Antia and his two sons Mazda and Jimmy, Neville Karanjia and his son Zervan, Pesi Vazifdar and his two sons Hoshi and Neville, Jamshed Antia, my son Behram Daboo, Keikhosrow Mobed, Ardaviraf Minocherhomjee, Jimmy Ravji, Yazad Godiwalla and Rohinton Dadina.  Each and every priest offers voluntary services and it is a sheer joy to see the younger generation of mobeds exhibit such pride and dignity while carrying out their religious duties - whether it is a jashan, navjote, or muktad prayers. 

On the second Sunday of each month we have our monthly meeting for the entire community.  The day starts with a Board meeting, followed by prayers and a guest speaker.  Then we have the much awaited dhansakh-kavab lunch prepared by two host families each month.  It is very comforting to see our young children and teenagers come together for Sunday prayers.  All the tiny tots and kids put on caps, remove their shoes, get a prayer book and stand to attention while the mobed is reciting the Atash Niyaishe and Tandarosti.  Anyone who has witnessed this scene will tell you it is one of the most emotional experiences to see these traditions followed by our young ones and we know the ancient religion of Zarathustra is safe in their hands! 

The Jewel in the Crown of our community is the monthly prayer class.  On the third Sunday of each month there are prayer classes for different age groups. The kids are divided into two main groups - under-teens and over-teens.  The Saturday night before classes, the children go over to two host families for an evening of social activities - skating, movies, circus, bowling, etc. - followed by dinner.  They stay overnight with the host families - almost like indoor camping with their sleeping bags and toilet kits.  The following morning  they go over to the Center for religious classes.  The kudos for organizing and conducting the classes should go to Kayomarsh Mehta who has devoted endless hours of personal time, and spent tons of energy in making this activity the success it has achieved.  He is assisted by a band of loyal volunteers: Pesi Vazifdar, Jimmy Ravji, Hootoxi Minocherhomji, Jer Udvadia (who has recently moved to New Jersey), Dilshad Antia, Bakhtawar Press and Dinaz Weber.  After the classes the highlight of the day is going to the McDonald's down the road for Big Macs and fries.  This activity has now been conducted continuously for the last 15 to 20 years.  We have seen a whole generation of kids grow up into mature adults and in the process they have fostered lasting friendships amongst themselves.  The children and their dedication and enthusiasm for the sleepovers and prayer classes is something to be seen to be believed.   

Every year we celebrate Jashan-e-Sadeh, Navruz, Gahambars, Shenshahi New Year, Zarthost-no-Diso and Mehrangan in the traditional way with traditional foods and festivities.  We also have our fun and games at picnics, youth camps, camping trips, fun fairs, senior citizens outings, Halloween and Christmas.  We have a New Year's Eve party on December 31, welcoming the first day of the year with our families and friends.  Young and old join together in singing Auld Lang Syne.  After midnight (during the first few minutes of the New Year) we all go into the prayer hall to join the priests in saying Tandarosti for the whole community. 

The Avan Yazad Parab brings the ladies together for a bake-a-thon.  They prepare dar-ni-pori jointly at the Center.  Approximately 50 to 60 moms, grandmas and kids, and some gents (who can stand the noise level) prepare sweet dar filling, mix and roll the dough, shape the poris and bake them at our center.  This has now become an annual ritual and we raise anywhere from $800 to $1000 for the Youth Fund.  The poris are purchased by the local Zarathushtis and some are even mailed out to other towns in the US.  The whole day has a picnic-like atmosphere.  We start early in the morning, take a lunch break for masoor-pau, then a tea break which turns into a pori tasting session!  By evening we are exhausted but happy.   The participants range from 6 and 7 year olds to grandmas who are veteran pori makers and dough inspectors (like Freny Aunty and Tehmi Aunty)!   This activity is the brainchild of ZAC's very own senior citizen, Freny Mehta, who trained all of us into expert pori makers!   

Our summer calendar is filled with graduations, wedding showers, baby showers, navjotes, weddings and Bar-B-Qs.  The whole community shares in celebrations - be it cooking food, decorating the hall, choir singing, or accommodating out-of-towners at our houses.  With the help and advice from our senior citizens we continue our traditional practices from Iran and India.  And again, it is fun to watch the kids helping with the chalk, toran, decorating and cooking.  Navjotes and weddings become family affairs for all and we jump right in and celebrate together.  This I can relate from my personal experience when my daughter Shireen got married four years ago.  The groom, Firoz Ghandhi, and his family and friends came from Detroit.  All our friends opened their homes and hearts for our guests, took part in the four days of fun activities, and made it a joyous occasion for us to cherish for the rest of our lives. 

There have been instances when the community has helped Zarathushtis who are total strangers celebrate their weddings and navjotes.  Often there are families who are in neighboring states like Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa where there are no other Zarathushti families to celebrate these occasions with them.  Without hesitation, the community gets into the celebration mode, combines their talents and expertise, and assists such families to have a special day.  Very often we've had people come up and say "I remember you very well - you made sev for my wedding!" or "I remember you guys helped me put the wedding together because my parents couldn't come from Mumbai".  And even though we may have forgotten these little details, we feel good for having made someone's special day a joyous one so they can remember the little things and take time to say "thank you" again and again.   

The five days of the Gathas in mid-August are celebrated with such spirituality and dignity that I always say "our ancestors must surely be smiling down on us and blessing us to go forward with our faith and prosper in health, wealth and happiness."  We have joint prayers for our dear departed ones.  It is a community prayer and the list of names runs into approximately 5 to 6 computer pages.  All our mobeds make special efforts to participate in the prayers each day.  The prayer hall has three white marble tables where everyone arranges their vases with home-grown roses and beautiful flowers of varying scents and colors.  The prayers are recited outside in the main hall witnessed by at least 50 to 60 people each day, going up to more than 100 people on weekends.  The Satum is recited in the prayer room by junior mobeds.  After everyone has offered loban, we get together for humbandagi where old and young offer their prayers with utter dedication and unison.  This is followed by a short lecture on the meaning of the specific Gatha being celebrated that day.  Dinner follows and the evening ends with a feeling of community and unity that defies description.  You have to experience it to feel it!  Those of us who take part in these five days know what I'm talking about.   

Luckily our numbers have grown!  We have new additions to our community by way of new immigrant families, new babies, new brides and new bridegrooms.  This has brought forth the necessity to expand our facilities which get crowded on many occasions.  For the last two years we have been working on the Expansion Plans for our Darbe Mehr and the first phase of Kushti rooms and pani-nu-parab is completed.  Rohinton Rivetna and his band of dedicated volunteers meet every month to assess the progress and designate action items for coming months.  With the first phase complete, there are plans for providing adequate space for the children's room and facilities, expanding the existing kitchen and washrooms as a part of second phase.  We are actively soliciting donations and pledges for the expansion.   

In addition to the regular ZAC activities, our Center was the birthplace of FEZANA - the Constitution Committee's meeting was held here.  ZAC has hosted the Second North American Zoroastrian Congress, North American Zoroastrian Youth Congresses, North American Mobeds Council meetings, invited learned speakers from India and taken active part in inter-faith religious discourses.  A few summers ago we were enthralled by a lecture series given by the late Dasturji Minocherhomji.  This year we have the good fortune of hosting Dasturji Dr. Firoz Kotwal for a lecture series on Zarathushti Rituals and the Life of Asho Zarathushtra.   

Recently we hosted a lunch and variety entertainment program for Maestro Zubin Mehta, and his wife Nancy.  Due to time constraints we had just a little under three hours to wine and dine him.  Due to the well organized band of volunteers we achieved outstanding results which brought forth a generous donation from Zubin and Nancy for our Expansion Fund.   

We have grown from a handful of Zarathushtis who dreamed in the early 1960's to a sizable congregation that today overflows the prayer room at the Darbe Mehr.  Our Center is a testimony to the hopes of the first immigrant families from India and Iran, a testimony to the dedication of our priests and their families, a testimony to the hard-working crew who completed the Darbe Mehr in 1983, and a testimony to our children who have celebrated their navjotes, graduations, showers and weddings here.    We would challenge the proponents of doom and gloom to visit our Center, then look us in the eye and tell us that Zarathushtis are a dying race!   

Today the Arbab Rustom Guiv Darbe Mehr is the nucleus of all Zarathushti activities in the Midwest.  It has given a sense of belonging not only to the first generation of immigrants but to our children, and hopefully will kindle the same spirit for our children's children and all future generations of Zarathushtis who have the good fortune to be a part of the Chicago community.   

Hodding Carter has said:  "There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; and the other, wings."  The Zarathushti community has established strong roots in the Midwest.  Future generations will know they have wings to fly away and practice Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds and will always have a safe nest to return to their roots - the Arbab Rustam Guiv Darbe Mehr - Zoroastrian  Center of Chicago!