I’m sitting with three other people in a narrow booth in a bustling cafe in Manhattan. It’s the week of snowstorms and icy weather that most Angelenos dread but that I like so much, even if it does hurt to breathe outdoors, the cold air stabbing the brainstem like the sharp tip of an icicle.

My lunch companions are email acquaintances that I’m meeting in person for the first time. There’s a longtime Wall Street banker-turned-food-writer, doe-eyed and exuberant, who lives with her art collector husband and two gorgeous sons in a loft in Soho. There’s a dark-haired, arrestingly beautiful young woman who’s a teaching fellow and doctoral candidate at Fordham University; she is also the research director at a nonprofit that supports the cognitive development needs of children in New York City. And there’s a blue-eyed, soft-spoken fashion writer who just left a 15-year stint at Women’s Wear Daily to become editorial director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The banker graduated from the London School of Economics and Columbia University; the soon-to-be professor delivered the commencement speech at NYU; the fashion writer studied comparative Literature at Brown University and, later, at the University of London.

They’re the kind of people you’ll meet once and never forget, not because of how much they know or what they’ve done, impressive as that is, but because of the ease and candidness with which they connect with a near-stranger, their openness and honesty and absence of judgment. But ask them who or what they are, how they identify and where they feel they belong, and they’ll each describe a “no-man’s land” of mixed histories and hybrid values that has left them more conflicted than convinced, more “apart from” than “of”: They were born and grew up in Germany (one even had a German mother) but were taught they’re not German; they went to international schools but were raised to live close to home; they’ve made their home in the United States but miss Germany; speak and eat and sometimes even feel Persian but don’t quite know— being Iranian — what that is. The best they can tell you is that they’re children of Mashadi Jews, which, to hear them tell it, explains everything and nothing about them at once.

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