When meeting a Jewish Iranian, an important question needs to be: What city did you come from? Each city has a story of its own—leaving a unique imprint on generations to follow.by Esther Amini
Recently I was interviewed by Drora Arussy as part of her New Works Wednesday Series on behalf of the American Sephardi Association and Institute of Jewish Experience. Before the interview Drora mentioned her talk with Esther Amini, so I looked it up and watched several fascinating interviews with her. I was taken by her story of a group of Iranian Jews I'd never heard of before.
A few days later, I mentioned on an author group that I'd love to do some more interviews and barely an hour later, Esther Amini emailed me! How's that for the modern world. I am, therefore, absolutely delighted to share this interview with you. I hope you enjoy reading about Esther and her award-winning book Concealed as much as I did. Welcome Esther Amini to gilagreenwrites!
BIO: Esther Amini is a writer, painter, and psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. Her short stories have appeared in Elle, Lilith, Tablet, The Jewish Week, Barnard Magazine, TK University's Inscape Literary, Proximity, Paper Brigade, and Zibby Owens' Anthology: "Moms Don't Have Time To." She was named one of Aspen Words' two best emerging memoirists and awarded its Emerging Writer Fellowship in 2016 based on her memoir entitled: "Concealed." Her pieces have been performed by Jewish Women's Theatre in Los Angeles and in Manhattan, and was chosen by JWT as their Artist-in-Residence in 2019. KIRKUS REVIEWS has chosen "CONCEALED" as one of the BEST BOOKS of "2020." ChaiFlicks, (Jewish Netflix), is presently streaming an excerpt from "Concealed" called AM-REE-KAH. Esther Amini lives in New York City with her husband. Concealed is her debut memoir.
GG: "Amini warns against painting Iranian Jews with a broad brush. The large Tehrani Jewish community in Los Angeles, for instance, is historically and culturally dissimilar to the Mashhadi Jews." This is a quotation from a Times of Israel interview. Can you explain this discrepancy between Iranian Jews? Is this still the case today?
EA: The city of Mashhad is the most fanatically religious city in all of Iran, a Shi'ite stronghold and pilgrimage site with a long history of maiming and massacring infidels. Mashhad is considered the holiest Iranian city because a ninth-century martyr, Imam Reza, is buried there. Every year, millions of Muslims from around the world make pilgrimages to Mashhad in order to pay homage to this martyr. Within this city, my parents, and prior to my parents, my ancestors, lived as Crypto-Jews. They lived concealed lives, above ground pretending to be Muslim and underground, in the secrecy and privacy of their homes they were devout Jews. My mother had to wear the black chador, the burka, and be veiled from head to toe. Generation after generation Jews hid their faith, never knowing if or when they'd be beaten, maimed, or killed. Up until the middle of the twentieth century, prior to leaving Iran, my parents lived a life of duplicity, pretending to be other than who they were. In Mashhad, anyone who wasn't Muslim was considered an infidel. Consequently, Mashhadi Jews tenaciously held onto Judaism, married off their daughters at a very young age to fellow Mashhadis, distrusting the outside world while tightly clinging to one another. Tehran, in sharp contrast, was a cosmopolitan city. During the mid-twentieth century it was often compared to Paris. Women were attending universities, were sent to Swiss boarding schools and were not forced to hide behind chadors. The Jews of Tehran didn't live duplicitous lives and never suffered the kind of anti-semitism experienced by the Mashhadi Jews. So when meeting a Jewish Iranian, an important question needs to be: What city did you come from? Each city has a story of its own—leaving a unique imprint on generations to follow.In my memoir, "Concealed," I not only write about my parents' lives but how their past shaped my present—a first generation American growing up in New York City.
EA: I felt compelled to write "CONCEALED"—Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America— and needed to stick to the facts, feelings, and memories for many reasons. As far as I know, no Mashhadi Jew has written a first-hand account of what it was like to live underground. No one has revealed all that was concealed —exposing their emotional life, the traumas and triumphs they endured. Factual accounts have been written, but diaries, journals sharing the inner experience have not been published. I felt this is a story that needs to be told and must be threaded into the larger Jewish tapestry. In addition, I'm the first female from my mother and from my father's side that can read and write. Girls in Mashhad were kept out of classrooms and many were forced to marry at the tender age of nine. Since I was born and raised in the United States, I had the opportunity to not only attend grade school but go on to College and later Graduate School. I felt an obligation to give voice to my ancestors who couldn't write their tales, and to also give voice to my own first generation American story. I never found sticking to the truth constraining. On the contrary —their experiences, as well as mine, are so colorful, rich with humor and pain—that I found remembering and writing to be quite exhilarating,
EA: Coming from a long legacy of underground Jews, as a first generation American, unconcealed, living above ground, how can my ethnic and religious upbringing not influence my writing? That said, I wouldn't simply call my work "Jewish writing." My recently released memoir addresses many themes, such as the perplexing dilemma of: How to hold onto one's parents and, at the same time, hold onto oneself, especially when what they want for you is diametrically different from what you wish for yourself? Balancing sibling relationships, mother-child, and father-child relationships. Feeling like an outsider…and finding one's way through that unsettling zone. Using speech, making one's thoughts and needs known——and its repercussions within family life. Readers from around the world, who are neither Iranian nor Jewish, have written telling me they strongly identify with my story. I found this amazing, since I thought my Mashhadi/American life was so specific to me. I've come to realize "Concealed" has universal appeal since it addresses the human condition.
GG: In some of the comments about your book, it is written that your parents exchanged an Iranian threat for the threat of freedom (Jewish Book Council). Would you say freedom is to some extent a threat to all of us? How can people who wish to pass on their traditions do so without feeling threatened that the next generation will lose them?
EA: My father would say he fled Iran's anti-Semitism, and came to America only to be faced by a new threat: The Threat of Freedom. Freedom is a notion Americans revere. However, unbridled, it, too, can be dangerous. My Iranian father hated the notion that freedom overrides all else. He felt America lacked ethics, values, and often called this country immoral, hedonistic, a free-for all that dismisses religion, tradition, and destroys family life. I don't feel exactly as he did but I do understand his sentiments. I believe too many embrace this notion of free to be and do whatever I like, without weighing the costs and loss.
GG: I have had several writer/therapists visit my site and I'm interested in the intersection between these two passions. Do you work full time as a therapist and see writing as a hobby or how do you see the balance between these two elements of your life? Does one feed into the other?
EA:I work as a full time therapist, as well as a full time writer. Somehow I manage to do both since I have a strong need to access and use both sides of myself. For me, writing isn't a hobby—it's a necessity. Often it feels as vital as breathing. We're all so complex with so many disparate parts that end up totaling our whole. So to answer your question, "Does one feed into the other?"—All of my interests feed into one another, which is what makes my psychoanalytic practice, in addition to writing and painting, so gratifying.
Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my questions. I'm sure many readers will be fascinated by the important history you provide in Concealed, as well as its many valuable messages.
To follow Esther visit her website.