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Op-Ed: An Iranian perspective on the Purim holidayIranian Jewish dissident Dr. Sima Goel speaks about the significance of the Purim story for her as a member of the Iranian Jewish community, which experienced great turmoil since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Once upon a Biblical time, some fifty years after the destruction of the Temple, a young Iranian girl from the city of Shushan saved her people from a terrible king, Ahasuerus. The girl was named Esther and she was the niece of Mordechai, an advisor to the king. Her actions saved the Jewish people and so the Purim holiday celebrates our victory over a great evil.
As a young girl, I understood that Esther had agency. She took great risks to support her people and she let nothing stand between herself and her identity. As I grew older, she became one of my heroes because she always identified with her background and led with her heart. Her burial place in the Iranian city of Hamadan is a place of worship for Jews, Muslims and Christians and is protected by UNESCO.
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In the Iran of my youth, Jewish women were free to walk with their heads uncovered, although older, more traditional women would at times wear a loose scarf and cloak over their Western attire. I was a modern girl. When I looked in the mirror at my dark eyes and long hair, I thought I saw reflected a modern embodiment of that far away Jewish heroine. When the Shah was overthrown by the new Iranian regime, life changed for the worse for the Jews of Iran. It was the memory of Esther that gave me strength to quietly resist.
When I was a child in my native Iran, Purim was a holiday of great joy. Purim usually coincided with the Iranian New Year and the entire country was happy. The Iranian New Year is not a religious holiday; it is a celebration of the beginning of spring and at this time, the country enjoys flowers and new growth.
Each Jewish holiday was an important way to mark the fact that we were Jews, separate unto ourselves and determined to never be assimilated. We children did not enjoy the European delicacy of Hamentashen but we did follow our traditions. We fasted prior to the holiday and broke it with eggs, rice and chicken soup. Our sweets were traditional to Iran: chickpea pastries, walnut and rice cookies. As in all Jewish communities around the world, we gathered in the synagogue to listen as the Book of Esther was read aloud. The men quietly enjoyed homemade kosher wine as the congregation grew more and more animated. We children were noisy with our homemade “greggors” and we let off caps, noise- makers and small fireworks at the mention of Hamman’s name and the listing of his sons.
In the West, Purim is a time of loud, noisy celebration but in the Iran of my childhood, we were much more conservative. Children did not dress up in costumes, families gathered together for meals rather than mixed in parties and the entire community made an effort to hear the Megillah.
Our holidays and the recognition of the Jewish year was key to our survival. Purim was one of the ways that we reminded ourselves that even though there were enemies all around us wearing different masks and hats, we could continue as Jews so long as we quietly maintained our identity and celebrated our beliefs as a community.
As Iranians, we participated in New Year’s festivities. We went on picnics in the orchards, prepared ceremonial offerings of flowers and new fruit and welcomed guests to our homes. As Jews, we celebrated Esther’s story and recognized that enemies came in many forms. We were part of the overall Iranian community but kept ourselves as a distinct subsection through our commitment to our traditions. Purim comes one month before Passover and the arrival of the first holiday signaled to Iranian Jews that it was time to get ready for the second, which was celebrated with great preparation and ceremony.
Since the Islamic revolution, the remaining Iranian Jewish community is under constant watch to adhere to the new constraints. All women including Jews must wear the hijab. Schools are open on Shabbat, even Jewish day schools, which are helmed by a Muslim principle, despite the Jewish curriculum. Prayer books are in short supply and there are few rabbis. Despite this, the Iranian Jewish community continues to survive.
At this period in our history, we face challenges no different than those known by our forefathers. Today, Hamman comes with a different face and name, and in today’s world of political turmoil, each of us is responsible to realize the blessings we enjoy and to protect the freedom we fought so desperately for. Jews are resilient across the globe and Jews who live in Iran today are no different. They take pride in their identity and they celebrate with joy, despite the dictator who oppresses them.