Being an immigrant or first-generation American is never easy, and is often made more difficult as a woman. Many Persian Jewish women living in the United States understand this struggle as they must straddle the line between adhering to their families’ expectations to be najeeb, or pure, and their own desires.
This Museum program explores what it means to be a Persian Jewish woman and a refugee living in the United States. In conversation are Esther Amini, the author of Concealed and Roya Hakakian, founding member of the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center and author of Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran. The conversation is moderated by Saba Soomekh, Associate Director of the American Jewish Committee – Los Angeles and author of From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture.
This program was co-presented with the American Jewish Committee – Los Angeles.
Watch the program below.
This program’s original recording transcript is below. This transcription was created automatically during a live program so may contain inaccurate transcriptions of some words.
Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): Hello everyone, my name is Sydney Yaeger and I am the public programs coordinator at the Museum of Jewish heritage.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): A living memorial to the Holocaust i'm honored to introduce today's program from Iran to America, the strength and struggles of Persian Jewish women.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): Before we begin, I would like to thank the American Jewish committee Los Angeles for co presenting today's Program.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): joining us today are Esther meaty and Roy mckeon who will be in conversation with Thomas and mack.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): aster a meanie is a writer painter and psychoanalytic psycho therapist in private practice.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): Esther is a first generation American and her parents let Michelle Iran in the 1950s, where they have been forced to become crypto Jews.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): her book concealed tells the story of being caught between the traditional world of her parents and the freewheeling one of 1960s New York.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): concealed has been named one of the best books of 2020 by kirkus reviews.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): roja cake Ian is an author and Persian poet who was written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and npr she grew up in Tehran and emigrated to the United States following the Iranian revolution.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): her book journey from the land of know a girl had caught in revolutionary Iran was a Barnes and Nobles PIC of the week, Ms magazine must read of the summer publisher weeklies best book of the year.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): elle magazine's best nonfiction but the 2004 was named best memoir by the Connecticut Center for the book in 2005 and has been translated into several languages, including German Dutch and Spanish.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): Dr Saba sumac is the associate director of the American Jewish committee Los Angeles, and a lecturer at the Academy for Jewish religion California.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): where she teaches religious studies and Middle Eastern history courses.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): She is the author of from the shahs to Los Angeles three generations of Iranian Jewish women between religion and culture, which was awarded the gold medal in 20 in the 2013 independent publisher book award in the religion category.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): i'll put the links over you can buy each of these books into the chat momentarily.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): But during this discussion, please feel free to share questions in the zoom Q amp a box and we'll get to as many as we can, during the hour.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): This program is being recorded and the video will be available tomorrow on the museum's YouTube channel Thank you all so much for being here and i'm now going to hand things over to Sabah.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: Thank you so much Sydney and thank you all for being here it's such a pleasure to have you asked her and Roi if I could kindly ask you both to.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: Put your screens back on and we could start our questions, thank you, thank you ladies, for being here.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: it's such a pleasure and an honor to be in conversation with both of you and I know Sydney did a great job, giving us an introduction, but I can, can I kindly ask.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: Esther and android, so why don't we have you go first, can you please give me a bio background of your life obviously a brief background.
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Esther Amini: My parents came from the Iranian city of mesh and.
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Esther Amini: They left Iran after World War Two this was they arrived here in 1947 in New York, but to get back to mesh mesh shed.
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Esther Amini: Is the most fanatically religious city in all of Iran it's considered the holiest city, the ninth century mom resolve is buried there so millions of people from around the world, come to pay homage to a mom resolve, which makes that soil holy.
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Esther Amini: In this city which is.
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Esther Amini: A Shiite stronghold a pilgrimage site with a long history of maiming and massacring infidels you have a tight Jewish community living in the city of mashad as crypto Jews.
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Esther Amini: They were hidden they were hiding their true identity above ground, they were behaving as if they were Muslim my mother wore the black chowder the burka.
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Esther Amini: From head to toe covered looking through Iceland, my father prayed from the quran.
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Esther Amini: Many times a day alongside other Muslims and yet in the secrecy and privacy of their home they were devout Jews.
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Esther Amini: my ancestors live this way my parents live this way, and when right into the middle of the 20th century fast forward they came to the United States after World War Two and a few years later I was born in New York so.
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Esther Amini: The memoir called concealed is really about how they conceal themselves and how that trickled down to me, and even though I was growing up in the United States, I was concealing myself.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: Thank you, after we have so much to really unpack with all of that, at Roy, can you please tell me about your life.
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Roya Hakakian: i'm buying isn't half as interesting as esters.
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Roya Hakakian: No, but it's really fascinating because.
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Roya Hakakian: As Esther spoke, I remember that one of the greatest moments of my childhood in Iran.
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Roya Hakakian: in Tehran, where I was born and raised was when my father's mash ID friends who had a big thriving business in Tehran used to invite us over for Passover.
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Roya Hakakian: And because we didn't have a lot of kosher for Passover foods in Iran, there were no cookies nothing sweet to eat all through Passover except at their home at the home of the mash it drew super close to my dad.
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Roya Hakakian: So it was one of the only homes, I made sure to visit with my parents during during pay staff and.
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Roya Hakakian: And they had lots of macaroons and things that I hadn't seen until I came to the United States, so I have very, very fond memories of.
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Roya Hakakian: Of this, of the little contact that we had with them and what I understood about the story of the masha the Jews, so it will be a pleasure to hear more from you so.
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Roya Hakakian: So, as I said, I was born and raised in in Tehran, and my father, along with.
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Roya Hakakian: You know, some other members of our extended family made up.
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Roya Hakakian: In the the Jewish educators within the Jewish community in Tehran my uncle was a Hebrew teacher at at one school my father was the principal at another Hebrew day school so.
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Roya Hakakian: We you know we we lived in a middle class neighborhood in Tehran, but, but you know, we were very overtly practicing Jews and.
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Roya Hakakian: And the synagogue and the Jewish community was a great part of our lives and then all of that, as everyone knows, and changed in 1979 on and my mother nine left several years later, after the revolution.
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Roya Hakakian: which seems to be very point that a lot of people who have written about my book is seem to miss, especially if they've been Jews, they.
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Roya Hakakian: They all assume that all of us, there are young Jews left in 1970s and making 79 so you know, some people have cast doubt over the fact that I speak about the time of the revolution and post revolutionary Iran and they say Oh, she couldn't have seen it well.
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Roya Hakakian: All of us didn't leave in the same year, and my mother.
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Roya Hakakian: My mother and I left in August of 1984 so we were there for about five years after and my father's stayed even longer, and was reunited with us in 1989.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: And, and you were there at the height of the Iran, Iraq war, so you experienced all of that right yeah and.
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Roya Hakakian: I mentioned this only because there have been some.
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Roya Hakakian: Research papers and you know book reviews done specifically actually by fellow Iranian Jews were you know they keep mentioning that, how could Roy have known what was happening in Iran at the time of the Iranian revolution or thereafter.
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Roya Hakakian: because everyone assumes that you know the Community made a massive move on saying you know, on us, and that was in the kids.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: and very a lot of Iranians you stayed and, with it, how did you get out with it through highest coming vs.
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Roya Hakakian: Soon, as always gets involved once you are out of Iran, so the big challenge was you know how do you get out of Iran, and in those early years it was.
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Roya Hakakian: It was incredibly difficult in some ways it was much harder to be Jewish in in the early years after the revolution than it is to be Jewish and around now.
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Roya Hakakian: And it's an irony, because people keep you know being surprised by by my assertion, but the fact is that, as the Jewish community.
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Roya Hakakian: dwindled in numbers and as it seemed less and less of a threat, it has been allowed to do more, because you know.
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Roya Hakakian: It just isn't what it used to be it doesn't present a threat it doesn't and it's very clear that it's a dying Community so they they are being given far more rights to practice and to have schools and synagogues and stuff.
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Roya Hakakian: as compared to the time then then we were trying to need, and it was a It was a difficult time in that I think, not that I think that the Jews were not exactly barred from leaving around, but they were not.
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Roya Hakakian: overtly and officially or easily granted permission to leave either, so my when my mother and I applied it we.
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Roya Hakakian: Are passports were held up or you know confiscated at the at the you know passport office until you know, a whole lot of other things that we had to do in order to get our passwords right, and I think it's interesting that you.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: said it's a giant Community because, in many ways it is from 100,000 plus Jews, to add what 10 12,000 but ironically it's also one of the largest Jewish community still in the Middle East outside of Israel, comparing to the fact that.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: Most Jews either left or were you know forced to leave due to die or conditions in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, so.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: Esther let's go back to you, your family's really interesting because, with like royal family, my family, a lot of us left either right before the revolution or right, you know after the revolution, but your family came a lot earlier, why did they choose to come to America.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: And you know and why what was that, like, for you growing up as a Iranian Jew in New York, when they weren't Iranian Jews all over New York or Great knack or Los Angeles, etc.
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Esther Amini: yeah I think I have to backtrack a bit because I was listening to Royal and what I and I didn't want to interrupt but, but I think I have to insert.
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Esther Amini: That so much depends on where what city, you came from you know if I if a comparison could be if one came from appalachia vs San Francisco it says, if you came from a different country.
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Esther Amini: The same coming from the city of mashad versus Tehran diametric diametrically opposite diametrically opposite so, even though we are both of Iranian Jewish background.
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Esther Amini: Our stories are very, very different, which is what makes it interesting.
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Esther Amini: In the case of my parents, they were living as crypto Jews, while at the same time in the mid 20th century.
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Esther Amini: Jews in Tehran were not.
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Esther Amini: necessarily.
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Esther Amini: In in meshad girls were not allowed to step foot into a classroom they were kept illiterate my mother was illiterate.
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Esther Amini: All the women in my family grandmother great grandmother were illiterate i'm the first one that actually became educated and learn to read and write in Tehran girls were sent to school this, this was the norm.
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Esther Amini: In meshad.
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Esther Amini: girls who are married off of the age of eight two men 20 years older than them, and this was in the middle of the 20th century we're not talking a long time ago.
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Esther Amini: my grandmother was nine, this is my father's mother, she was nine when she was forced to marry my grandfather, who was then 29 so again just imagine a nine year old girl next to a 29 year old men.
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Esther Amini: My mother was 14 when she was forced to marry my father, who was 34 this was the norm in mesh at.
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Esther Amini: Within the Muslim world, and then the Jews did this as well, partly to conceal who they were.
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Esther Amini: Partly so that they wouldn't intermarry if a Muslim knocked on their door and asked for their daughter's hand they'd say she's spoken for, and you can say that about an eight year old.
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Esther Amini: So there were many reasons for this, but this was you know the cobweb and then, I know, at the same time mid 20th century in Tehran girls were asked within affluent families girls were being sent to Swiss boarding schools so we're talking about diametric opposites.
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Esther Amini: And you ask why they came.
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Esther Amini: My mother was was the engine and even though she was illiterate and 20 years younger than my father she outmuscled him and he was a strong strong traditional character.
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Esther Amini: There was tremendous anti semitism and measured.
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Esther Amini: It was a terrifying place to live in spite of the fact that they pretended they were Muslims in spite of the fact that they were crypto Jews.
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Esther Amini: Because it was there was a masquerade I mean, even though all this was going on the Muslims knew who the Jews were they lived in a ghetto Kool aid.
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Esther Amini: And every once in a while the pill for pillage rape, murder, the Jews and that's a whole story of its own, and so my mother had finally decided when my two brothers were very young, I have two brothers that were born in Iran.
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Esther Amini: that she couldn't tolerate it anymore, and that she was going to yank the family out and come and they left in 1946 it took them a whole year to arrive in New York.
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Esther Amini: Back then 1946 right after World War Two you could not jump on a TWA plane and leave Tehran for New York.
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Esther Amini: So it was by horse and buggy it was by foot, it was all kinds of ways, where they got themselves into Afghanistan.
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Esther Amini: Then from there, they went to India, and then they were stuck in India for over 13 months and finally got on to an American troops ship.
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Esther Amini: That brought them to California from there, they went cross country to New York, it was a a an odyssey.
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Esther Amini: And I write about it in concealed and there's a lot of humor as well, there are lots of crazy moments culture clashes misunderstandings of one another, the two worlds, the Western world, the four Eastern world.
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Esther Amini: But it was my mother who spearheaded this exodus.
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Esther Amini: And to her credit and and.
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Esther Amini: I was born in the states, and so my life apparently would be different, but wasn't so much because they really brought my shed into the living room.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: So as well, definitely I want to talk about that, especially as a woman growing up in that Community Roy What was it like for your family to come to America.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: What was it like for you to come to America in 84.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: And I think you're on mute okay.
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Roya Hakakian: I arrived in 85.
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Roya Hakakian: Like esther's family, it took us a while to get here.
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Roya Hakakian: You know, because.
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Roya Hakakian: It was just that by the time we signed on to hire us, and then you know, we had to eventually end up in Vienna, which is, which was the way station where Iranian Jews had to go to in order to be processed for asylum.
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Roya Hakakian: At that time the way time to get to America was about nine months and we had already spent a month or two to get to Vienna so so it took about a year.
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Roya Hakakian: To get here and and I, you know in in one simple word was miserable I didn't want to be here, I had spent here in Austria, I had started learning German I.
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Roya Hakakian: I did a little bit of English, if I had any had escaped my mind I.
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Roya Hakakian: I just I had come from the revolutionary Iran my head was full of you know anti American chance my heart was full of sorrow, I was missing everyone and.
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Roya Hakakian: And you know the community of friends, namely you know Jewish younger Jewish students who, with whom we had an organization which I talked about in my memoir.
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Roya Hakakian: where he huge part of my life, so I was missing them um you know I think that's a that's a general in story of you know bereft immigrant trying to.
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Roya Hakakian: You know piece together a new life and and so that's what happened and.
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Roya Hakakian: A lot of it took longer than then it could have, I think, but are you know, had had I.
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Roya Hakakian: You found a an easier time or a community to slip into but it took a while and and so some things were prolonged but here we are.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: So this question is for both of you, and so we'll start we'll go back to you what Iranian Jewish communities tend to be very traditional.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: Things are changing now, but they tend to be very traditional, especially during the time of grandmother mother daughter generations in this concept of majeed.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: And women having to be sexually pure and watching out for their reputation and everything about American society American pluralistic society which by nature.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: At least on paper supposed to be egalitarian with boundaries and you go away to college and this and that is very different than what you are brought up in an Iranian Jewish home so asked her what was that, like, for you, and then, of course, really i'd love for you to answer that question.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: With without the way you were raised, I should even ask well.
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Esther Amini: I was raised, I was raised with.
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Esther Amini: By I was raised by the city of my shed.
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Esther Amini: Their values their principles, the whole notion of abreu one's face once image once reputation.
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Esther Amini: is very, very important, and that was, I was reminded of that constantly on a daily basis, you know your your own guru Actually, I have a few sentences that would explain it because it's far and I think to Americans, the whole idea or.
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Esther Amini: In the mum why I wrote.
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Esther Amini: This.
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Esther Amini: There isn't there isn't an equivalent Anglo Saxon word that accurately conveys all brews waste weight and power attendant of daily Persian life.
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Esther Amini: Of means water and room his face translates into purifying water streaming over once face to Persians it means honor standing reputation status all rolled into one accumulating and maintaining.
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Esther Amini: or brew is centrally important if your great grandfather grandfather Father lived honest and ethical lives lives of.
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Esther Amini: Integrity, wisdom and proper social conduct than when you're born you inherit their honor abreu is respected abreu a respected face becomes your social currency your wealth, even a credit line.
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Esther Amini: Unless last through missteps in Iran ill conduct didn't just damage one's own social status it had lasting multi generational effects tainting the reputation and prospects of future descendants so that's pretty heavy.
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Esther Amini: And I think that I grew up with bifocals I was in seeing the world through American eyes, I was born and raised here and went to public school and the other lens was the machete lens.
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Esther Amini: And so it was a situation where I was always confused and I was a very quiet child and observant one and differential one I didn't make a lot of ruckus but internally, I was there was dissonance and.
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Esther Amini: It was very confusing for me as to who I am who i'm supposed to be.
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Esther Amini: And how to satisfy everyone my parents at home and the American school system my social life outside of the home.
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Roya Hakakian: That explains a lot about your current profession as a psychoanalyst.
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Esther Amini: Absolutely there's a strong.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: Absolutely absolutely right, I can you talk about where you brought up with this concept of being naive in Abu and.
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Roya Hakakian: Well, I grew up exactly with what.
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Roya Hakakian: What Esther described until the age of 12 and then life changed right, so you know it's.
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Roya Hakakian: Nobody was the same after 1979 and and suddenly there was a major eruption and and everybody had been moved off kilter you know all equilibrium throughout the country.
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Roya Hakakian: Jewish community included had been you know, had been shifted and therefore you know even and then you know into that of course enters my own very rebellious spirit at the you know exactly I the cusp of adolescence, and therefore.
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Roya Hakakian: I rebelled against all those things and, fortunately, because you know everything had been so destabilized as a result of you know, the Community.
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Roya Hakakian: Taking flight from Iran, and then everything being in the state that it was I got away with so much in some ways, I remember.
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Roya Hakakian: One of the mothers of a friend of mine came to our House, one day, to say you know your daughter it say to my dad.
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Roya Hakakian: your daughter keeps taking my daughter out and they go mountain climbing and this and that and I don't like it, and I remember my father said.
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Roya Hakakian: I don't like it either, but I can't stop her so what I can recommend is you stop your daughter from socializing with mine and that's, the best thing I can recommend and that, and that was true.
00:27:02.850 --> 00:27:15.990
Roya Hakakian: And, and the best part was that I think I I can definitely see myself growing up, precisely as Esther did, but I think what really in some ways in in a very ironic way.
00:27:16.860 --> 00:27:30.900
Roya Hakakian: rescued me was being there in the midst of this revolution which created all these on predictable and you know discontented state of affairs where.
00:27:31.680 --> 00:27:48.330
Roya Hakakian: Therefore, I, along with a group of Iranian Jews were doing our own thing, and you know being rebellious and proud of it and, and so, by the time I had arrived in America several years later.
00:27:49.590 --> 00:28:01.500
Roya Hakakian: I had I had grown very much a custom to to the liberties that I had created for myself so and and I, I felt very lucky.
00:28:03.060 --> 00:28:16.380
Roya Hakakian: That my family didn't decide to be in California, because I was watching you know relatives and their kids who were in California being able to do a lot less than I was.
00:28:17.070 --> 00:28:32.850
Roya Hakakian: In New York, where we didn't have as as larger Jewish community in the areas where my parents and I and my siblings were living in brooklyn and, therefore, that you know my freedom kind of went on fortunately.
00:28:34.260 --> 00:28:40.560
Dr. Saba Soomekh: Right, so you were afforded more freedom because there was less of a chance of gossip people watching.
00:28:40.920 --> 00:28:54.930
Roya Hakakian: commenting and then you know it's also, I have to say that it was also who I was at the same time, and so I remember several times, my mother coming to the end say and saying you know.
00:28:55.320 --> 00:29:04.710
Roya Hakakian: i'm you know you're compromising our through our reputation is being ruined and I remember, at one point I said something incredibly cruel, which was.
00:29:05.100 --> 00:29:14.490
Roya Hakakian: everybody's abreu everybody's reputation will be ruined one day or another, and this is how yours will be ruined and I, and I remember feeling.
00:29:15.060 --> 00:29:34.980
Roya Hakakian: You know I even at that moment, when I was 19 thinking to myself, I am going to regret it because this is my mom but I said it and and and you know this was really big in some ways, who I was not not simply a product of the circumstances but also you know my own to.
00:29:36.120 --> 00:29:38.070
Roya Hakakian: Your character and personality to.
00:29:39.330 --> 00:29:48.030
Dr. Saba Soomekh: yeah that we were very lucky that there are a lot of great Iranian Jewish with female writers memoir is.
00:29:49.350 --> 00:29:56.490
Dr. Saba Soomekh: fiction nonfiction etc and Roy why don't we start with you what why write a memoir.
00:29:57.360 --> 00:30:09.720
Dr. Saba Soomekh: One how what was the reception of your family and loved ones, because again you're growing up in a culture where we're taught everything is private and in the family, so what was the why write a memoir how did.
00:30:10.260 --> 00:30:11.190
Roya Hakakian: Writing before.
00:30:12.330 --> 00:30:12.840
Roya Hakakian: I mean.
00:30:14.250 --> 00:30:27.900
Roya Hakakian: It look when when I wrote mine, which was in 2004 there weren't very many In fact I it I published my memoir within the same year as.
00:30:29.190 --> 00:30:46.770
Roya Hakakian: The author and a few sees a reading Lolita in Tehran and and that was one of a handful of memoirs that had already been released and and I and, at the time it was.
00:30:47.910 --> 00:30:52.500
Roya Hakakian: It was not so much an account that had been.
00:30:53.640 --> 00:31:06.420
Roya Hakakian: discussed, I mean there was you know this is almost 20 years ago there was still a great deal of curiosity and wonder about what had truly happened in Iran at the time of the revolution.
00:31:06.840 --> 00:31:13.320
Roya Hakakian: And, and the reason I felt very compelled, as I discussed in the first chapter of the memoir was because I thought.
00:31:13.920 --> 00:31:23.490
Roya Hakakian: People were misunderstanding, the revolution people were misunderstanding Iran people were misunderstanding and the Jewish community in Iran and and I wrote the memoir.
00:31:24.330 --> 00:31:35.670
Roya Hakakian: Primarily because I wanted to set three things straight one was you know what had happened what what the revolution was as far as i'd seen it The second thing was.
00:31:36.510 --> 00:31:50.160
Roya Hakakian: Who you're who were the women what happened to women before and after the revolution, and the third was because this was very shocking to me everywhere, I went even within the American Jewish community, I would say i'm from Iran and.
00:31:51.360 --> 00:32:03.690
Roya Hakakian: up more often than not, I would hear there are jewels in Europe and and that really it shook me up and I thought i'm going to set that record straight to and talk about.
00:32:04.110 --> 00:32:14.940
Roya Hakakian: What I knew of the Iranian Jewish community so so there I had three major reasons why I thought you know the the common perceptions needed to be corrected.
00:32:15.390 --> 00:32:18.450
Dr. Saba Soomekh: And what was the response of your family to you writing a memoir.
00:32:19.560 --> 00:32:23.250
Roya Hakakian: it's it's really it's fascinating because.
00:32:24.570 --> 00:32:32.430
Roya Hakakian: In some ways i'm glad my mom and dad, although they knew English by then we're not.
00:32:33.480 --> 00:32:39.900
Roya Hakakian: In readers of English books, so I think I may have.
00:32:41.340 --> 00:32:46.170
Roya Hakakian: I could have hurt her feelings if they were able to actually read the book.
00:32:47.430 --> 00:32:49.050
Roya Hakakian: Although I think.
00:32:50.190 --> 00:33:02.100
Roya Hakakian: You know, they may have disagreed that I had treated them with a great deal of you know, respect and kindness, as I felt towards them and continue to but um.
00:33:02.850 --> 00:33:15.900
Roya Hakakian: But I think I also reveal a great deal about how I saw not just my own immediate family, but the extended family and places within exactly what Esther describes as.
00:33:16.290 --> 00:33:30.570
Roya Hakakian: The constant restrictions that the Jewish community and mirrored of the broader Muslim community and that that was incredibly suffocating as Esther so eloquently puts it.
00:33:30.990 --> 00:33:40.380
Roya Hakakian: And so I think if if my parents had had been able to read the book they would have taken those aspects really personally.
00:33:41.370 --> 00:33:53.580
Roya Hakakian: And may have you know felt offended but, but in some ways it was lucky, and the only thing that they heard was that other people who had read the book would give them a call or.
00:33:53.940 --> 00:34:05.880
Roya Hakakian: In some case somebody had sent a bouquet of flowers to my dad and so he just felt very proud when when he got that sort of feedback right Thank you and Esther.
00:34:06.270 --> 00:34:07.500
Dr. Saba Soomekh: Why write a memoir.
00:34:10.500 --> 00:34:13.170
Esther Amini: I think, for decades, I was haunted.
00:34:14.760 --> 00:34:20.580
Esther Amini: By the question, what does memory want from me, you know what do I own memory.
00:34:23.010 --> 00:34:26.010
Esther Amini: And so it took me a long time to decide to do this.
00:34:27.660 --> 00:34:39.060
Esther Amini: So I wrote concealed to break the silence I you know I come from a legacy a heritage of underground Jews certainly did not write memoirs.
00:34:39.450 --> 00:34:49.740
Esther Amini: They were pretending to be other than who they were that would have been too dangerous thing to do, I come from a legacy of women who could not read and write.
00:34:50.490 --> 00:35:08.610
Esther Amini: And so I felt real obligation to the fae mashad which silenced them to give voice to my parents my ancestors, to make sure I resurrect their history, I rescue them from obscurity.
00:35:09.210 --> 00:35:17.340
Esther Amini: And to thread the machete story into the larger Jewish tapestry, I felt that was also very important to do.
00:35:18.180 --> 00:35:39.510
Esther Amini: And to make sense, out of confusion on a very personal level on a very private level writing develops fluency with oneself, and so the more I was writing the more I was knowing me, and that was very important to kind of integrate my disparate parts which I did experience happening.
00:35:40.530 --> 00:35:54.450
Esther Amini: So if there were multiple reasons for doing it, and I know you're going to ask me Silva, so how did my parents, how did my family respond, because the book is very honest and transparent um.
00:35:56.130 --> 00:35:59.520
Esther Amini: Well, I didn't begin writing this book.
00:36:01.770 --> 00:36:16.530
Esther Amini: Until recently, and and my mother passed away let's see we're now the year 21 my mother passed away 21 years ago and my father passed away 25 years ago.
00:36:17.190 --> 00:36:24.030
Esther Amini: And it took that kind of distance for me to be able to think it was more about integrating.
00:36:24.690 --> 00:36:34.590
Esther Amini: Their story my story and being able to stand on this mountain and look back and have a clear perspective as to what it was all about you know.
00:36:35.130 --> 00:36:40.620
Esther Amini: understanding them being more I think attuned to who they really were.
00:36:41.520 --> 00:36:51.930
Esther Amini: The book is written through many lenses you are get that young child me the young child speaking and then later on pre adolescence, and then the teenager.
00:36:52.560 --> 00:37:12.030
Esther Amini: And you have the young adults, and of course the way i'm trying to understand this world, and this clash of symbols my parents were diametric opposites, Iran and America felt like diametric opposites, and my attempt to understand all of this was an evolution I kept changing my interpretation.
00:37:13.530 --> 00:37:17.520
Esther Amini: And so to have that distance was very important for me.
00:37:19.020 --> 00:37:42.600
Esther Amini: And to be ready for it to have room in my mind, and in my life because it took me five years to write concealed and writing it rewriting it memory surfacing memories that I had conveniently buried for decades such started to appear, and it was because I was writing.
00:37:43.650 --> 00:37:45.300
Esther Amini: So it was quite a process.
00:37:46.560 --> 00:37:49.110
Esther Amini: And i'm grateful, I went through it.
00:37:51.030 --> 00:37:57.660
Dr. Saba Soomekh: You know, you talked about the theme of memory, I feel like memory and in a sense, trauma and I think all.
00:37:59.220 --> 00:38:10.680
Dr. Saba Soomekh: Immigrants to escape something deal with trauma is trauma a theme or an inch writing, something that has helped with trauma and intergenerational trauma for both of you.
00:38:13.530 --> 00:38:15.600
Esther Amini: Who would you like to speak.
00:38:16.050 --> 00:38:17.220
Dr. Saba Soomekh: If you would like to talk.
00:38:18.000 --> 00:38:18.540
00:38:20.040 --> 00:38:29.760
Esther Amini: I mean traumas definitely in in my mind, but I wouldn't I wouldn't narrow it down and say that's the theme, I wouldn't say.
00:38:30.510 --> 00:38:38.940
Esther Amini: it's all about what my parents went through and then somehow it got transferred down to me and then what I went through I really wouldn't say that.
00:38:39.870 --> 00:38:54.480
Esther Amini: There are so many themes that run through it, I think, for me it was more about the dissonance more about finding out who I am and being able to integrate opposing worlds.
00:38:55.500 --> 00:38:57.360
Esther Amini: It was more about.
00:38:58.830 --> 00:39:11.490
Esther Amini: feeling like an outsider for most of my life and beginning to value that position of being the outside, I think, as you know, Roy when you feel like an outsider.
00:39:12.810 --> 00:39:26.940
Esther Amini: It helps as a writer, it helps as a painter it helps in the whole creative process where you don't feel you're so much in the mix but you're watching it from abroad.
00:39:28.290 --> 00:39:40.050
Esther Amini: And so I then valued later in life i'm feeling different and how all that happened, I think.
00:39:41.610 --> 00:39:46.920
Esther Amini: Finding oneself is is really what the book is about and.
00:39:49.170 --> 00:40:04.200
Esther Amini: In reinterpreting life from stage to stage for me was there a trickling down of trauma absolutely I mean my parents conceal themselves my ancestors pretended they were someone else.
00:40:04.770 --> 00:40:14.490
Esther Amini: And then here i'm growing up in the United States, and I was hiding, who I was, I was hiding my aspirations my dreams, because they were.
00:40:15.030 --> 00:40:24.570
Esther Amini: antithetical to what my father wanted for me and he wanted me to remain illiterate, that was one of his primary goals.
00:40:25.530 --> 00:40:41.040
Esther Amini: He banned books, I had to read and secret under the sheets with a flashlight in bed so here, I was concealing who I was in my way, even though i'm growing up in Queens New York and attending public school.
00:40:42.000 --> 00:40:53.550
Esther Amini: Hiding my report cards, because I was getting straight a's and he would have a meltdown because he didn't want me to go to school was basically as simple as that.
00:40:55.170 --> 00:40:59.250
Esther Amini: So the concealment continued but.
00:41:00.570 --> 00:41:01.590
Esther Amini: It served me.
00:41:02.700 --> 00:41:08.970
Esther Amini: I think it developed my muscles I learned how to jump over hurdles.
00:41:10.290 --> 00:41:27.300
Esther Amini: I did get myself into college and that's there's a wild crazy story about that, because my father went on a suicidal hunger strike, when he learned, I was going to move into Barnard into the dorms and he was serious he stopped eating.
00:41:28.320 --> 00:41:39.030
Esther Amini: For 10 days and so how I got through all of that, you know I wanted to keep them kind of wanted to keep me and didn't give up anyone at.
00:41:39.930 --> 00:41:55.200
Esther Amini: And how to do that, and so I think having obstacles can really serve us, you know if we perceive it that way ways in which we can develop our own strengths and and navigate.
00:41:57.030 --> 00:42:00.450
Esther Amini: And come out feeling more whole and it's all possible.
00:42:01.500 --> 00:42:08.880
Esther Amini: So for me it wasn't so much about the trickling of trauma, but how how.
00:42:12.390 --> 00:42:13.770
Esther Amini: How the obstacles.
00:42:15.150 --> 00:42:17.100
Esther Amini: led to who I finally became.
00:42:18.600 --> 00:42:19.890
Wonderful Thank you.
00:42:21.060 --> 00:42:28.500
Dr. Saba Soomekh: I want to talk afterwards, about the navigation that I think we all do, when you know our children of immigrants are we are immigrants.
00:42:29.520 --> 00:42:40.680
Dr. Saba Soomekh: Roy, why did writing a memoir how did, how did that help you process your life or you know if there was trauma, the experience of coming to America, etc.
00:42:42.510 --> 00:42:56.100
Roya Hakakian: Well, my memoir ends at in Iran, so it doesn't bring the story up to you know our exodus, so to speak, and it's very interesting because I.
00:42:56.640 --> 00:43:16.290
Roya Hakakian: I teach a creative writing course from time to time and I often drive my students crazy when I say that a memoir isn't necessarily about you it's about you turning yourself into a conduit of something larger than yourself.
00:43:17.670 --> 00:43:23.670
Roya Hakakian: And you know there's nothing wrong with memoirs that are about a single individual if that single individual.
00:43:24.330 --> 00:43:33.270
Roya Hakakian: In our case Esther has has something really important to reveal, but I think most the rest of us may.
00:43:34.080 --> 00:43:50.700
Roya Hakakian: find the value in becoming personal in in what it is that we observe and live through and how it is that we become vehicles have a story larger than our own and and, in my case that story was the story of Iran.
00:43:51.840 --> 00:44:03.840
Roya Hakakian: And, and that is why exactly I really limit the book in in orange or tell the entire story of only 10 years I don't go cry I don't tell.
00:44:04.170 --> 00:44:28.980
Roya Hakakian: About whatever it was that was happening prior to 1974 and I don't go past 1984 I was very dedicated to Zeroing in on the 10 years during which there are, in my eyes transformed from what it was into what it became and and in fact the trauma I think in, in my view, was the trauma of.
00:44:30.030 --> 00:44:33.000
Roya Hakakian: A nation, a community a history.
00:44:34.230 --> 00:44:50.130
Roya Hakakian: And, and my job was to be a narrator of that of that trauma that I was observing it I have said time and again that that I could write about those precise years.
00:44:51.300 --> 00:45:18.690
Roya Hakakian: It many more times and tell and tell those you know about the stories of those years in entirely new and different ways I it could be very, very personal very different from from this current book, so there was enough material but, but my focus was was on the history and and how I had.
00:45:19.950 --> 00:45:21.990
Roya Hakakian: watched that history unfold.
00:45:23.160 --> 00:45:30.420
Dr. Saba Soomekh: Right Okay, thank you and we had a question from the audience and I actually want to address it to both of you, the question was specifically.
00:45:30.780 --> 00:45:42.030
Dr. Saba Soomekh: To Esther in regards to what are some of the traditions that you have sorry, can you describe some of the secret Jewish observances that your family house and then for both of you.
00:45:42.810 --> 00:45:54.330
Dr. Saba Soomekh: What are some of the aspects, now that you are Iranian Jewish women living outside of Iran aspects of Iranian Jewish culture or community that you have retained for yourselves and your own family.
00:45:58.710 --> 00:46:00.840
Esther Amini: Did you say Saba you wanted me to go.
00:46:01.110 --> 00:46:01.830
Dr. Saba Soomekh: There so so.
00:46:03.570 --> 00:46:09.630
Dr. Saba Soomekh: Someone asked about what were some of the crypto Jewish traditions observances that your family held.
00:46:11.400 --> 00:46:23.280
Esther Amini: In I can only speak for my family, so in my family there weren't any crypto Jewish traditions my parents were devout Jews and they observed.
00:46:25.230 --> 00:46:27.360
Esther Amini: shabbat the holidays.
00:46:28.830 --> 00:46:29.730
Esther Amini: Traditionally.
00:46:31.350 --> 00:46:38.160
Esther Amini: So there wasn't a crypto aspect to the way they practice Judaism.
00:46:39.840 --> 00:46:51.090
Esther Amini: I think, being in the United States and being able to go to a synagogue and be above ground was an incredibly novel experience for them and I wrote about that it was very, very emotional.
00:46:53.070 --> 00:47:00.870
Esther Amini: To to be able to be visible public and not be afraid of being killed.
00:47:01.920 --> 00:47:02.970
Esther Amini: losing your life.
00:47:04.800 --> 00:47:17.340
Esther Amini: So that's that's how I would answer it I can't speak for other machete families, but in my family, there were no traditions that were that came from the crypto life.
00:47:18.990 --> 00:47:28.380
Dr. Saba Soomekh: Wonderful and Esther what aspects Persian Jewish or Iranian Jewish community have you retained in your own life and in your own family.
00:47:29.460 --> 00:47:38.010
Esther Amini: Well Persian food is delicious and, as you know, Maria it's wonderful, and so my mother was a phenomenal cook.
00:47:38.910 --> 00:47:58.710
Esther Amini: And I I rebelled for many years, I did not want to spend time in the kitchen and then later on, I took some for recipes and I I do make Persian dishes so that's something that has continued and our adult children love the food and.
00:47:59.850 --> 00:48:12.930
Esther Amini: So the food for sure I think there's a very strong feeling of family and community and being tightly knit, although I do not live in the mesh of the Community.
00:48:14.130 --> 00:48:17.640
Esther Amini: I live in Manhattan and many communities and great neck.
00:48:19.860 --> 00:48:27.870
Esther Amini: So it's not on a literal level it's not as if I am part of that community I married an ashkenazi.
00:48:29.250 --> 00:48:31.740
Esther Amini: And we raised our children ashkenazi style.
00:48:32.970 --> 00:48:45.030
Esther Amini: But I think that whole value system of really valuing family and extended family and community is something that's not specific.
00:48:45.450 --> 00:49:01.080
Esther Amini: To Persian jewelry I mean I think it's also European South American you find this the Italians are this way you find this in many cultures, but it's something that has definitely permeated my life and something i've passed on.
00:49:02.550 --> 00:49:03.810
Dr. Saba Soomekh: yeah right yeah.
00:49:04.350 --> 00:49:05.670
Roya Hakakian: I agree with Esther.
00:49:06.840 --> 00:49:13.560
Roya Hakakian: And, and you know now I remember to only lately in the past several years when I go to synagogue.
00:49:14.550 --> 00:49:37.740
Roya Hakakian: I try very hard to remember, because I belong to an ashkenazi synagogue I try very hard to remember the tools that I had grown up with in in the Iranian synagogue in terrell and that that we were part of, and so I think you know, in some ways, I remember, and perhaps.
00:49:37.980 --> 00:49:41.250
Roya Hakakian: I missed remembering but I remember that everybody was.
00:49:42.180 --> 00:50:01.110
Roya Hakakian: Trying to zip through the prayers and you know they they I remember it was you know, everybody was just really whoever the Hassan was it was it was as if he was being chased by by by rabid dogs, because he you know recited everything that quickly but, but I do remember.
00:50:02.190 --> 00:50:05.970
Roya Hakakian: That there were aspects to to the way.
00:50:07.290 --> 00:50:18.090
Roya Hakakian: The prayers were performed to the way that the scripture was read I also remember that you know at the threshold of the synagogue somebody who.
00:50:19.050 --> 00:50:34.350
Roya Hakakian: You know, had was was marking the anniversary of the passing of a loved one would bring rosewater or something to eat, you know whether it was.
00:50:35.160 --> 00:50:47.670
Roya Hakakian: A key show or something and and and they would stand at the threshold and either you know pour the rosewater so that you would be then say a blessing.
00:50:49.380 --> 00:50:55.140
Roya Hakakian: As you entered or take a piece of something to eat at all and say a blessing.
00:50:56.190 --> 00:51:03.390
Roya Hakakian: In honor of their you know loved one who had passed, but I remember all those things very fondly and.
00:51:04.380 --> 00:51:21.570
Roya Hakakian: And those are the things that, in fact, you know or the tunes that I remember, are some of the things that i'm trying to interact introduced to members of our own synagogue to kind of you know, create a more and Milan have practices, if we can.
00:51:22.740 --> 00:51:24.960
Roya Hakakian: But as Esther said, you know it was.
00:51:26.490 --> 00:51:45.300
Roya Hakakian: So much of it is about warmth is about putting you know the the collective above the singular and and those are not uniquely Iranian Jewish values but but certainly I think Iranian Jews live by them.
00:51:46.920 --> 00:51:48.810
Roya Hakakian: So far as we, we were in Iran.
00:51:49.830 --> 00:52:01.260
Dr. Saba Soomekh: or we're about 43 years post revolution yeah What would you hope, what do you what would you like to see for Iranian Jewish women.
00:52:02.880 --> 00:52:13.680
Dr. Saba Soomekh: Especially the ones who are growing up in in America who were not born in Iran don't know Iran it's really just through their parents grandparents histories and stories.
00:52:14.760 --> 00:52:17.370
Roya Hakakian: There are 32 things one is that.
00:52:18.630 --> 00:52:30.900
Roya Hakakian: And I don't want to just for Iranian Jewish women I wanted for all Iranian Jews, is to remember the past justly you know.
00:52:31.980 --> 00:52:37.170
Roya Hakakian: Because I think we, we as human beings tend to.
00:52:38.520 --> 00:52:42.750
Roya Hakakian: be either overtly unkind or.
00:52:43.980 --> 00:52:58.980
Roya Hakakian: Or you know, Miss remember things you know, once we have uprooted ourselves depending on where we land and and how life moves forward from that point forward and and I would like, for us.
00:52:59.940 --> 00:53:25.650
Roya Hakakian: To to be fair to the past, because I think what's important to remember is is, at the end of the day, what happened to Iran as a country that it wasn't something that we as Jews were not so much targeted as as it was a community and a country that fell to.
00:53:26.700 --> 00:53:27.660
Roya Hakakian: You know, to.
00:53:29.160 --> 00:53:37.830
Roya Hakakian: To victim in some ways to tragic events, and I think it's it's because I I do give readings were.
00:53:39.390 --> 00:53:48.840
Roya Hakakian: Within within the American Jewish community, where people often say to me this is exactly what happened in Germany, and I have to say no, no, no, no, this isn't what happened in Germany.
00:53:50.100 --> 00:53:55.590
Roya Hakakian: You know it, so you have to distinguish because it's so it's so easy.
00:53:56.700 --> 00:54:08.160
Roya Hakakian: For all of us, in some ways, on inadvertently and i'm in an effort to in some ways, embrace each other to try to.
00:54:09.300 --> 00:54:31.890
Roya Hakakian: You know overlay our narratives over one one another's narratives and and I think if our narratives are of any value, it is in their own distinct truths and and facts that they can be of value and service so that's that's one thing, but as far as the women are concerned.
00:54:33.540 --> 00:54:42.870
Roya Hakakian: I would like us women to to be able to find our own voices to.
00:54:43.950 --> 00:54:54.540
Roya Hakakian: To you know, do away with what has been taught to us and our predecessors as virtues, you know whether it's our guru or.
00:54:54.870 --> 00:55:05.550
Roya Hakakian: Nigeria, whether it's you know to be virtuous by you know by being silent by being submissive by being you know good wives and good daughters only.
00:55:06.000 --> 00:55:23.190
Roya Hakakian: there's nothing wrong with being good was a good daughters, but, but you want needs to be true to oneself and pursue one's ambitions and and fulfill ones potentials to and that's what I hope for well my my fellow Iranian Jewish women.
00:55:29.940 --> 00:55:31.620
Dr. Saba Soomekh: Would you like to answer that question.
00:55:33.810 --> 00:55:35.160
Esther Amini: you're asking me Sabah.
00:55:35.310 --> 00:55:37.680
Dr. Saba Soomekh: Yes, yes Esther would you like to answer that question.
00:55:38.970 --> 00:55:49.860
Esther Amini: yeah I was, I was listening closely to Roy I certainly agree with everything she's saying, I think it depends on who we're talking to like if, when you say.
00:55:51.780 --> 00:55:56.310
Esther Amini: A rainy you're saying American born a rainy and girls.
00:55:56.670 --> 00:56:14.010
Dr. Saba Soomekh: know if I was asking you to come into to be a guest lecturer in my course on Iranian Jewish history where I have college students and we're looking at specifically post 79 What would you say to an audience full of UCLA students, mostly who are Iranian Jewish women mostly women.
00:56:14.970 --> 00:56:26.880
Esther Amini: No, I hear you I think again, it depends on who i'm talking to you know I hear what you're describing that group but they're each.
00:56:27.990 --> 00:56:39.210
Esther Amini: Their reach different, and so I think there are girls who are still stuck and feeling somehow suffocated by Iran, and it has.
00:56:39.750 --> 00:56:57.180
Esther Amini: passed down to them, whether we're talking about being majeed being being aware of abreu and it's has a suffocating effect that, of course, you know everything Royal saying is absolutely correct you want them to feel liberated and to be.
00:56:59.340 --> 00:57:08.850
Esther Amini: and to be able to flex their muscles and become, whoever they need to become that's for sure, but what about those who have who feel very American.
00:57:09.480 --> 00:57:22.500
Esther Amini: And who have disengaged from the past and have turned their backs and feel that has nothing to do with them anymore, I mean that's a different population within this population.
00:57:23.220 --> 00:57:36.090
Esther Amini: And what I would recommend that they acquaint themselves with the richness of the Persian culture, you know the language, the music the art the architecture.
00:57:38.580 --> 00:57:41.160
Esther Amini: The the philosophy, the poet's.
00:57:42.780 --> 00:57:44.850
Esther Amini: There is so much that.
00:57:46.290 --> 00:57:53.400
Esther Amini: Iran and prior to Iran Persia contributed to the world, and I would want them to.
00:57:54.540 --> 00:57:58.020
Esther Amini: discover it and feel that that too, as a part of them.
00:58:00.240 --> 00:58:14.310
Dr. Saba Soomekh: Thank you and Esther we have a lot of people are very interested I we only have two minutes, but with your family's life so much added us as crypto Jews, how do they keep kosher one of the audience Members wanted to know.
00:58:15.120 --> 00:58:21.540
Esther Amini: it's a good question I did question my parents and they said that they didn't eat beef.
00:58:22.740 --> 00:58:34.980
Esther Amini: they ate a lot of chicken and my my father was able to kill kill kosher style he was a show head and share the chicken with other families.
00:58:36.240 --> 00:58:48.570
Esther Amini: They also would eat lamb, which was something they knew how to they knew how to kosher how to kill kosher style slaughter according to Jewish law.
00:58:49.680 --> 00:58:52.500
Esther Amini: But there was a lot of dairy they ate a lot of dairy.
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Esther Amini: And they managed it was really chicken fish dairy and occasionally lamb.
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Dr. Saba Soomekh: Wonderful Thank you, I would like to take this opportunity to thank both of you.
00:59:09.150 --> 00:59:16.920
Dr. Saba Soomekh: This has been so wonderful it's been so great to have this opportunity to you know really pick both of your brains and expound on your stories and your narratives.
00:59:17.370 --> 00:59:23.490
Dr. Saba Soomekh: And thank you for being here with us, thank you to the audience for being here and listening i'm going to take it back to Sydney.
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Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): I would really like to echo what Sabah just said and also thank you Sabah, you all this was amazing I learned so much it's really been a pleasure to.
00:59:35.190 --> 00:59:44.550
Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): be a part of this program and to the audience Thank you all so much for being here, everything we do with the museum is made possible through donor support.
00:59:45.150 --> 00:59:59.940
Sydney Yaeger (She/Her): To those of you watching we do hope that you'll consider making a donation to support the museum or becoming a member and joining us for upcoming programs, which you can check out at the link in the zoom chat have a great afternoon, and thank you so much again for joining us.
Learn More About Our Speakers
Dr. Saba Soomekh, author of From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Women Between Religion and Culture, is the Associate Director of the American Jewish Committee – Los Angeles and a lecturer at the Academy for Jewish Religion – CA. Learn more at her website. Roya Hakakian, author of Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, is also a poet who has written for numerous publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Read more of her writings on her website. Esther Amini, author of Concealed, is a writer, painter, and psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. Learn more at her website.
Discover Other Stories from Iran
Tehran Children is the true story of Polish-Jewish child refugees who escaped the Nazis and found refuge in Iran. Mikhal Dekel, the daughter of one of these children, spent eight years extensively researching and traveling around the world to write a far-reaching account of Jews who found asylum in Muslim lands. In this Museum program, Dekel discusses her book with Gal Beckerman.
Explore Artifacts from the Museum’s Collection
Among the Mizrahi Judaica objects in the Museum’s Permanent Collection are several Persian ketubot donated in 2002 by Daniel M. Friedenberg. The ketubot were among many objects he donated to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, including artifacts from his own family history and Judaica from around the world. Read more about the ketubot in this Museum blog post.