We don’t tend to think of holidays as occasions into which we grow, but that is, in part, what they are. Thirty years ago, as a child growing up in the shah’s Iran, Purim was just another holiday to me. Later, on my family’s departure from Tehran — when I was just beginning to understand the meaning of introspection — the joy that Purim had once occasioned began to dissipate. The holiday went from joyous to tragic: the bitter reminder not of what our people had once done, but of where our people had once called home.
And this year, in the midst of all the controversy over my native land, Purim has taken on yet another meaning. Peel away the fanfare — the palace, the riches, the envy and the feuding — and what remains in the Book of Esther is a coming out story, the simple tale of a woman daring to reveal her true identity. In fourth-century BCE, in what is today Iran, a woman admitted to being a Jew. The truth shocked her unknowing husband. That he was the king enhances the drama, but is, otherwise, entirely irrelevant. It is the revelation and subsequent shock that are crucial. A woman’s most intimate companion did not know the truth about her, thereby casting a doubt over the genuineness of their intimacy. Though some 25 centuries have passed, the Iranian Jew’s quandary remains much like Esther’s.
A few months ago, after giving a talk on my book tour, an Iranian Muslim audience member, extending her hand to shake mine, whispered in my ear: “Why don’t Iranian Jews like us here in America? We were so good together in Iran.” That night, I denied her intuition. “No, no!” I protested, “You’re generalizing an exception to represent the rule.” And she relented, or so it seemed.
But frankness has a way of disarming one, and in the days that followed I found myself opening up to her question. The memories of similar such encounters welled up in my mind: the question-and-answer session at a panel on religious minorities, at an Iranian studies conference, during which an angry participant took the microphone and demanded that the Jewish presenter declare her national allegiance. “Is it to Israel or Iran?” she hissed. Then there were all the instances in which an Iranian Muslim, fondly reminiscing about a Jewish neighbor or friend in Iran, had complimented her with these words: “You’d have never known she was a Jew.” Living in Iran, what choice did she have? What else could the Jew do but appear indistinct, void of all the overt signs of Jewishness?
Coming to America is a coming out of sorts for the Iranian Jew. Empowered within the democratic framework of an adopted society, the Iranian Jew is revealing her identity. In the process, she herself is discovering and shaping the meaning of that identity. It is in America that the Iranian Jew sheds her fear of Old Country intimidation. No more the “sweet, quiet, and ever agreeable neighbor,” she becomes an individual, with all the attending trappings. It is here that she allows herself to refuse a relationship, if it does not please her, and expects to be treated as an equal. In return, the Iranian Muslim, watching the facade of a presumed intimacy crumble, is shocked.
The American Jew is equally unknowing. For the American Jew, Purim is a fairy tale, not history. There are multiple truths that shock the American Jew: that Jews continue to live in Iran, for instance; that, after Israel, Iran is still home to the largest community of Jews in the Middle East. The American Jew makes his own assumptions about what it must have been like to be a Jew in Iran. His point of reference is often the experience of the Jews in Europe. Going by that narrative, the American Jew expects his Iranian counterpart not to be burdened by nostalgia, or by the longing for all things Iranian, and to want to assimilate instantly. The American Jew expects the Iranian Jew to embrace everything the former is willing to provide. He, too, is shocked when he is refused, watching his facade of intimacy crumble — when Iranians build their own temples, conduct services in Persian and insist on maintaining an Iranian identity.
The truth is what the Iranian Jew has yet to learn to articulate. It is what the Iranian Muslim and the American Jew have yet to be curious about. It is a dialogue that Iranians never have had the chance to have, and that Americans think they do not need to initiate. These are the truths that are dire to our coexistence — the truths that Esther would have dared to tell.
Roya Hakakian is the author, most recently, of a memoir, “Journey From the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran” (Three Rivers Press, 2005).