Purim as Queen Esther’s ‘Coming Out’

By Roya Hakakian

Published March 10, 2006, issue of March 10, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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).






Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.