Thanksgiving Day always brings Bibi to mind. Bibi, which in Farsi means Grandma, was what my children and all her other grandchildren called my mother. She would buy the very largest turkey she could find, tightly stuff it with saffroned Persian rice, bake endless apple pies and always made sure there were grilled corn-on-the cob, bountiful bowls of jumbo sweet potatoes and even cranberry sauce, which was placed smack in the center of the table. Cranberry sauce was totally unappealing to our Persian palettes and every year was left untouched. However, just like the shank bone on the Passover seder plate, cranberry sauce had its own place of honor on our Thanksgiving table.
Bibi, born in 1925 and orphaned during infancy, was raised in the anti-Semitic, Islamic city of Mashhad, Iran. Mashhad is considered one of the holiest cities in the Shi’ite Muslim world. Millions made yearly pilgrimages to Mashhad, paying homage to the ninth-century martyr, Imam Reza, who is buried there.
In order to escape persecution and even death, Bibi and her Jewish community pretended to be Muslim. Just like the Marranos of Spain, they artfully balanced dual identities. Outdoors, while shopping in the market, Bibi wore the black chador which concealed her face and entire body. In the privacy of her home, she strictly kept kosher, braided challahs and lit Shabbat candles. Each year, months prior to Passover, women gathered in her basement and secretly, by candlelight, baked matzah. The Jewish men of Mashhad, also posing as Muslim, chanted from the Koran in the public squares alongside their Muslim neighbors. Back home, in the safety of their basements, they taught their young sons the Hebrew language and fervently studied Torah. Street stonings and beatings of Jews were a common occurrence. The Jews lived in constant fear of persecution.
Jewish infants, while still in their cribs, were often paired off for marriage by their parents. Bibi explained that this was done to safeguard their children from intermarriage. If a Muslim should happen to knock on their door and ask for their young daughter’s hand in marriage, the parents could truthfully reply, “She is already spoken for.”
As was customary in those days, Bibi, at the age of 14 was married off to my then-34-year-old father. When she was 15, she gave birth to my eldest brother.
Bibi, steeped in the Muslim culture of chadors, took Thanksgiving very seriously. For her, it was not a secular, national holiday. For Bibi, it stood side-by-side with Yom Kippur, Rosh HaShanah and Passover.
Each year, my married brothers, and I with my husband, were sternly ordered to come to her home with our families to pay homage to her and to Thanksgiving. No one dared to be at an in-law’s home on this holiday. On Thanksgiving we all belonged to Bibi. Come to think of it, we all belonged to Bibi on Rosh HaShanah, Sukkot, Chanukah, Passover, Mother’s Day and every other holiday on the calendar.
Traditionally, Baba, which in Farsi means Grandpa, began Thanksgiving by reciting the Ha-Motzi, (blessing over bread), followed by Bibi’s recitation entitled, “Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock.” She passionately told the story of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims and how the American Indians taught the Pilgrims to grow sweet potatoes and corn (all learned from Mrs. Rochlin, her adored Queens College “English for Foreigners” teacher). We doubled over laughing while poking fun at her intensity. With her broken English and, with a thick Persian accent, she would become her revered Mrs. Rochlin, teaching us all about the Wampanoag Indians on Plymouth Rock. Given the pitch and passion in her voice, one would have thought the Wampanoags were her forefathers.
I always felt Thanksgiving had a personal meaning for her —having left Iran in 1946 for India, then having left India in 1947 for America with her husband and two young sons, not on the Mayflower but on the U.S. Marine Adar. Throughout my life, she’d tell me how America gave her religious freedom. Only here, in America, could she live openly as a Jew. Only in America could she send her children to Hebrew school, shop at kosher butchers and not be afraid of being stoned. Only in America could she be surrounded by multiple synagogues from which to choose. Having grown up behind a black chador, concealing her face and her Judaism, she no longer needed to hide.
Perhaps somewhere, inside of Bibi, there lived a pilgrim.
Esther Amini Krawitz is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. She is presently working on a collection of short stories entitled, “Leaving Mashhad.”