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A Jewish Memoirist Chronicles the Fragile Bridge Linking Iran and America
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A Jewish Memoirist Chronicles the Fragile Bridge Linking Iran and America

Esther Amini writes about her Mashhadi-Jewish family’s fraught transition to Forest Hills, and her own cultural clash.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

“The story of the Mashhadi Jews, who lived like Marranos or crypto-Jews, has never been told before in a first-hand or second-hand account,” Amini says. Photo courtesy of Esther Amini
“The story of the Mashhadi Jews, who lived like Marranos or crypto-Jews, has never been told before in a first-hand or second-hand account,” Amini says. Photo courtesy of Esther Amini

Esther Amini is the first woman on both sides of her family to read and write. None of her foremothers, born in Mashhad, Iran, attended school at all.

Born in Forest Hills, Queens, after her parents and two older brothers immigrated in 1947 by way of India, Amini went on to college, graduate school and post-graduate training, and has written a captivating memoir, detailing her parents’ experience and her own life, “Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught between the Chador and America” (Greenpoint Press).

The multi-layered title refers to the concealment of the Jewish community for generations in Mashhad, Iran’s holiest Muslim city, a Shi’ite stronghold and pilgrimage site. Amini’s father would pray holding a Koran in public squares while inwardly addressing his God; her mother walked in the streets with a loose, dark sheath that fully covered her body, except for narrow slits for her eyes. Persecuted and fearful of being outed, they lived in the Jewish ghetto — they had Muslim and Hebrew names — and her father bribed the local imam. Their voices were muted.

Growing up in Queens, the author too was muted. She had to hide her own aspirations and dreams of a life beyond their American Mashhadi community — her father forbid her from reading, so that she would become a young and loyal wife. Then, years after a failed marriage and then a happy one, after having a successful career and children, Amini takes the tack that is opposite to concealment — revelation — and writes a book of candor, cultural clash, insight, humor and still love.

Her book is in the tradition of Lucette Lagnado’s memoirs about her parents who emigrated from Egypt when the Jews were expelled in the early 1960s, leaving behind a cosmopolitan lifestyle and them struggling to reinvent themselves in America. But Amini is hardly elegiac about the lives of her parents in the old country.

“The story of the Mashhadi Jews, who lived like Marranos or crypto-Jews, has never been told before in a first-hand or second-hand account,” Amini tells The Jewish Week. The women, who were not educated, were not writing diaries. The men weren’t putting their feelings into journals. There are written histories, but no memoirs or autobiographies or private accounts of what life felt like.”

Amini was able to learn of her family’s past from her late mother, who “was a big talker and would tell stories again and again.” Her father, in contrast, was withdrawn and did not speak about his past or about most things. She felt like she was the bridge between their history and the present, and felt a sense of responsibility to tell their stories.

Her father, Fatulla Aminoff, who came from long line of landowners, merchants and traders, grew up in a home where speech was prohibited. His father disowned him when, as a young man, he came back from a boarding school for wealthy Jewish boys in England and then broke all ties when Fatulla married Amini’s mother, Hana Levi — she was 14 and he was 34 — when he was supposed to marry his first cousin, as was tradition. The age differences of Amini’s parents was customary; her grandmother married at 9.

Her mother’s mother, named Esther, died in childbirth, and her father died when she was 2. Hana was raised by a kind stepmother, but felt betrayed when she learned from someone in the community that she wasn’t her birth mother. Amini says that for her mother, “time froze then, she couldn’t get beyond that.” She lived in mourning for her mother.

Always resourceful and a force of nature, Hana pushed the family to leave Iran, and they escaped with “Persian rugs, stuffed satchels and 27 centuries of persecution,” as Amini writes. When Hana first saw New York City, she said, “The future spreads open before me and I’m stepping right in.” Amini’s father instead saw a city of smoke and mirrors, with no soil visible, “a place that wants to entice you so it can deceive you.” He had a hard time regaining his standing.

In their home in Forest Hills, Fatulla favored silence. If a friend called for Esther, he would hang up abruptly, and if someone would visit, he would say, even as his daughter stood beside him, that she was not at home. He was afraid that she’d become Americanized. While Amini recalls other fathers in their Mashhadi community as feeling grateful while adapting to New York, her father was filled with terror.

Aminis mother behind a chador. Photos courtesy of Esther Amini

Repeatedly, he would tell her, “Books are evil, they poison girls’ minds,” as he believed that each year of schooling made her harder to marry off. But she hid her books, buried herself in schoolwork and excelled. She kept a diary so that she could hear her voice even if her parents could not.

Her mother was flamboyant, outspoken, rebellious, “dangerously impulsive”; she would pack a suitcase and run away from their home for a few days. She’d admit that her husband was a mismatch for her. She pickled vegetables, tended a garden with Persian cucumbers and mint, scrubbed the floors, polished the walls, ironed the bedsheets and underwear, sewed and embroidered. Her home was always fragrant with a Persian stew bubbling on her stove and sweet pastries in the oven. She was admired by the other Mashhadi wives for her skills.

Hana loved wearing bright colors and plunging necklines and had a natural proclivity for twisting the truth, which was how the family survived in Islamic Mashhad. Once, after paging through a fashion magazine and admiring the gowns of Oscar de la Renta, she had her daughter look up the address of his showroom, grabbed her alligator handbag, and they took off on the subway for the Garment District. With her natural charisma, Persian chutzpah and accented English, she convinced the showroom’s managers that she had an exclusive boutique in Tehran, and left with a handful of gowns bought wholesale, in cash. She’d return there for every celebratory event.

Amini’s mother wanted her daughter to become American, or her version of an American. Each year they would smuggle kosher food into the Radio City Christmas Spectacular show with the Rockettes, and her mother would tell her to close her eyes when the figure of Jesus was on stage.

Amini’s parents in Mashhad, Iran. When they married, her mother was 14, her father, 34.

Secretly, Amini applied to college and had to stage an escape with an older brother in order to travel to interviews. She eventually convinced her parents that she could live at home and attend Barnard and still be part of their world. Later, she moved onto campus, in spite of her father’s hunger strike, and one of the book’s funniest scenes follows. At Barnard, she studied art history but later, as she secretly saw a therapist, she grew interested in studying to become a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, helping others find their voice.

She says that she could not have published this book when her parents were alive, as she would not have wanted to hurt them and they would not have understood her need to tell their story. “My intention was not to trash them, but to understand them, and I hope that readers will see the affection I have for each of them.”

Most of the American Mashhadis now live in Great Neck, and Amini remains connected to her relatives, although she chose a different lifestyle. She and her Ashkenazi husband raised their family on the Upper East Side; they belong to Kehilath Jeshurun, as do her grown children and their families. She places an emphasis on the centrality of family, so intense in Mashhadi culture, and is mindful of how her parents held on tightly to their Judaism through hard times.

“I don’t want to be the broken link,” she says. 

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