To escape persecution and even death, my parents posed as Muslims while living in Mashhad, Iran, in the 1940s. Like the Marranos of Spain, they and their underground Jewish community artfully balanced dual identities. Outside, my mother wore the black chador, concealing herself from head to toe.
At home, she 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 chanted from the Koran in public squares alongside their Muslim neighbors, while back home, in the safety of their basements, they taught their young sons Hebrew and fervently studied Torah. Nevertheless, street stonings and beatings were a common occurrence. The Jews of Mashhad lived in constant fear.
My mother wanted to leave and begin a new life, one where she and her family could live freely as observant Jews. It was 1947, when my parents, with their two young sons, arrived in California on a naval transport ship.
Their arduous journey from Bombay to Shanghai and then to San Francisco was followed by a train trip across the U.S. to New York. I, their only daughter and only first-generation American child, was born here.
Now, years later, strapped in a plane, I was making the reverse trip. I flew from New York to California to witness their life and mine staged in Los Angeles at The Fowler Museum. Two of my autobiographical stories were to be performed by The Jewish Women’s Theatre. I was one of the five Jewish-Iranian-American writers who contributed to the show, “Saffron and Rosewater.” Others wrote of memories of life in Iran, escaping, juggling dual Persian-American identities, and an Iranian mullah’s view of women. My stories take place in Queens, and are about growing up first-generation American in my Persian-Jewish home. A home where my father feared the outside world and my mother hungered for it.
Flying to L.A. was both disconcerting and exhilarating. For you see, I am neither a playwright nor an actress, but instead a psychoanalytic psychotherapist who has spent the past 33 years in private practice behind closed doors. I tuck away my personal story and listen intently to the inner lives of my patients. Suddenly, under glaring lights, in front of 300 strangers, my past has become theater. An American actress is my 19-year-old self. Her throat releases my words, words spoken decades ago in my father’s home. There are now two Esthers, an older ripened self, seated in the audience, watching a teenage self. As my past and present collide, I feel a sudden narcissistic rush, a surge of adrenalin racing frantically through my veins. So this is the drug-induced high theater mainlines into actors, directors and playwrights. One’s sense of self expands into grandiose boundlessness.
For me the rush was also leaving my comfort zone and living life as a zigzag. Tonight my zag brought me to Los Angeles, where the largest Iranian population outside of Iran lives. As I sat in the theater scanning faces, I watched an audience captivated and mesmerized by every story performed. One of mine is about my father, who goes on a hunger strike when I am about to defiantly move into a college dorm. The audience screamed with laughter, slapping their thighs, as if they all had my past, and grown up with my father.
If Mom were alive, she’d sit first-row center, hair coiffed, donning an Oscar de la Renta suit while proudly spreading her Persian peacock feathers. Whipping around she’d loudly say to me in Farsi, “Estaire, it’s about time I’m known.” Raising a phantom glass, I murmured to myself, “Mom, this one’s for you!” Tearful, I knew I had posthumously placed her where she always belonged, on stage.
At the end, we five authors were asked to participate in a Q&A. Seated on stage, we passed the mike from one to another, answering questions from the audience. I was asked how growing up with an American-Iranian identity shaped me. One person wanted to know how I feel towards my father today, given his past behavior. Another asked how my sheltered upbringing informed my own parenting style.
Later, lines formed in front of each author. Some viewers hugged, kissed and some cried, pleading that I continue to write more of my first-generation American stories. There were men and women of all ages, starving to be put on the map, as courageous immigrants who fled in 1979 from Iran for America’s second chance. One woman wept on my shoulder and said, “Esther, thank you for coming out of the privacy of your life and living publicly. Thank you for putting into words what we Iranian Jews struggle with. Thank you for giving us your voice.”
Esther Amini, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, is working on a memoir entitled, “Leaving Mashhad.”