At sundown on Wednesday, the Jewish people will begin their celebration of Purim, a joyful festival based on the biblical story of Esther. But Esther not only saved her people in Bible times, but has proven to be an inspiration to this day. Writing at Tablet, an Iranian Jewish woman named Sima Goel tells how this biblical heroine inspired her as a girl to escape the Islamic Republic in search of true freedom:
When I escaped from Iran in 1982 at the age of 17, I took a heart-wrenching journey into the unknown, crossing the dangerous Kavira Loot Desert in the company of smugglers. I was one of the first in my family to leave the country. I took nothing with me except my belief in freedom, a sense of my own identity, and my love for home and family.
Today, as we count down the days to Purim, I remember my life in Iran, and I feel my heart grow full. For most Jews, Purim and the story of Queen Esther provide the community with an opportunity to celebrate Jewish survival. For me, Purim and Esther bring me back to my hometown of Shiraz and the steps I, like Esther, took to stay true to myself.
In the Iran of my youth, we celebrated the holiday in a simpler style. Esther’s story was read in the large synagogue where we met to pray, to mourn, to celebrate, and to learn. The Megillah was chanted in a straightforward manner, without the hijinks enjoyed in Western recitations. No noisemakers drowned out the name of evil Haman, and no special pastries were prepared, although my grandmother did make her “happy halvah,” a treat she offered only on happy occasions. We looked forward to Purim largely because it sounded an alarm: just 40 days to clean and get ready for Passover.
I loved Shiraz with its many gardens full of fragrant roses and its lively markets. My stalwart mother expected her daughters to be independent, reflective, and practical. From a young age, I was entrusted with the grocery shopping, and I was expected to return with the freshest produce purchased at the best price. The food markets were crowded, but I was never intimidated. I knew the people, the routes, and the ways to behave. Even as a young girl, I knew my mission and how to do it well. This confidence was part of me, and it eventually led me into trouble...