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How Esther's Bravery Helped an Iranian Teenager Escape the Ayatollah

Today, the Jewish people celebrate the holiday of Purim, the festival that remembers the story of Esther. Purim is a joyous and festive day, but this amazing article from Tablet by Sima Goel tells how she escaped Iran as a Jewish teenager who was inspired by the bravery of the biblical heroine:

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 …

Feb. 11, 1979, marked the shah’s fall and the start of Islamic rule. Life became progressively unbearable as personal liberties, once taken for granted, were systematically removed. Now even my choice of dress was decided by the state. I felt like I was slowly suffocating. I felt betrayed; my efforts had helped remove the shah and had inadvertently supported the ayatollah. I had “climbed out of a pothole and had fallen into a gigantic well,” as the Persian expression goes.

I wanted to continue hiking with my friends in the mountains surrounding my home as we had before the revolution, but such activity was now forbidden. I wanted to choose my own friends, but boys and girls were not permitted to walk together unsupervised. I wanted to study Freud and Einstein and Gandhi, but the ayatollah had outlawed their work. Even my access to music was decided for me: Both the Beatles and Bach were now banned.

I lived in fury. I felt like a bird with pinioned wings …

I was 17 years old when I crossed the desert; six years would pass before I saw my mother again, and an additional 15 before I would see my father, but never again would my immediate family be all together.

During my flight from Iran, as well as in subsequent years, I often thought of a visit our family took to the city of Hamadan, and the tomb of Esther and Mordechai, in 1980, a few months before my life was torn apart. We boarded a bus for the long, strenuous pilgrimage that Iranian Jews often made to the tomb. On the way, I thought about the kinship I’ve always felt with Esther, the Jewish girl who, at the prompting of her cousin Mordechai, went to live among strangers in the royal court of Ahasuerus and eventually saved the Jews from a deadly conspiracy plotted by Haman, the king’s evil adviser. I had always wondered if she had ever felt like I did–that her very nature would lead her to her destiny …

Afraid, I thought of Queen Esther. I pictured her as a girl little older than myself, dark-haired, dark-eyed, with the arching eyebrows of a Persian woman. Esther had chosen for herself, and I knew that I had to do the same.

I left my home and the city of my ancestors so that I could become the person I needed to be. I endured a terrifying journey to Pakistan, where I lived for months without money, connections, or possibilities. I consoled myself by remembering Esther, who had freely chosen to separate herself from her community. Esther had saved her people, and I would save myself. My flight eventually led me to Montreal, where, with the support of the government and the Jewish community, I learned two languages, found a job, returned to school, and became a chiropractor. I married a Jewish man, and we have two children.

Here in Montreal, Purim is celebrated with gaiety, noisemakers, drunkenness, shpiels, and Hamantashen. It’s a time when I am acutely aware of my connection to Queen Esther. In my mind’s eye I see her curly hair and her striking eyes. I see myself extend my arms to embrace her, sister to sister: queen, friend, and mentor.

Tags: Holidays , Iran

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