June 16, 2024
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Memoir Unveils Tender Portrait of Iranian-Jewish Family

Reviewing: “Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America,” by Esther Amini. Greenpoint Press. 2020. Paperback. 310 pages. English. ISBN-13: 978-0990619420.

At some point in late adolescence or early adulthood, most of us face a common familial dilemma––as we begin to form our own independent lives, we have to choose how much of our parent’s values we want to carry with us and which habits we are better off leaving behind.

In her memoir, “Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America,” Esther Amini documents her experience as a child and young adult constantly pulled back and forth between her parent’s traditions and her own ambitions.

Esther’s parents grew up in Mashhad, Iran in the 1930s and 40s, where Jews were especially at risk of being ousted by Muslim neighbors. Many disguised their Jewish identities by wearing chadors and befriending Muslim shopkeepers, all while narrowly avoiding persecution and practicing Judaism in secret. Esther’s mother Hana, a fiery and ambitious woman, was sick of feeling trapped behind her chador and convinced her unwilling husband to pick up their family and move to the U.S. where they eventually settled in Queens.

Growing up in the 1950s as a first-generation American of Iranian-Jewish parents, Esther struggled to develop her own moral code in a household where her father vehemently opposed most forms of speech and self expression. As she grew up, Esther found herself concealing many things about herself––her artistic talent, her straight As and her application to Barnard College.

While Hana is a fearless mother-figure, she has little to do with vocally defending Esther’s desire for a college education (Hana herself is unable to read), though she does speak up when her husband Fatullah insists that Esther enter (loveless) marriages with men far older than her likely because she doesn’t want her daughter repeating her mistakes. “‘Estaire,” Hana warns, “I burn…I no vhant you burn!’”

Her father insists that education and free speech are all poison (“speech is the cause of all maladies”). He eavesdrops on all of her phone calls, reads her mail and does all he can to keep her under his wing. He goes on a hunger strike once he finds out that Esther was accepted to Barnard. To him, receiving an education means the loss of all familial honor––but this standard did not apply to Esther’s two older brothers, who went easily on to receive their degrees and excel in their careers.

It is not long before Esther finds herself attempting to reject their influence the same way her mother burned off her chador. But even as a child she never quite felt she fit in as an American anymore than she did as a Mashhadi. “An impenetrable barrier separated those who ate Wonder Bread, Twinkies, and Campbell’s Tomato Soup from those who didn’t…If you had darker skin, spoke with a thick accent, drank rose water tea, and ate saffron rice…you were a pariah.”

As Esther slowly unravels stories about her parent’s painful experiences as Jews in Mashhad, she begins the process of accepting them for who they are and how they molded her. She eventually turns to her own children to wonder what of her lineage they might not understand and what they wished they could. “Am I that first-generation American they’ll satirize as too fired-up, too much, a bit too Iranian, as they reach in and take some for themselves?”

Yet her children will have something Esther did not––their mother’s stories and insights, thoughtfully recorded, that will likely provide them with answers to questions discovered in their quest to better understand their roots.

Esther was awarded the Aspen Words 2016 Emerging Writer Fellowship for her memoir while it was still a work in progress. Her stories have also been featured in Elle Magazine, Tablet Magazine, Inscape Literary Magazine and many other publications.

By Elizabeth Zakaim

 

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