Persian Jew Farideh Goldin promised herself she wouldn’t write any more books after her first memoir was published in 2003. But she’s recently released “Leaving Iran: Between Exile and Migration” (AU Press), an account of both her and her father’s lives preceding the 1979 Islamic Revolution and its aftermath.
During his final trip to the United States in 2006, her father, Esghel Dayanim, gave her a suitcase filled with his writings about life in exile.
“I had promised him I would tell his story,” she says. “It took 10 years to write… It was difficult to translate, and very emotionally draining.”
Born in 1953 in Shiraz, Iran, Goldin is the oldest of five siblings. She grew up in the Jewish quarter to a family of dayanim (religious arbitrators) and leaders of the Jewish community and left her family for America at the age of 23, where she has lived since.
Though she hadn’t intended it, the story morphed into a narrative of both their lives.
“In the end, I had no choice but to insert myself to keep the background of the story,” she says. “My father knew what happened in Iran, but he had no idea what was going on in Israel and the US, and so I had to put that in for the history to make sense,” she says.
Through weaving their narratives, she illustrates a slow and subtle fracturing within the family system, a portrait of an exiled family’s existence.
Goldin is based in Norfolk, Virginia, while her three children live in Washington D.C. and New York. She is director of the Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding at Old Dominion University and has dedicated her career to bringing awareness of the lives of Iranian Jews, particularly women, through scholarly essays and articles, and lectures. She has also written a dictionary of the Judeo-Persian dialect, Judi, spoken by the Jews of Shiraz.
In writing, Goldin finds comfort in the difference of English, her second language, from that of her mother tongue.
“Persian is a difficult language to write memoirs in because the language itself is very indirect,” she says. She explains this is why many female Persian authors choose to write memoirs in English or French.
Before composing her own books, she studied the history of Iranian and Jewish women’s narratives.
“I wanted to get a sense of what came before me,” she says.
In the book, she wrestles to find insight between geographic and cultural belonging, a portrait of the ways political unrest and geographic displacement fractures family ties.
‘My father and I had such an intense relationship. We absolutely loved each other, yet we constantly butted heads’
“The displacement had a huge impact on all of us. We were all trying to figure out where we fit and who we are, how much of the Persian culture we each accept and embrace,” Goldin says.
Her father’s narrative was important for her to tell, because, she says, “I think his story speaks to what happened to many Iranian Jews at the time.”
Her sentiment, however, was not shared by her family, who were angry and upset when the book first came out in February because it contained details of their lives they preferred to keep private.
Unfazed by the disapproval of her kin, she says, “with this book I actually had to overcome my own fears.”
The memoir is an important addition to a growing body of Iranian-Jewish and Israeli narratives, such as the recent Oscar-nominated foreign film, “Baba Joon,” which Goldin remarked depicts striking similarities to her own family.
Through her father told her about his story when he was alive, writing his narrative was far from a straightforward task.
“My father and I had such an intense relationship. We absolutely loved each other, adored each other and looked up to each other, yet we constantly butted heads,” Goldin says. “It took us a long time to get to know each other.”
Part of the tension between them arose from their linguistic differences.
“My Persian was very open because I lived in America; I said things directly. His Persian was filled with poetry and proverbs, so it was very indirect,” she says.
Their language carried different cultural cues, making communication between them fraught with tension and at times impossible.
In the book, she frequently confronts the limits of her Persian, English, and Hebrew.
“I realized I was actually very proud of my Iranian culture. That was a huge shift for me. Coming to America, and leaving my Persian behind, and then switching over to writing and researching my culture,” she says.
Goldin’s home in Norfolk, she reflects, is removed from the major Persian communities in the US.
“Perhaps I’ve always been a voyager, telling these stories from a distance,” she says.
She still travels to Israel to visit family, and loves how the Israelis have preserved their Iranian heritage, with thriving Persian synagogues and groceries.
“Every time I go to Israel, I think, I’m never going to learn good Hebrew because I speak Persian all the time, with taxi drivers and shop keepers. Somehow we look at each other, and we know. But I’m always amazed that the culture has lingered,” she says.
Today she’s able to embrace her multiple identities and the contradictions between them. She says she is now able “to see them like tiles in a mosaic that only together can complete a scene.”