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'Speech was lethal, and the outside world was dangerous'

Memoir unveils double lives of Jews living incognito in fanatical Islamic Iran

After leaving Mashhad for a safe harbor in NY, Esther Amini’s parents still lived in fear of a pogrom — and expected their daughter to marry as a teen

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Esther Amini (Aaron Levine)
    Esther Amini (Aaron Levine)
  • Esther Amini's parents Hana Levi, 14, and Fatulla Aminoff, 34, as newlyweds.(Courtesy)
    Esther Amini's parents Hana Levi, 14, and Fatulla Aminoff, 34, as newlyweds.(Courtesy)
  • Esther Amini's paternal grandparents Tuti and Moshe Aminoff, who married when Tuti was only nine years old. (Courtesy)
    Esther Amini's paternal grandparents Tuti and Moshe Aminoff, who married when Tuti was only nine years old. (Courtesy)
  • Esther Amini's mother Hana (right) shakes hands with Shah Pahlavi of Iran at a reception for the Shah and Empress Farah Diba at the Waldorf Astoria, New York, 1962. (Courtesy)
    Esther Amini's mother Hana (right) shakes hands with Shah Pahlavi of Iran at a reception for the Shah and Empress Farah Diba at the Waldorf Astoria, New York, 1962. (Courtesy)

When Esther Amini was a girl, her father would intercept her mail before it hit the ground as the postman dropped it through the slot. It was only one of many examples of her father’s infuriating, extreme overprotectiveness.

It took decades for Amini to fully understand that the origins of her father’s odd behavior were not rooted in her native New York, but in the soil of faraway Mashhad, Iran. In Mashhad, her parents’ families had survived for centuries by hiding their true identity — and being suspicious of anyone outside the Jewish community.

Amini, a writer, painter, and psychoanalytic psychotherapist, confronts her problematic family history and its consequences in a new memoir titled “Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America.” The book is the poignant tale of a mid-20th century modern, Western child of immigrant parents who can’t escape the trauma of their Middle Eastern past.

“Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America” by Esther Amini (Greenpoint Press)

The painful saga of the Mashhadi Jews, who were forced to practice Judaism in secret, is less documented than the well-known history of conversos, or crypto-Jews, who outwardly converted to Christianity to avoid death or expulsion during the Spanish Inquisition.

Mashhad is Iran’s second most populous city and the home of many of the country’s most sacred sites. Because of the fanatical brand of Islam dictated by the local imams and mullahs, for centuries, Jews living there had to go underground.

In Mashhad, Jews dressed and and acted as Muslims in public while privately practicing the Jewish religion. Although the Jewish community — which lived in a ghetto — was an open secret, they were still under constant threat of violence, which would suddenly break out in pogrom-like fashion from time to time.

The intergenerational transmission of the social and psychological impact of this dual identity is the crux of Amini’s memoir. Although her parents escaped Iran (via Afghanistan and India) and arrived in the US shortly after World War II, they never really left Mashhad behind. The grueling life circumstances of that city shaped the way they lived and how they raised their two Iranian-born sons and Amini, their only American-born child.

Esther Amini’s maternal grandmother Esther (right), who married David Levi at age 12. Esther died giving birth to Amini’s mother Hana. Two years later David died, leaving Hana an orphan to be raised by a stepmother. (Courtesy)

In “Concealed,” Amini, 71, presents vivid vignettes from her and her ancestors’ lives that go back and forth in time, ultimately painting a full picture of how she came to terms with who she is as an American woman and a Mashhadi Jew.

The author claimed in a conversation with The Times of Israel from her home in Manhattan that her memoir is unique.

“Mashhadi Jews don’t write about themselves in this transparent way. They are still insular and carry a sense of secrecy,” she said of the Mashhadi communities scattered around the world, primarily in London, Hamburg, Milan, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Great Neck, New York.

Esther Amini’s mother Hana Levi wearing a chador, passing for a Muslim in Mashhad while secretly living as a Jew. (Courtesy)

Amini warns against painting Iranian Jews with a broad brush. The large Tehrani Jewish community in Los Angeles, for instance, is historically and culturally dissimilar to the Mashhadi Jews.

“Affluent Jewish families in Tehran were sending their daughters to Swiss boarding schools at the same time that in Mashhad, Jewish women were kept illiterate and married off as prepubescent girls,” Amini said.

Amini’s own paternal grandmother Tuti was married to her husband Moshe Aminoff (the family name was later shortened to Amini) at only nine. Amini’s orphaned mother, Hana Levi, was married off at 14 to Amini’s father, Fatulla, who was 20 years her senior. While still a teenager, Hana gave birth to two sons — Amini’s brothers Albert and David.

“I was faced with a [Mashhadi] culture and society I couldn’t fathom as a girl growing up  the 1950s and 1960s in New York,” Amini said.

Affluent Jewish families in Tehran were sending their daughters to Swiss boarding schools at the same time that in Mashhad, Jewish women were kept illiterate and married off as prepubescent girls

At the time, her “brain was scrambled” and she couldn’t understand or articulate what caused her parents to be so different from those of her American friends.

“I now have hindsight that I didn’t have before, and I can create order out of the chaos for myself, and for my children and grandchildren. I feel an obligation to put into words what my parents and their Mashhadi Jewish ancestors couldn’t,” Amini said.

Esther Amini’s paternal grandparents Tuti and Moshe Aminoff, who married when Tuti was only nine years old. (Courtesy)

Amini is fortunate to remember what she experienced and felt at various stages of her life. She combined this perfect recall with skills she acquired and practiced as a psychotherapist to understand her parents’ motivations.

“It’s about what isn’t visible, but operative,” she said.

As she was growing up, Amini’s father didn’t want her to read or succeed at school. He craved silence and expected her to marry as a teenager. It was only years later that Amini grasped that her father was at his core a very frightened man because of his Mashhadi background.

Esther Amini’s paternal great-grandfather Benyamin Aminoff, a successful merchant and trader who owned caravansaries along the Silk Route. (Courtesy)

“He was raised in a city that fed into paranoia, where speech was lethal, and the outside world was dangerous. Coming to the US was frightening for him, and he let his fear become him. He was a man of integrity and responsibility, but he expected pogroms every day,” she said.

Amini’s orphaned mother Hana was a force of nature, moving through “Concealed” like a whirlwind. It was she who made sure to get the family out of Iran and to America in search of a better existence. A larger-than-life character, she was actually a wounded soul who belittled her husband and  manipulated her daughter into mothering her.

“But at the same time she was an incredible role model for me. She didn’t kowtow to authority, and she broke rules. She pulled back the curtain early in life to discover that there is no wizard, just a little man, thus learning to rely only on herself,” Amini said.

“She seemed crazy, but I gleaned the best of her traits,” she said.

The most moving and satisfying relationships in “Concealed” are those between Amini and her older brothers. While Hana was a good housekeeper but incapable of mothering, it was Albert and David who stepped in to raise Amini. David instilled a love of reading, literature and education, and Albert guided Amini through adolescence.

A particularly poignant scene involves Albert bringing home a bottle of a popular chemical depilatory to show his sister how to keep her teenage legs femininely hairless. He even tries the cream on his own skin first to make sure it doesn’t burn.

Esther Amini’s mother Hana (right) shakes hands with Shah Pahlavi of Iran at a reception for the Shah and Empress Farah Diba at the Waldorf Astoria, New York, 1962. (Courtesy)

“My brothers were my heroes. They had strength and intelligence. They took me under their wing and were my role models. They mothered me, but I really don’t know who mothered them,” Amini said.

By the end of the memoir, it is clear that Amini — despite making some poor choices along the way, such as getting married young to an abusive Mashhadi man, whom she ended up divorcing — succeeded in breaking her family’s cycle of trauma and dysfunction. The author and her second husband, an American-born Ashkenazi Jew, raised their children in a very different way.

Author Esther Amini (Aaron Levine)

“We changed train tracks. There was no silence or duplicity in our home. And the pursuit of education was very important to us,” said Amini, whose children attended a prominent Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Manhattan.

Despite the painful aspects of her family’s Mashhadi legacy, Amini is proud to be from this particular Jewish community. She practices what she terms “selective extraction”; she adopts the values and traditions that are most meaningful to her and discards what is not beneficial.

We changed train tracks. There was no silence or duplicity in our home

“I’ve chosen to focus on what makes me stronger and gives my life more meaning, such as the importance of family, close ties with friends and community, Farsi, and a deep love for Judaism and Israel,” Amini said.

“And of course, there is the wonderful Persian food. I love to make my mom’s dishes,” she said.

Goosh-e-fil (YouTube screenshot/Nooshejan.com)

Author Esther Amini has given The Times of Israel permission to reprint a recipe of one of her mother’s desserts:

Goosh-e-fil (a delicate Mashhadi pastry)

Ingredients:
1.5 cups of flour
2 eggs
1/2 eggshell filled with Mazola oil
1 teaspoon whiskey
(Very fine confectioners’ sugar used to sprinkle on top)

Directions:
Mix flour, eggs, oil, and whiskey very well by hand. Split dough into two balls. Sprinkle flour on your working table so dough doesn’t stick. Knead the dough, one ball at a time.

Using a rolling pin, spread one ball of dough very thin. Flip it over and with rolling pin, flatten and make it even thinner. As thin as possible. With a pastry wheel or sharp knife, cut dough into diamond shapes. Roll out each diamond, one at a time, before frying it in very hot Mazola oil.

My mother fried the diamonds, one or two at a time, in a large deep wok. Leave them in the bubbling oil for only one or minute and then flip them over. Take them out while they are still a dark yellow color. Don’t let them turn brown. Use a metal spatula with holes to take them out, which will allow excess oil to drain.

Place each diamond-shaped “Goosh-e Fil” in a metal colander, one on top of the other, to continue draining. After all the diamonds have been fried, turn off the flame beneath the wok of oil.

Take each pastry and sprinkle both sides with fine confectioners’ sugar. Then place in a large container. Repeat all of the above with the second ball of dough.

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