The annual holiday of Purim has a deep historical connection to my Iranian culture and traditions. After all, the story takes place in the country of my birth and the heroine is a “badass” Persian Queen. The story of Purim is a saga that has all the necessary elements for an epic legend – an evil man, the underdog who becomes the hero and a beautiful and brave Queen.
Growing up in Iran, each Purim the children spent weeks making their own handmade groggers (noisemakers) – paper sacks filled with concoctions of dried beans and rice. My brother and his gang of friends would enjoy the holiday, often starting their celebration before the actual day, making the most noise possible with their toy guns and groggers (while trying to avoid certain neighbors). Purim in Iran meant noise, the coming of the Spring and the start of the intense few weeks of Passover cleaning.
But it wasn’t until I moved to the United States that I understood the fun and thrill that comes with celebrating this most delightful Jewish holiday. Receiving mishloach manot bags filled with bottles of grape juice, candy, and the novel Hamantashen (triangle shaped cookies filled with prune butter) was truly an exciting experience. I fell in love with Purim, a holiday that even has its own very special and delicious cookie! But truly, it was not until I became a mother that I felt the excitement of getting dressed in unusual costumes and experienced the creativity and mess of making Hamantashen, that Purim made its way to the top of the list as one of my most favorite holidays.
While living in Iran, I experienced my Judaism as Queen Esther did: in a quiet and subdued way. Like so many of my fellow Iranians, we were Jews in a way that kept us out of the public eye, working hard to not draw attention to ourselves. While Queen Esther discreetly strategized to deal with the King in order to save her people I, too, was mindful of my actions in the larger community. The Queen’s husband did not even know of her Jewishness. Similarly, I kept my beliefs to myself while in school. The traditional head covering was a requirement for all women while out in public and men did not wear their yarmulkes out in the streets. During Purim, we ensured that our celebratory sounds would not reach the neighbors and were mindful to keep the windows closed to keep out their prying eyes and ears. When I started school at the age of seven, I was weary of admitting to my Jewishness and kept the information close to my heart, lest I become the target of angry looks and words.
As a young girl of ten, my family and I visited the tombs of Esther and Mordechai in the city of Hamedan known as Shushan in the story of Purim. The tombs were housed in a mausoleum, surmounted by a large dome. Until the 1970s, the tombs were hidden away in a crowded space in Hamedan, reached through tiny alleyways and a narrow labyrinth of roads. But during the 2,500-year celebration of the Iranian monarchy planned by the Shah, the shrine underwent a renovation and a 300-year-old Torah scroll was found in the tomb. The historic burial space was the most important pilgrimage site for the Jews of Iran. The stories of the miracles that Queen Esther had been able to perform were heard far and wide. History has it that even Muslims, Christians and Baha’i women would visit the tomb, praying to The Queen for miracles in conceiving children.
On my first pilgrimage to the burial site, my family and I lit candles and said a prayer in a tiny alcove dedicated for this purpose. Before entering the holy site through the low doorway, one was asked to take off their shoes. The shrunken entry way ensured that visitors would bow down in honor of the dignified people who were buried within. The two large tombs were about eight feet high and were covered with decorative fabrics. At the time, I did not understand the significance of such a visit. As is with most things in life, the importance of the pilgrimage became more relevant to me as I grew older and I came to realize that I would never have the opportunity to visit this sacred site again.
As Jews continue to be persecuted, the Purim story has become more personal to me. Thousands of Mizrahi Jews have been forced out of their homes in Arab counties as well as in Iran. Many left in the dark of the night, leaving everything they owned behind, escaping the wrath of the communities where they lived. I left Iran in late 1990 and have so many mixed feelings about the country of my birth. Iran is a country filled with infinite natural beauty, a wonderful culture and delicious food. But it is also a country that, after the Islamic revolution of 1979, showed its utter disdain for its Jewish citizens and the only Jewish county in the world – Israel. Since the Islamic regime took over Iran, harshly uprooting a 2,700-year-old Jewish community, there are now a mere 8,000 Jews remaining in Iran . Another blow to our history and our community occurred in May of 2020 when Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, reported that the tombs of Esther and Mordechai were set ablaze. No updated reports were ever filed as to whether or not the perpetrators had been brought to justice.
We must remember that the story of Purim and the heroic efforts of Queen Esther forever placed Persian Jewish women on the map. To commemorate, every year as Purim approaches, my children and I make dozens of Hamantashen to include in our homemade Purim baskets. In addition to the homemade traditional Purim cookies, we fill the bags with bottles of grape juice, chocolates, dried fruits and other snacks. My children, full of enthusiasm, carry their colorful bags to deliver the treats to their closest friends and, after school, we take the time to deliver the gifts to grandparents, aunts and uncles. It is a tradition that I did not grow up with, and one that I look forward to every year. Seeing the excitement on my children’s faces as they place too much jam into the middle of each cookie gives me a piece of the childhood that I didn’t experience in Iran.
But I, too, have something special to share with my children, especially my daughters. It is an old photo of me standing in front of the tomb of Esther and Mordechai. After all these years, the edges are frayed and the color is slightly faded – but the memory, still vivid, is a testament to our Jewish history and the true story of Esther and Mordechai. I tell them how Purim is a gift just for them, and the legacy of Queen Esther is one they are responsible for carrying on for generations to come.
As this Purim approaches, like other Mizrahi Jews, I remain hopeful that one day the Iranian regime will normalize relations with Israel and The United States and that the Jews of Iran will be able to celebrate Purim joyfully and out in the open. I look forward to the day when Jewish children living in Iran can wear their costumes out in the streets as they walk to the synagogue, as my children do here in the United States, all the while happily shouting and shaking their groggers. Just as Queen Esther was able to crush the plans of the evil Haman, I hope the world community will work together to disband the evil plans of the Iranian government, their antisemitic behavior and actions towards annihilation of the State of Israel.