Female and Jewish in Iran—Three Views

When Farideh Goldin was 15, a school girl in Iran in 1968. her father made a fire and burned all her books: his goal was to keep her “naive,” and thus desirable for marriage. Her own parents had been married when her father was 23, her mother a mere 13 and not yet menstruating. (Goldin tells us that in her community, there was extra status in marrying a girl beforeshe hit puberty.) Farideh was their first child, born when her mother was 15. “I never asked…about their first night together,” she writes.

“I do. however, know- what my great uncle Agha-Jaan once said of his child-bride. She wouldn’t let him touch her Although she had obediently agreed to the marriage, she screamed and wept on their wedding night….He beat her up. She still resisted him. He forced himself on her. ‘She eventually came to understand my needs. She became a good wife,’ he said.”

Goldin’s memoir. Wedding Song: Memoirs of an Iranian Jewish Woman (Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, $24.95), is filled with such shock and horror, a laundry list of humiliations suffered by women in the Iranian Jewish community she grew up in: Public examination of a bride’s vagina to make sure she was a virgin; public ceremonies to remove all body hair on a bride-to-be; girls thrown out of school as soon as their engagements were announced. The driving narrative of the book is the author’s own successful attempt to avoid such a fate. Her first marriage proposal comes when she is 12, at a viewing of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”Her mother protected her from the offer, and some years later she fled, just as she was finishing college, to the United States.

While Goldin’s catalogue of humiliations is stunningly long, she doesn’t do much to answer the larger questions here experiences raise: How pervasive was this behavior in the Jewish community of Iran, or among their Muslim neighbors? What was her family’s social economic class, and how typical was this treatment of women in their cohort, and among other classes of Jews? How many of them filtered into the Iranian-American Jewish communities? The reader is left both horrified and mystified by her story,unnerved by the grotesque mores, and yet unsure of what to make of them.

Dorit Rabinyan’s first book, Persian Brides, was magical. The novel was also a huge success for the 21-year-old writer, widely praised and translated into ten languages. What made Persian Brides special was only partly its story of Iranian women’s lives in a Jewish ghetto a hundred years ago. It was also the unique imagination with which she wrote it, rich with hallucinatory images and folk superstition and wisdom.

Rabinyan’s second book. Strand of a Thousand Pearls (Random House,$23.95), translated from the Hebrew by Yael Lotan, contains many of those elements as well. At its center is Iran Azizyan, a Persian mother in Israel, struggling under the weight of her own miseries and terrors, overwrought with the burden of protecting her five children from fate and from themselves. Iran’s soul, writesRabinyan introducing the character, was running down like candles: “Her heart dripped and congealed, and the next day,with a layer of crusted wax underneath, itrelit itself and wept.”

Iran’s children are all magically damaged, and Rabinyan translates their emotional lives into symbols, often symbols that live. Maurice, her only son, to whom she is obsessively connected, was born with his heart “hiding on the right side of his chefs (she treats this by eating chicken hearts herself for three years). Her daughter Lizzie has an intense craving for figs, a sign of her “passionate temperament”; so “Mama sewed strings of bells onto the hems of her skirts, to weigh them down and prevent the wind from raising them.” It is this precious language that turns a story of a depressed woman overburdened by familial concerns into a treasure.

Still, for all its many virtues. Strand of a Thousand Pearls does not sparkle like its predecessor. There are too many characters,too much pedestrian history packed in: As I read, I kept imagining Rabinyan was hewing too closely to a narrated family biography, including mundane details that would be meaningful to history but not to literature, particularly not to a literature as symbolic as this. It’s a shame, because such earthly concerns dim the real pleasure that there is in Rabinyan’s book, as she draws out the costs of a burdened life and leads her characters to a kind of refreshing, if compromised, peace.

It’s easy to criticize Writing the Book of Ester (Quality Words in Print,$21.95) as a work in progress. Its literary devices are sometimes confusing, its language at times overwrought, and its message of universal love triumpliing over hate simplistic. Yet for all those distractions, Louise Domaratius’s book makes for a remarkably engaging read. The story follows Celia Davis, an American woman teaching English in France. An outsider herself, she finds herself drawn to one of her high school students, another outsider named Mehdi. He and his sister have fled political repression in post-revolution Iran. Their father, a Muslim, is dead, and their mother. Ester, who is Jewish, is a writer and adissident still in Iran under constant threat of persecution. As Celia’s relationship with Mehdi develops into a romance, she finds herself drawn into the drama of Mehdi’s younger sister, who has responded to her own experience of repression by dying her hair blond and taking up with aneo-Nazi boyfriend who entices her into acts of anti-Semitic vandalism. She also finds herself writing a “book” about his mother that parallels the Jewish book of Esther, filling in the details of her stand against a brutal autocracy.

“Life is a story that God, or time, or what you will, writes over and over again. It’s just the names of the players that change,” Celia tells her young lover about her book of “Ester.” It’s just this kind of sappy sensitivity that mars this text. But Domaratius’s characters are well-rounded, and the humanity and pathos she gives them leaves the reader eager to follow their story. My recommendation? Someone should get past the writing and take this saga to Hollywood.  

The Morning After

Farideh Goldin’s “Wedding Song: Memoirs of an Iranian Jewish Woman,” is a narrative of women’s abuse in Iran from her grandmother’s generation to her own: marrying prepubescent girls off against their will, shunning the menstruating woman, publicly checking a bride’s virginity. During college. Goldin broke with her community and fled to America. Now, in writing this book, she has broken with them once again. LILITH asked her to reflect on the larger context of this mistreatment, missing from her poignant memoir, and on her past—and her very different present.

Q: Did Jews in all classes and from all regions inspect their brides’ virginity on their wedding nights?

A: Most that I knew of, both Jews and Moslems. It was not always so public. By the time I left, many women who were more educated or from higher social status went to a gynecologist to get a certificate. Also some women who had sex outside marriage had themselves fixed by a surgeon. And then there were the very few who didn’t care.

Q: Has life in the West affected how you see your past?

A: I think my return to school, and especially my field [of] women’s studies, helped me to….realize that I had to accept it—die good and the bad. I think we did a lot of these things to have a measure of control over our lives when we were being oppressed by outside; forces. I think the entire ritual controlling women—and most of it was done by women themselves—was to show a bit of authority when the same people were powerless otherwise.

Q: I imagine that this book would necessarily bother, infuriate even, some members of your family and community. How much did that weigh on you And how have they handled it?

A: For me to have kept all these as a bi: secret, as I did for so many years, would have buried all those women who went through it. It was killing me slowly from within. I know most Iranian Jews in this country will be embarrassed by the content of this book, thinking it scandalous even, but to me it is the recording of the lives of our mothers and grandmothers and women before them. They had unbelievable able courage to have lived through similar events or worse. My extended family so far is not handling it well. They are taking it very personally. I am especially sad that I have hurt father. I think he did the best he could under the circumstances. It is hard today cultural standards and rules. He is a very smart man and a very courageous man—and now a wounded man, as well.  

Sarah Blustain is associate editor for The American Prospect Magazine and a LILITH contribut­ing editor.