PRESS

REVIEWS

Press

“The US-born daughter of Mashadi Jews tells her story”

Point of No Return: Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

Two Persian-American Authors To Share Newly Published Memoirs Via Zoom From Jewish Women’s Theatre

BWW News Desk

Click on the graphic above for a larger version

Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America
by Esther Amini ’71

In her memoir of a first-generation Iranian- American young woman in mid-20th-century America, Amini discusses her storied past with captivating authenticity and insightfulness. Detailing her Persian Jewish family’s flight from religious persecution to Queens, New York, their tumultuous home life, and Amini’s contentious decision to study at Barnard, Concealed is a story of how ties to home and family can both ground and obstruct our personal growth.

“Concealed” featured on #SpiveysBookClub—Ashley Spivey, April 23, 2020

 

ZIBBY OWENS Interviews Esther Amini on Instagram Live, May 4, 2020

 

Reviews

 

“A moving, engaging investigation of culture and family.”

 – Kirkus Reviews

June 1st, 2020

Read the review at KirkusReviews.com

Read the Full Review Here

Amini’s debut memoir chronicles her parents’ lives in Iran, their journey to America, and her own coming-of-age.

As the American-born author grew up in New York City, she heard intriguing stories from her immigrant mother, Hana, who married her father when she was just 14 and he was 34. The couple had secretly lived as Jews in the city of Mashhad, where Hana wore the chador in order to pass as Muslim. Upon arriving in the United States, Hana swapped the chador for Oscar de la Renta gowns and her diffidence for unbridled candor, often at the expense of her husband’s pride. However, the author apparently didn’t inherit her mother’s verbosity or sartorial ostentatiousness; instead, Amini struggled to find her voice in a household that didn’t value the education or autonomy of women. This is a memoir of Amini’s extraordinary journey and of her unflappable love for her family, even when their actions threatened to hinder her dreams—particularly her pursuit of a college education. The author deftly unpacks the complexities of her devout and volatile father, who told her, “It is my responsibility as your father to protect you from Americans and not allow you to become one.” But although he was a formidable figure, he’s also shown to have exhibited moments of tenderness when Amini was sick as a child or when she married the love of her life. The author weaves a central theme of concealment and visibility throughout her book with a fine sense of nuance. In a prologue, she asks, “How could I be unseen when seen…could I disappear upon demand?” And toward the end of the memoir, she writes in her journal, “What does it mean to claim me…to make me mine?” She describes how, ultimately, her love of literature, art, and social work allowed her to answer the latter question and finally find her voice. Here, that voice wields a quiet power, examining her world with unflinching curiosity and care.

A moving, engaging investigation of culture and family.

The Times of Israel has graciously translated their review of “Concealed” into Farci and Hebrew! 

Read the Farsi edition

Read the Hebrew edition

“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”

 – Renee Ghert-Zand, The Times of Israel

Read the full review

“Born in Forest Hills, Queens, after her parents and two older brothers immigrated in 1947 by way of India, Amini went on to college, graduate school and post-graduate training, and has written a captivating memoir, detailing her parents’ experience and her own life, ‘Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught between the Chador and America’ “

 – Sandee Brawarsky, The New York Jewish Week

Read the full review

“Concealed tells a story of a life lived with grace, perseverance, forgiveness, and the drive to shed the turmoil of one’s past.”

 – Stephanie, She’s Probably at the Library

Read the full review

 

 – Sherry Suib Cohen, Bestselling Author of 24 Books

 

On the surface, Esther Amini’s story is one that resonates with many kids growing up in Queens.

 – Sara Krevoy, Forest Hills Times

Read the full review

 

“Memoir Unveils Tender Portrait of Iranian-Jewish Family”

 – Elizabeth Zakaim, Jewish Link

April 23, 2020

 

Read the Full Review

Although we are cautioned not to judge a book by its cover, more than one reader of Esther Amini’s memoir will fall in love, as I did, with cover photograph of a little girl in a pinafore who holds a miniature American flag.

The image is an appropriate introduction to “Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America” (Greenpoint Press). As the subtitle tells us, and the cover confirms, what one wears is a visible and powerful signifier of identity. At times, clothing can be a tool of oppression, and at other times, a symbol of self-liberation.

Amini introduces us to a place that most Americans have not heard of — the Iranian city of Mashhad, which she describes as the “the holiest Muslim city in Iran” and, fatefully, the ancestral home of her maternal and paternal families. Indeed, she introduces us to words, phrases and foods that are “uniquely Mashhadi” in origin.

Reaching back to her early childhood in Queens, N.Y., in the 1950s, Amini introduces us to her ambitious mother, “born with sword in hand,” and her aloof father, who sometimes “insisted I wasn’t visible when I was.” At that age, she tells us, she was literally trying to disappear, if only to escape her father’s wrath. “I ate little, spoke minimally, breathed soundlessly while my mother worked at becoming ever more visible, expanding to the point of bursting, no matter the consequence.” As it turns out, “Concealed” is the story of how that self-effacing little girl struggled to become the master storyteller whom we encounter in the pages of her book.

Amini was awarded an Emerging Writer Fellowship on the strength of her memoir when it was still a work in progress, and her short stories have appeared in numerous periodicals ranging from Tablet to Lilith to Barnard Magazine. Several of her stories were dramatized by the Jewish Women’s Theatre, First in Los Angeles and then at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, in the memorable theatrical productions called “Saffron and Rosewater.” Now she has emerged in full as the author of the published version of “Concealed.” All of the women in her family, we are told, practiced the same concealment in Mashhad. They lived as “underground” Jews, “heavily shrouded, properly groomed, Islamicized for outside eyes.” Her father, too, “relied on duplicity to survive,” reciting the Quran in public “while inwardly praying to HaShem.” When the family arranged to emigrate from Mashhad to Manhattan, her mother literally burned her chadors before leaving for America and “speed-sorted through Saks Fifth Avenue’s dress racks,” favoring fire engine red as “her color of choice.”

Amini herself was born after the family reached the United States, and her childhood served as the point of conflict between the Old World and the New World. Her father, for example, tried to constrain the author’s life. “Cut out friends, cut out books, cut out my tongue; scrape out thought and wonder — whatever grows inside,” she writes. “Leave me The narrative shifts back forth between America and Iran as Esther Amini offers an autobiography of a first-generation American and a biography of her immigrant parents. hollow, an empty shell to be filled by some random Iranian husband.”

Amini is a gifted writer, as we discover for ourselves in “Concealed,” but we also learn that silence and solitude were tools of survival when she was a young woman in conflict with tradition. “I discovered I didn’t want to put the world into words — that not every sensation had a matching name, not every image or impulse could be explained,” she writes. Indeed, it was her experience as a silent listener in her own home that turned her into a storyteller.

“Caught between Mom’s flamboyant personality and Pop’s strict edicts, I felt my insides rapidly evolving from silent Iranian daughter with no real say in her future to silent daughter with a plan,” she reveals. “I decided I’d listen closely to their tangled tales and find out as much as I could about … why they fled Iran, what risks they took, and how they managed to make a new life in America.” What she heard, and what she has written, amounts to a family chronicle of remarkable candor and intimacy. She even quotes — and translates — the Persian curses that her parents exchanged: “Fathered by a dog” was answered with “May you die!”

The narrative shifts back forth between America and Iran as Amini offers an autobiography of a first-generation American and a biography of her immigrant parents. She has an eye for the telling moment, as when she describes the annual visit to Radio City Music Hall, “watching the Christmas Spectacular and strictly keeping kosher.” When her mother revealed that she was illiterate — “Because I cannot read I feel shot in the head” — Amini vowed to teach her how to read and write. The lessons at the family dining table were accompanied by a plate of Persian pastries and “a tall glass of Bosco chocolate milk.” When presented with an American treat, she would ask her daughter: “Estaire, dees ko-shair?”

The same knowing eye falls on the landscape of Iran. Amini’s mother, “ravishingly beautiful,” was convinced of her direct descent from the biblical Queen Esther and prayed for the birth of a daughter who would carry the beloved name. And so, as the last act before leaving Iran, the whole family made a pilgrimage to the city of Hamadan, the traditional burial site of Queen Esther. “My mother decided she’d throw herself on top of the buried Queen’s tomb, harness Her Majesty’s supernatural power, and aim it at her womb,” writes Amini, who was seen as the fulfillment of that prayer.

Memoir is an especially challenging genre because it calls on the author to reveal what others prefer to conceal. “Readers may wish I wrote more about certain events,” Amini confides, “but I have to weigh that wish against the wishes of those dear to me who would rather I wrote nothing at all.” Yet Amini only honors the people she writes about in her heartfelt, endearing and courageous book.

 

“Interviewing my younger self…”

Books by Women, April 21, 2020

 

Read the Full Review

Interviewing my younger self…

As a young child, born unto Iranian parents and growing up in the United States, what is your greatest fear?

The sound of my voice.

Why?

My Persian father believes speech should be avoided at all cost. Words are lethal, they lead to disagreement, violence, and eventual death.

Since I seem to have a need to speak but am afraid to, I ask myself, “Am I his bad seed?”

When you explore your parents’ past, in order to better understand them, what do you learn?  

They carried scar tissue from their past.

My parents were Orthodox Jews raised in the city of Mashhad, the most intolerant and fanatically Islamic city in all of Iran. Here, of all places, they lived underground lives, like the Marranos of Spain. Due to life-threatening anti-Semitism, Mom wore the black chador and Pop prayed from the Koran in public squares, each posing as Muslim. However, within the privacy of their home they were devout Jews. Orphaned at birth, my mother was strong-armed at age 14 into marrying my then 34-year-old father. 

I also learn about Pop’s upbringing and his terror-stricken life in Mashhad. He had endured more pain and suffering than I knew and would ever know.    

At the end of World War II, incensed by persecution, Mom dragooned Pop and my two older brothers to the States. Here, in America, I was born.    

After learning all about their story, what gong rings in your head during childhood?

The fear of being married off against my will during childhood, just as my mother was. 

In Iran, my paternal grandmother was married at the tender age of 9 to my 29-year-old grandfather.  And my mother, at 14, was forced to marry my 34-year-old father. This was partly because they were underground Jews in Mashhad. Holding on tightly to their Jewish faith, guarding against intermarriage, they told themselves if a Muslim knocked on their door asking for the hand of their daughter, they could truthfully say “She’s spoken for.” Consequently, babies were often betrothed to one another, upon birth, in their bassinets.     

This may have worked well in Iran, but Pop had hauled these Mashhadi values into our twentieth century home in Queens, New York.  

What’s your backlash?

Growing up in a tight-knit Mashhadi community in Kew Gardens, Queens, I know it’s not acceptable to criticize and certainly not to break ranks.

But I feel different—with a wish for a larger mission. I want something new, a freedom that hasn’t been had by any Mashhadi girl prior to me.  I want to find a way out of this prescribed destiny. All thoughts point to “college.” Attending college becomes my inconceivable and certainly unattainable secret dream. An Ivy League college, I might add.

You forge your father’s signature and by hook or by crook you’re now enrolled in Barnard College. You’ve just told your parents you’re moving into the dorms. Your father goes on a suicidal hunger strike.  What are your immediate feelings?

I’m an assassin. A murderess. I’m about to kill my father for a dorm bed. How selfish and short-sighted of me. After battling my conscience, I bargain with God. “If you keep Pop alive, make sure he lives through my move, I’ll return to him after college and become the Iranian daughter he has always wanted.”

At the age of 18, do you feel you will achieve your dream—attend college and still have your family?

No, I don’t.

How did you view your mother?

She’s a wild, wonderful, unpredictable, finagling female with an uncensored tongue.

At each stage of life my perception changes.

As a 1st grader, I want her to be able to read and write. I want a literate mother and am deeply hurt and ashamed that she isn’t.  On the one hand she doesn’t measure up to other Kew Gardens, Queens moms who help their children with homework, and on the other hand I’m in awe of this swashbuckling rebel with deep disdain for rules and regulations.  Quite a combo that is hard to wrap my little head around.

As a teen I view her as hefty, hardy and terrifying.  She eats everything in her path—man, woman, child.

As a young adult, I come to know she is all about emptiness.

What made it difficult to be a youngster attending public school in the 1950s?

Back then, America believed in a fabled melting pot. People from diverse backgrounds were expected to assimilate and blend into one homogeneous culture.  My first-grade teacher had tacked onto the classroom wall a huge poster with the words: “MELTING POT,” and beneath it was a drawing of black, white, and Asian faces piled into a large black wok. We were supposed to melt into one another, and all become the same—-Americans.

Stepping into P.S. 99, with parents who spoke Farsi, from a kitchen smelling of home-made marzipan, Persian green and red stews, saffron rice, all bubbling to the sound of Persian love songs crooning from our turntable, I wasn’t the same.  Another reason to self-conceal.    

As a young adult, do you feel more American or Persian?

I view myself as part of multiple societies to which I have incomplete claims.

Why did you become a psychoanalytic psychotherapist?

I’m drawn to lives of volcanic feeling with a drive to understand what seems incomprehensible. Growing up with diametrically opposite parents, an Iranian father who worshipped silence and a rebellious, larger-than-life mom who unleashed her feelings whenever and however she chose…became my natural habitat.  At times humorous, at times painful, and often perplexing.    

As a married woman, psychoanalytic psychotherapist, mother of two, painter, and writer—how do you now view your childhood?

My childhood was both the trap and its spring. I felt stuck in a home that was utterly confusing and quite limiting, yet it became my springboard.  Never did I think feeling trapped would lead to self-invention and the ability to design my own life.  If I hadn’t felt so constricted, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt as compelled to expand.

Today, do you feel your Iranian-American story is uniquely yours, different from those of others?

Mine is a very personal story. One that hasn’t been told before. However, given the meaningful feedback I’ve been receiving from readers, I’ve learned the struggle between one’s past and present isn’t unique to any particular immigrant group. Readers with lengthy American heritages have written saying, “I totally relate to you, your family, the humorous paradoxes and conundrums.”  “Concealed” addresses how we’re shaped by the demands of loyalty and legacy and the universal challenge of what to keep and what to discard.

“Memoir is an especially challenging genre because it calls on the author to reveal what others prefer to conceal. ‘Readers may wish I wrote more about certain events,’ Amini confides, ‘but I have to weigh that wish against the wishes of those dear to me who would rather I wrote nothing at all.’ Yet Amini only honors the people she writes about in her heartfelt, endearing and courageous book.”

 – Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of
the Jewish Journal.

March 12, 2020

 

Read the Full Review

Although we are cautioned not to judge a book by its cover, more than one reader of Esther Amini’s memoir will fall in love, as I did, with cover photograph of a little girl in a pinafore who holds a miniature American flag.

The image is an appropriate introduction to “Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America” (Greenpoint Press). As the subtitle tells us, and the cover confirms, what one wears is a visible and powerful signifier of identity. At times, clothing can be a tool of oppression, and at other times, a symbol of self-liberation.

Amini introduces us to a place that most Americans have not heard of — the Iranian city of Mashhad, which she describes as the “the holiest Muslim city in Iran” and, fatefully, the ancestral home of her maternal and paternal families. Indeed, she introduces us to words, phrases and foods that are “uniquely Mashhadi” in origin.

Reaching back to her early childhood in Queens, N.Y., in the 1950s, Amini introduces us to her ambitious mother, “born with sword in hand,” and her aloof father, who sometimes “insisted I wasn’t visible when I was.” At that age, she tells us, she was literally trying to disappear, if only to escape her father’s wrath. “I ate little, spoke minimally, breathed soundlessly while my mother worked at becoming ever more visible, expanding to the point of bursting, no matter the consequence.” As it turns out, “Concealed” is the story of how that self-effacing little girl struggled to become the master storyteller whom we encounter in the pages of her book.

Amini was awarded an Emerging Writer Fellowship on the strength of her memoir when it was still a work in progress, and her short stories have appeared in numerous periodicals ranging from Tablet to Lilith to Barnard Magazine. Several of her stories were dramatized by the Jewish Women’s Theatre, First in Los Angeles and then at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, in the memorable theatrical productions called “Saffron and Rosewater.” Now she has emerged in full as the author of the published version of “Concealed.” All of the women in her family, we are told, practiced the same concealment in Mashhad. They lived as “underground” Jews, “heavily shrouded, properly groomed, Islamicized for outside eyes.” Her father, too, “relied on duplicity to survive,” reciting the Quran in public “while inwardly praying to HaShem.” When the family arranged to emigrate from Mashhad to Manhattan, her mother literally burned her chadors before leaving for America and “speed-sorted through Saks Fifth Avenue’s dress racks,” favoring fire engine red as “her color of choice.”

Amini herself was born after the family reached the United States, and her childhood served as the point of conflict between the Old World and the New World. Her father, for example, tried to constrain the author’s life. “Cut out friends, cut out books, cut out my tongue; scrape out thought and wonder — whatever grows inside,” she writes. “Leave me The narrative shifts back forth between America and Iran as Esther Amini offers an autobiography of a first-generation American and a biography of her immigrant parents. hollow, an empty shell to be filled by some random Iranian husband.”

Amini is a gifted writer, as we discover for ourselves in “Concealed,” but we also learn that silence and solitude were tools of survival when she was a young woman in conflict with tradition. “I discovered I didn’t want to put the world into words — that not every sensation had a matching name, not every image or impulse could be explained,” she writes. Indeed, it was her experience as a silent listener in her own home that turned her into a storyteller.

“Caught between Mom’s flamboyant personality and Pop’s strict edicts, I felt my insides rapidly evolving from silent Iranian daughter with no real say in her future to silent daughter with a plan,” she reveals. “I decided I’d listen closely to their tangled tales and find out as much as I could about … why they fled Iran, what risks they took, and how they managed to make a new life in America.” What she heard, and what she has written, amounts to a family chronicle of remarkable candor and intimacy. She even quotes — and translates — the Persian curses that her parents exchanged: “Fathered by a dog” was answered with “May you die!”

The narrative shifts back forth between America and Iran as Amini offers an autobiography of a first-generation American and a biography of her immigrant parents. She has an eye for the telling moment, as when she describes the annual visit to Radio City Music Hall, “watching the Christmas Spectacular and strictly keeping kosher.” When her mother revealed that she was illiterate — “Because I cannot read I feel shot in the head” — Amini vowed to teach her how to read and write. The lessons at the family dining table were accompanied by a plate of Persian pastries and “a tall glass of Bosco chocolate milk.” When presented with an American treat, she would ask her daughter: “Estaire, dees ko-shair?”

The same knowing eye falls on the landscape of Iran. Amini’s mother, “ravishingly beautiful,” was convinced of her direct descent from the biblical Queen Esther and prayed for the birth of a daughter who would carry the beloved name. And so, as the last act before leaving Iran, the whole family made a pilgrimage to the city of Hamadan, the traditional burial site of Queen Esther. “My mother decided she’d throw herself on top of the buried Queen’s tomb, harness Her Majesty’s supernatural power, and aim it at her womb,” writes Amini, who was seen as the fulfillment of that prayer.

Memoir is an especially challenging genre because it calls on the author to reveal what others prefer to conceal. “Readers may wish I wrote more about certain events,” Amini confides, “but I have to weigh that wish against the wishes of those dear to me who would rather I wrote nothing at all.” Yet Amini only honors the people she writes about in her heartfelt, endearing and courageous book.

 

“Written with an entertaining wit, exceptionally candid and impressively informative memoir of Jewish life and family values, In “Concealed” Esther Amini ably documents with keen eye, quick wit, and warm heart how her family members built, buoyed up, occasionally wounded, and ultimately saved one another across the generations; how her life and the lives of her family members were shaped by the demands and burdens of loyalty and legacy; and how she finally rose to the challenge of deciding what to keep and what to discard. An extraordinary and inherently fascinating life story, “Concealed” is unreservedly recommended for personal reading lists, as well as both community and academic library Contemporary Biography collections.”

– Midwest Book Review

March 9, 2020

 

Read the Full Review

Synopsis: Esther Amini grew up in Queens, New York, during the freewheeling 1960s. She also grew up in a Persian-Jewish household, the American-born daughter of parents who had fled Mashhad, Iran. In her memoir, “Concealed”, she tells the story of being caught between these two worlds: the dutiful daughter of tradition-bound parents who hungers for more self-determination than tradition allows.

Exploring the roots of her father’s deep silences and explosive temper, her mother’s flamboyance and flights from home, and her own sense of indebtedness to her Iranian-born brothers, Amini uncovers the story of her parents’ early years in Mashhad, Iran’s holiest Muslim city; the little-known history of Mashhad’s underground Jews; the incident that steeled her mother’s resolve to leave; and her parents’ arduous journey to the U.S., where they faced a new threat to their traditions: the threat of freedom. Determined to protect his daughter from corruption, Amini’s father prohibits talk, books, education, and pushes an early Persian marriage instead. Can she resist? Should she? Focused intently on what she stands to gain, Amini comes to see what she also stands to lose: a family and community bound by food, celebrations, sibling escapades, and unexpected acts of devotion by parents to whom she feels invisible.

Critique: Written with an entertaining wit, exceptionally candid and impressively informative memoir of Jewish life and family values, In “Concealed” Esther Amini ably documents with keen eye, quick wit, and warm heart how her family members built, buoyed up, occasionally wounded, and ultimately saved one another across the generations; how her life and the lives of her family members were shaped by the demands and burdens of loyalty and legacy; and how she finally rose to the challenge of deciding what to keep and what to discard. An extraordinary an inherently fascinating life story, “Concealed” is unreservedly recommended for personal reading lists, as well as both community and academic library Contemporary Biography collections.