Esther Amini – Concealed

Greenpoint Press, New York, NY, 2020

This memoir of Jewish Iranian Esther Amini is at once moving and sad, funny and joyous; it is also highly instructive. For those of us who knew nothing of the history of the hidden Jews in Iran, how they came to be there and what they endured, this is indeed eye-opening.

Barbie spoke to Esther Amini in New York via Zoom

This is a migration story both for Esther’s parents and earlier generations. It is also a tale of settlement in the USA, a story of a family and how its members met their many challenges, internal, societal and familial.

The author gives us a revealing picture of her parents and their attitudes, the things that made their characters and the life they adopted as emigrants fleeing their hazardous life in Iran.

Esther herself was born in America but led nothing like a typical American childhood. We meet her larger-than-life mother and a father who mostly wished to keep her away from society at large, in a time warp of sorts. The tale is told lineally and keeps the perspective of Esther’s age and outlook from small child to teenager to young woman and ultimately to the mature self of the present day.

We feel with her the puzzlements, pains and embarrassments of those years with the often outrageous, outspoken behaviour of her ebullient, strong and sympathetically drawn Americaphile mother (for whom we do feel such affection), and the enclosed resistance of her father alongside his desire to protect his daughter at all costs – but in the end we also share her understanding that both were loving parents.

The life she paints for us is full of both deeply painful times and very funny events, all graphically written and with great clarity of detail – the costume parade when she is draped in the garb of a Boukharian shepherd for Purim, the charade of the buying visit with her mother to Oscar de la Renta’s store, her mother’s learning to drive despite being illiterate, Esther’s own determination to enrol in college, her arranged marriage and its violence, her second marriage to her American husband and the happy times and work she enjoys.

In short, it’s a life like no other, but at the same time highly relatable for us all. We all struggle, fall, rise up (if we are lucky enough, determined and supported by family and friends), and reflect upon our position in our families, the love we need, receive and give. And this is what the author has done so very beautifully, enmeshing us in her singular story and the singular culture of the crypto-Jews, so foreign to most of us, but at the same time, in a story which invites us into the intimacy of what we all share.

The memoir is finely crafted. Esther has a highly developed capacity to capture our emotions, to excite our interest and to make her story important to us. The writing is fluent and inclusive in its voice.

The honesty of the telling allows us, as reader strangers, a delicate intimacy with the writer, which stays with us well after the book’s ending. Esther has proved and affirmed her dad’s assertion: There is nothing more dangerous than a girl with a book.

Nothing more powerful either, I think.

Thank you to Esther and Greenpoint Press for the review copy of Concealed and for the opportunity to speak directly despite our distance. It was a privilege.