Through the camera of my iPhone I see people’s feet. They jump over five wooden crates filled with burning twigs. The crates are spaced a few yards apart, sitting on the concrete patio in the backyard. I lift the phone to get a wider shot.
I see a mom holding one daughter’s hand on her right side and holding her little one in her left arm, eagerly jumping over the first box and running toward the next. As she gets closer to the second box, the next family, swiftly and skillfully, moves into action from the orderly line behind her.
Sinuous Persian music is playing in the background as the rhythm of jumping and passing over fire after fire happens naturally and without supervision. I am excited to text this footage to my son, who is away in college. He has never been to a Shabeh Chahar Shanbeh Suri, an ancient Persian ritual that takes place on the last Tuesday of the year. I have not been to one, either, since that fateful time, three decades ago, when our retelling of the biblical Exodus merged horribly, unbelievably, with our own.
As I look at these flames, I remember the first time I jumped over fire. I was 9 years old. It was just outside of our home in Tehran, the last Tuesday of the year. All the neighborhood kids were out and had lined up dry bushes, and set them aflame on the street. Each fire had its own height, proportionate to how much material was burning. I was standing to one side, mesmerized by how nimbly Azadeh, a neighbor girl my age, navigated through the fire, as her hazel eyes emanated an amber spark and her golden pony tail flew in the air.
Azadeh, came over and asked, “Hi. Why don’t you jump?”
“I’m going to get burned!” I said.
“Don’t be silly! Nobody burns! This is so much fun! Here, why don’t you hold my hand and we’ll jump together! Just do it really fast!”
Her grandma was watching us. She said, “Girls, don’t forget to say, ‘My yellow is yours, your red is mine’ as you jump over! This way, the fire will take your sickness and problems and give you warmth and vitality, instead!”
In one evening, I had mastered the art of jumping over medium-height fires. Better yet, I had found my best friend.
Charshanbesuri, as the kids call it, is the ancient Persian ritual of lighting fire to say farewell to the darkness of winter and to welcome the brightness of spring in Iran. The busiest week of the year followed with spring cleaning at home and shopping for new shoes and clothes to welcome Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Nowruz comprises 12 days of open house, where everyone is obligated to visit one another’s homes. On the 13th day, families go outdoors and spend the day in the fields.
Jewish families hold their open houses during the eight days of Passover, instead of Nowruz. On the first day, you visit mourners. On the second day, the oldest of the family, and on the following days, the younger family members, and so forth. They spend the day after the end of Passover outdoors.
That year, the Passover seder fell on the seventh day of Nowruz. This meant that when Azadeh and her parents were hosting their open house, Mom and Grandma were still busy preparing for Passover, cleaning and cooking.
Our entire household was in preparation mode. All the closets would be cleaned out and reorganized. All the dishes and pots would be washed in hot and cold water for Haghalah, or purification. The kids were as involved in this ritual as the adults. There were always tasks for us to do, and the main attraction was Grandma’s stories about the lives of our ancestors and the stories from Torah. She would tell us about how they had to take the pots and pans to coppersmiths to remove the rust and to add a layer of zinc. They had to buy sesame seeds to take to a processing plant and have the oil extracted for Passover cooking. They had to have someone come into their home and open the mattresses and re-fluff and clean the cotton and re-sew the mattresses and quilts, wash the cover, open the pillows and wash the feathers …
Grandma was making hallegh (charoset) in the kitchen. It was made from nuts, grapes, pomegranate seeds, wine and cardamom. Mom was making special almond-and-walnut cookies with eggs and no flour, because we were forbidden to eat anything with leavening during the eight days of Passover.
“Mom, when are we going to visit Azadeh’s family?”
“We have to wait for Dad. He has gone to the Jewish cemetery where they are baking the matzo. And you know how crazy that gets when everyone is there.”
Grandma said, “You don’t need to tell your friend about all this, dear.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s complicated!” she said.
Before we entered Azadeh’s home, Mom said, “Make sure you do not touch any food before you are offered! You have to sit politely and quietly. You are a big girl now, and you should know that kids are not to speak unless asked. And do not eat too many pistachios as you will get a stomachache.”
The Nowruz Haft-Seen set up at Azadeh’s home was similar to the one at our home, except that, instead of an edition of the Torah on our table, they had a Quran. Two fish were dancing in a bowl of water set next to a pot of tulips. A bowl of hand-painted eggs, and an elaborate mirror were set next to the seven plates holding items that start with the letter S: sabzeh (a green plate of grown wheat), seeb (red apples), samanoo (a wheat-based dish), senjed (a fruit of the lotus tree), seer (garlic), serkeh (vinegar) and sekkeh (coins laid in water). The two burning candles on the Haftseen table reminded me of my grandma’s Shabbat candles.
After returning home, I asked Grandma, “Why is our sabzeh different?”
Finally Passover began. Every year, we went to my oldest uncle’s home for the seder. In the dining room, there was an extra-long mahogany table with just about enough chairs pulled from around the house to fit four families. I still remember the smell of the carrots, beans and cinnamon rice that my aunt cooked for dinner. The chicken with the tomato sauce was divine.
The ceremony was even longer than the table. Uncle would sit at the head of the table, monotonously reading in Hebrew the entire story of the Exodus of Jews from Egypt. Men and children sat in the middle trying to follow the story in Farsi. Women sat at the far end of the table gossiping. Every once in a while, Uncle would stop reading and yell, “Quiet!”
There were only three or four haggadot passed on to people who recited a section in Farsi. We were never able to finish reading. Nor did we understand most of what was written. The text was esoteric and disconnected.
Children loved the “Kaddesh Urechatz” mantra. For this, each person got the chance to hold the afikomen (unleavened bread) that was wrapped in a special fabric, and recite the names for the sections of the haggadah. Later, the afikomen would be hidden and kids would be sent to find it.
Adults even allowed us to drink wine four times. And we asked the Four Questions, which I never completely understood as a child. What I did notice was that similar to Haftseen, we also had a bunch of greens, eggs and vinegar on our table. We dipped celery in the vinegar and ate it to remember the tears of our forefathers in Egypt.
Before the recitation of the Ten Plagues, women covered the long table with a couple of white sheets. This had two functions. First, it protected our food from the terrible words that were about to be uttered. More importantly, it gave kids an opportunity to start to steal scallions from underneath the white sheets and store them for the “Dayenu” ritual.
As soon as the section on Ten Plagues ended, children would jump off their chairs and attack! There was no song. “Dayenu” was a cross-generational free-for-all, and this sweet moment was worth waiting for, the entire year. At any other time of year, it was unimaginable for children to look adults in the eye, let alone hit them. Now, there was no time to spare! We had only 5 or 10 minutes to run around the table and the room and hit everyone with the scallions.
Grandma said that everything at the seder was to remind us of what our ancestors went through. “Dayenu” reminded us of slaves who were whipped and that we were now free. Charoset was the mud our ancestors used to build the Pyramids. The piece of meat on the seder plate was for remembering that Jews made a burnt offering right before they set out to leave Egypt, in order to divert the attention of Egyptians.
That was spring 1978. The following winter, people took to the streets demanding, “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic!” The smell and sight of the smoke from burning tires and storefronts marked the beginning of the exodus of many families, including Jews, from Iran. Schools were closed, on and off. Grandma declared that our family had to leave for Israel. We had family there and would be staying with them for a while until things normalized. Dad agreed to let us go. He did not wish to leave his job.
During the one month we were in Israel, I went to public school. Unlike my school in Tehran, the school in Tel Aviv had many creative activities during the week, such as wood shop. I was starting to write in Hebrew and learn the language, when Mom decided to take my brother and me back to Iran to be with Dad. Grandma did not come back with us. I started to write her long-winded letters on a regular basis.
Dad said Azadeh had come to our home and asked for me. He had told her that we’d gone to France because my mother needed surgery. The first day I was to return to school, Mom said, “Do not, under any circumstances, tell anyone that we went to Israel! Tell everyone we were in France for my surgery!”
The first thing I noticed in school was that Azadeh was wearing a scarf that tightly covered her entire hair and forehead as well as any trace of her playful nature and free spirit. I remembered the Charshanbesuri when Azadeh and I had taken a spoon and bowl to go Ghashogh-Zani (Knocking on Neighbors’ Doors). We had disguised ourselves in sheets, laughing our way through the street as we knocked on doors to collect nuts and sweets.
There was a knock on the classroom door. The school custodian came in and asked for a student to go to the office. My teacher asked him, “Did they kill his father?”
After he left, she asked me in front of the whole class, “Were you in Israel?” “No, ma’am!” I declared. Before I knew it, I added, “We had gone to France for my mother to have surgery!”
That summer, Mom found me a painting class that I could ride the bus to. It was a very pleasant way for me to divert my attention from the turmoil and tension in the air. One day, as I was walking on the busy street toward the bus stop, a motorcyclist sped toward me, yelled and zoomed away. I was mortified, because I had heard rumors about motorcyclists who would throw acid onto the faces of girls wearing short sleeves! Summer got unbearably warmer as I started to wear long sleeve clothes.
The following fall, the Iran-Iraq war began and the airports closed. Nobody was to leave the country. One step at a time, personal and community freedoms were curtailed. Women had to cover their heads and wear baggy, long-sleeve dresses called uniforms with long pants and socks — preferably all black. People’s homes were broken into to collect evidence of “un-revolutionary” belongings or activities. A not-so-distant relative was labeled as “Zionist, Imperialist, Enemy of G–d and the Prophet of G–d.” He was executed without a trial.
Charshanbesuri — the fire-jumping ceremony of Nowruz — was outlawed. People did it anyway. Revolutionary guards doused the fires with water, which made them look dark and smell wrong.
For the first time, Mom and Dad were experiencing anti-Semitism at work.
They found solace in trying to prevent the government from closing the Jewish school. Therefore, they put me in that school. It didn’t take long for the government to forbid schools belonging to religious minorities to enroll Muslim students. Here, I met my new Jewish friend Parastoo. The spark in her eyes reminded me of the Azadeh I used to know. She was fun and unafraid, a free-spirit in spite of the tensions around us. Parastoo lived far from our home, but when she would visit, we hung out with Azadeh.
One day when I came home from school, I heard a wailing that I had never heard before. It was so strange. I didn’t know what to make of it. I went into the kitchen and saw Mom sobbing quietly as she was staring at the wall. “What is that noise, Mom?” I asked. “It’s Azadeh’s Mom!” Azadeh’s brother, an Iranian soldier, had been killed in the civil war with the Iranian Kurds.
This was the last straw for Mom. Her goal in life became for the family to leave Iran. And it had to be before my brother turned 13 years old, the age the Islamic government considered boys as soldiers. The punishment for a runaway soldier would be no less than death.
By now the airports were open, but not to Jews. The passport application process included declaring one’s religion and the names of one’s entire extended family. Jews would have to go to the prime minister’s office to obtain their passports instead of the passport office. Mom and Dad managed to purchase an exorbitantly expensive fake passport for my brother from the governor of an obscure state. My brother needed to leave the country before he would be found out. My parents and I had to take the illegal route. As Grandma would say, “It was complicated.”
Mom stressed to me, “Nobody can know about this! I mean nobody! Remember those people who told their friends and then they were found and taken to prison?”
“Parastoo, I have to tell you a secret!” I whispered in her ear.
“What is it?” she said jokingly in her playful manner.
“Never mind.” I turned my head away. She suddenly changed. She looked at me seriously and said, “I’m sorry. Tell me. I am listening.”
“You must not share this with anyone! I mean nobody! OK?”
“Are you leaving?”
I closed my eyes and nodded my head in agreement.
“OK, then. You cannot tell anyone that we are leaving too. Who is taking you?”
As I watch the Charshanbesuri fire through my iPhone, I remember my exodus from Iran through the deserts of Pakistan. My family and other Jewish families were following our Baluchi guides through the desert. There were many dry bushes along the way. I thought of the Jewish people following Moses in the desert, longing for freedom. I wondered what Moses thought when he saw the burning bush.
Parastoo and her siblings went to Israel. After my family arrived in Los Angeles, I wrote to Azadeh and told her about our journey. We continued correspondence for a few years. Later, we became part of an online group for our elementary school friends. She stayed in Iran and married. When it was time for her son to be drafted, they moved to Irvine.
My thoughts are interrupted as Azadeh comes toward me to greet me. Her long, golden hair is now flowing gloriously in the open air. The spark in her eyes is back.
“Thanks so much for coming all the way to Irvine from L.A.! It’s so good to see you after all these years!” We hug and shed tears.
Then she straightens herself up and smiles. “Put that phone away! Hold my hand and we’ll jump together! Just do it really fast!”
“Wow, Azadeh!” I exclaim. “I never realized that all those years I was celebrating my Persian identity by passing over a burning bush!”
“Tell me!” she demands, “what happened to Parastoo?”
“Oh, yes, she is now living in Israel and covers her head. Last time I saw her, she had six children. She has been a grandmother for a while! When I went to Grandma’s funeral in Israel, Parastoo came and brought some scented herbs to say blessings for her. We lit candles together.”
As I take another glance into the burning bush, I think to myself, “It’s complicated!”
Shirin Raban is an award-winning designer, cine-ethnographer and educator. She created the film “The Fifth Question: Why Is This Passover Different?” and lectures at UCLA Extension and Cal State Northridge.