A Persian Jew’s Series of Fortunate Events
Growing up, I always looked forward to Purim. It was the one time of the year when we could be rowdy in synagogue, booing Haman while making a racket with our gragers, dressing up and attending carnivals and, of course, enjoying delicious hamantaschen. But what I secretly enjoyed most about Purim was the feeling that this holiday celebrated my own heritage as a Persian Jew.
My father was born in Tehran, Persia (before it was called Iran). Iran has been home to many Jews since the sixth century B.C., and through the centuries it has often repressed our people. My father was born at a pivotal time in Iran’s history, just as the Pahlavi dynasty came into power, bringing significant change for the Jewish community. Discriminatory laws were overturned. No longer forced to live in ghettos, Jews could live where they wanted, attend government-run schools and more fully integrate into society. All of this was positive, but longstanding anti-Semitic sentiment is not that easily eradicated, even when laws are changed.
My father came to the United States in 1946 as a young man. Soon thereafter his mother, brother and sister joined him in New York, where he completed his master’s degree in engineering and met my mother, who had also recently come to America from France. She and her mother had fled Paris for the south of France during the Second World War, where they lived in hardship and constant danger until the war ended. My parents married in New York City, eventually moving to California, where I was born.
The spirit of Haman lives
I grew up as a first-generation American with parents whose life experiences underscored the reality that the spirit of Haman lives, and that there will always be those who seek to harm our people. I went to Sunday school, later becoming bat mitzvah, and I took my religious education seriously. I remember learning about Moses and Abraham and being aware that they had a personal relationship with God, something I felt I did not have. As time went on, I became increasingly aware of this absence in my life and realized that something important was missing—something that I wanted. But I didn’t know how to get it.
For my fifteenth birthday, I asked my parents to give me a Bible with both the Old and New Testaments included. I wanted to read it for myself; I thought I might find the answers I was looking for in there. In hindsight, I realize that this request must have been unsettling to them, but they agreed to it. Meanwhile, that summer, shortly before my birthday, I took a trip to visit family in the San Francisco Bay area, where there was an unusual heat wave. I ended up at the pool of a neighbor, and the girl who lived there told me she believed in Jesus and invited me to a Bible study. I went with her that evening and noticed right away that the people there seemed to have what I felt was missing from my own life—a relationship with God. He was real to them. At the end of the evening, the Bible study leader explained that Jesus had died as an atonement for sin and risen from the dead. If I prayed and asked God to forgive my sins, He would forgive them, and He would become real to me. So I prayed that night and immediately knew that I had found what had been missing. I felt that my sins were forgiven, and God became real to me in a personal way.
Hey Mom and Dad, can I have a New Testament?
I returned to Los Angeles, and my parents gave me the Bible for my birthday. I started reading and, over time, learned more about Jesus, the Messiah promised to the Jewish people. In synagogue and Sunday school, I had learned in the Hebrew Scriptures that God provided atonement for sin through sacrifice. The Law tells us: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Leviticus 17:11). We no longer make animal sacrifices because none are needed anymore. God provided a perfect atonement through the Messiah Jesus, so that we can be in relationship with Him.
I still love Purim. It still reminds me of my roots. But I love it for other reasons now. I love that Esther is the one book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God by name, yet He is so powerfully present in the events recounted. In Esther, we see God moving through the smallest of events and through the choices people make. We see that He is the God of history, working through people and events to protect Israel and, ultimately, to bring the Messiah into the world. Esther shows us that, in big ways and small, God is present and in control. I think of that in my own life—the big and small events that propelled my parents to this country and to each other, the ordinariness of a heat wave that led me to a chance encounter, which resulted in a divine encounter.
We don’t always recognize the significance of events as they happen in our lives until we look back and see how everything fits together. Esther has only an inkling of the great deliverance God will perform through her and Mordecai, who tells her: “For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). These words may be true of you and the role you play in someone else’s life, even if you don’t yet know it.
This Purim season, I encourage you to consider where God has placed you in your own life and what His purpose for you might be. I hope you will read and reflect on the story of Purim, considering how God worked through Esther and Mordecai to deliver His people—and how God works through all our lives to accomplish the deliverance of all people.
Miriam Koenig is a licensed marriage and family therapist and professional clinical counselor. She has been in private practice in Los Angeles for 25 years. She is married to an attorney who is also a Jewish believer in Jesus. They have four children, including Andy, the author of the lead article in this edition of ISSUES.