In late 1982, a 17-year-old Jewish girl from Iran fled from her home, crossed the hot and dangerous Kavira Loot desert, spent several months in Pakistan, and then arrived in Canada, where she lives today.
If crossing the desert to reach freedom sounds like a familiar motif at this time of year, Dr. Sima Goel — keenly aware of the biblical story — feels that she too left behind a symbol of slavery. In her case, it was the hijab that the Khomeini government forced her to wear.
The Jewish people should be a light unto the nations, the prophets tell us. Dr. Goel — who has more reason than most to embrace the teaching in the Haggadah that tells us that we should feel as if we personally went out of Egypt — believes that she too has a mission, “to tell this story, the story of what it means to be a Jew.”
The author of “Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran,” Dr. Goel — who will speak about her life at a meeting of the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women in Teaneck on April 17 (see box) — experienced her first taste of anti-Semitism when she was 6. “I was playing in a park with other girls,” she said. “One mother asked my name and realized that it was not ethnic Muslim. She grabbed her daughter and called me names like filthy and impure.”
As Dr. Goel wrote in a 2015 essay that appears on the AISH.com website, “As a child of Iran in the late 1970s, I was taught to keep my head down and my mouth shut. I was free to be Jewish as long as I was discreet and silent. My father encouraged me to follow these dictates, which had supported the existence of Iran’s Jewish community for thousands of years. Every member of an Iranian minority knew that the freedom to live — and even flourish — was predicated on remaining small and silent.”
That, however, was something she could not do. As she wrote, “As an Iranian Jew, my desire to be free impelled me to leave my family and heritage, and travel a dangerous road to a country where I could study, speak out, and be a Jew.”
Growing up in Iran, life was “okay,” she said. “We always had Shabbat dinner, celebrated the holidays, and my father went to synagogue.” Still, she said, “we knew something was not right, but we lived with it.”
As it happens, an incident at her school — and Dr. Goel’s spontaneous defense of a fellow student who was being bullied — set in motion the events that led to her flight years later. Relations between the students at the private school — who represented many religious — were amicable until extremists in Shiraz took it upon themselves to cause unrest, said Dr. Goel, now a practicing chiropractor in Montreal.
After the extremists burned many homes in the Baha’i community, one of her classmates taunted a Baha’i friend during a game of volleyball, “saying it was a pity that her house had not been burned as well.” Challenging the bully, Dr. Goel pointed out that “anyone who truly followed the teachings of the prophet Mohammed would know that his name means peace and tolerance.
“This is not really Islam,” she said.
Dr. Goel was suspended from school for three days. The bully went unpunished. That was not surprising, she said. “People were scared and wanted to make sure they didn’t get in trouble.”
After the government changed — when the Shah was deposed — “we were told to wear the hijab,” Dr. Goel said. “When they’re in the majority, everybody has to follow their rules. They think they have the keys to the kingdom.” And yes, Jewish women were forced to wear the restrictive garb, just like their Muslim neighbors.
When a close friend of hers was arrested, she told Dr. Goel’s mother that her daughter was on the blacklist as well. After six months in hiding, she said, her mother gave her into the care of smugglers, calling her existence as it was “a living death.” She is still moved by her mother’s bravery, Dr. Goel said, and feels that she is what she is today because of it.
Why Canada and not the United States? “At the time, I didn’t have a passport, and Canada was the only place that was open,” she said. “Also, it was shortly after the hostage crisis,” and America did not look kindly on Iranians.
Dr. Goel feels she has to talk about her experience, especially to young people, so that they will not take for granted the freedom they enjoy in the United States and Canada. “Our grandparents, or great-grandparents, paid a price for that,” she said. “I had to risk my life to get where I am. God never gives us a problem we cannot solve,” she added. “Sometimes I wish he didn’t trust us so much.”
Dr. Goel said that when one of her two sons, who now are 20 and 21, began reading her book, he accused her of being a “troublemaker.” When she pointed out to him that he had easy access to all the things she had to fight for, he eventually came to understand. “It puts things in perspective,” she said.
“Gratitude is the way to go,” she added, noting that this is an important message for “apathetic youth, upset because they’re not getting the latest sunglasses. You can’t be complacent,” she said. “If you don’t take action, you will be walked all over. Nobody should be complacent about freedom.”
Calling Dr. Goel a “master storyteller,” Elizabeth Halverstam, co-president of NCJW’s Bergen County section, said the speaker “will take us on a journey that speaks to the power of resilience and courage…. [sharing] her belief that an authentic life requires freedom of choice, the most precious commodity of all.”
Dr. Goel said she has an active Facebook presence and writes many articles. “It’s my way of giving back,” she said. She also travels to speak for schools, organizations, and conferences. “We have to guard our freedom and our values,” she said. “If we don’t, we’ll be in trouble. What legacy will we leave for the next generation?”
Who: Dr. Sima Goel, author of “Fleeing the Hijab:
A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran”
What: Will speak at a general meeting of the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women
When: On April 17 at 12:30 p.m.
Where: At Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Rd., Teaneck
Cost: Free for members, $10 for non-members, applicable toward new membership if paid that day.
For more information on this meeting, or on
NCJW BCS and its upcoming programs, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call (201) 385-4847, or go to www.ncjwbcs.org.