Bearing decorative pins of gold lions denoting their pride, women throughout the community gathered for an inspiring tale as part of the annual Hannah Kamin Lion of Judah event. The nearly 80 philanthropic attendees met at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland for a light lunch and heavier talk. The function, open to women who give $5,000 or more to the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh’s annual campaign, featured remarks from Dr. Sima Goel, author of “Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran.”
For more than 30 minutes Goel reflected on a journey made nearly three decades earlier through the Iranian desert in search of freedom.
Shortly after turning 17, Goel and another teenage girl traveled, hid and made their way past smugglers, rapists and murderers out of Iran into Pakistan and then on to the West.
“I told myself then that I am not the first Jew crossing the desert searching for freedom,” and that “if I survive, I will document my story and bear witness to the suffering of the Jews in Iran,” Goel said to the engaged listeners.
Goel, who is now married, has two children and lives in Montreal, published her account in 2015. Her remarks largely echoed those recorded words, she said.
Life was not always bad in Iran, Goel informed the group. “During the rule of the Shah, the Jews thrived. The Shah permitted Jews to go to university.”
Such an act allowed a largely merchant class to become doctors, nurses and engineers. However, these professional gains were offset by the communal losses experienced under the oppressive regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, she explained.
Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, every female had to wear a loose dress, head scarf and pants that hid the shape of one’s legs, the native Persian speaker told the group. And while wearing the hijab made Goel feel “small and inferior,” she said, women feared going about without proper dress. Stories were told of “men on motorcycles who would throw acid on the face of anyone not wearing the hijab properly,” Goel recalled.
As living conditions worsened and Goel eventually lost access to education, she desperately sought a better life. After being blacklisted at her school and forced into hiding, Goel eventually left her home in Shiraz. Her mother knew smugglers who could help the young girl flee, but the possibility of death in the desert lingered.
“I was reluctant to leave my family,” Goel said, “but my mother called my life in Iran a ‘living death.’ She told me, ‘If you have nothing to die for, you have nothing to live for.’”
For that reason, with no possessions — not even a photograph — at the age of 17, Goel fled. “It was truly a miracle that I survived.”
Much of Goel’s comments to the Federation division illustrated her desert experience. She recalled wearily traipsing through calf-high sand, cowering beneath dunes and constantly fearing that any money in her possession would be stolen and that she would be left for dead.
Those details created an incredible listening experience, said Robbin Steif, a Lion of Judah member. Even though Goel was narrating her own tale, and thus made it out safely, one still feels as though her survival in the desert is not guaranteed, Steif said. “It’s sort of like ‘Argo,’ where you know how it’s going to end but you’re still nervous the whole time.”
In comments following her formal remarks, Goel noted that her listeners had much to consider, both regarding the details of her journey as well as broader conceptions of liberty. From her perspective, “freedom is not to be taken for granted, and if you don’t stand up for it you’ll lose it,” she said. “I had to risk my life to get to freedom. I hope nobody has to struggle to get to freedom.”
“Hearing from Dr. Goel was a great way to honor Hannah Kamin, in whose name the event is held, and to reflect on the importance of our Jewish roots around the world,” said Jeffrey Finkelstein, Federation president and CEO.
Goel’s story was “so inspiring,” added Judi Kanal, a Lion of Judah member.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.