Growing up in Shiraz, Iran, during Hanukkah Baba Esghel, my grandfather, would call us to his house just next door to where I lived with my parents and four siblings. Every night of the holiday, he covered a square table with a cardboard cover and lined the candles up by color, in brilliant rows of yellow, red, blue, and orange. Each night he lit the Shamash and lit the candle to commemorate the miracle of the lights. In addition to lighting the menorah he would light a separate candle for each of his 12 children and numerous grandchildren. No matter where his children were, Baba Eshgel lit 60 new candles each night during Hanukkah and the table seemed like a shining sea of fire.

Dr. Sima GoelAs he lit the candle, he held the hand of the individual grandchild. I remember the way his hand felt when it covered mine. His calloused fingers engulfed mine, and I felt safe when I was beside him. He was not a man of many words, but when he held my hand as he lit the wick of my candle on the table, I knew the flame would never hurt me.

By the time every candle was lit, the moment seemed heavy with magic. Each flame shimmered and danced in the darkened room and we children giggled and whispered.

It was never our custom to offer money or gifts for Channukah. Instead, the ceremonial lighting was our way to celebrate the great miracle that had happened in a land not all that far away from Shiraz, Iran.

Baba Esghel died of a broken heart three months after Hezbollah executed my aunt. The following year, in 1982, I found my wings; I escaped the country of my birth, beginning a long journey that would eventually bring me to another country and a new destiny.

On December 16, 2014 I will light one menorah in my pleasant home in a quiet suburb of Montreal. My two boys will watch me, and we will sing traditional songs, and enjoy the latkes and other fried foods, popular in my husband’s tradition.

Outside the bright kitchen, the snow will fall in the quiet night, coating the trees and fence with a soft dusting of snow. The stars will shine with extra brightness in the cold. They will remind me, as they do every year, of the many candles my grandfather used to light.

Earlier this year, I published my memoir, and fulfilled a promise I made to myself during one dark night in 1982, when I crossed the desert in the company of smugglers. I had promised myself that I would forever remember the life we had known in Shiraz, the sweetness and the bitterness.

I desired a different life where I could speak my mind and read whatever I pleased.

What I have learned over the years is that tradition is passed down through example, and not through words. Words are like smoke: they stain the air and then disappear but actions and traditions engrave themselves in our minds and live in our memories. My dear Baba Eshgel was a pious man. He was always part of the minyan. He was part of the team that made the matzah for our extended family. Together with my father, he built the sukkah which he covered from floor to ceiling with Persian carpets.

But life in Iran was complicated for me, a Jewish girl with a desire for a different life, one where I could speak my mind and read whatever I pleased. When I hit adolescence, my lively nature led me to speak my mind and I could not find a way to filter my thoughts. Despite the quiet dignity portrayed by my grandfather, I had to speak out.

1978: I am 13. I participate in demonstrations against the Shah and demand freedom.

1981: I am 16. The Shah is gone, but next to the Ayatollah, he looked like the Messiah. The country is in turmoil and I am covered in the hijab, as are all women, regardless of religion.

I shared my thoughts and they got me in trouble. My best friend, a Muslim, spoke out for freedom and was arrested. By grace of God, my mother heard from Muslim colleagues that I was on Hezbollah’s list. She demanded I go into hiding. I left my school and my family. For many months I was homeless, living in strange cities among strangers.

I was unable to express how I felt or do what I wanted. Hezbollah kept changing the rules. They found fault with everybody and everything. I was a shadow of my former, lively self, terrified that anything I said or did could inadvertently ignite the extremists. I was alone and I was petrified, all the time.

There are women who proudly wear the full length Hijab but it enraged me that I, a Jewish girl, was obliged to do so as well. Under the stifling robe I cried hot tears. My destiny was sealed: I would not accept this. I was determined to fight it and find a way to freedom, even at the risk of death.

Smuggled Out

When I ran out of places to hide and was too exhausted to look for others, I returned to my parents one dark night. I had to be concealed because Hezbollah lived among our neighbors and they watched everybody in the area.

After several months of seeing me wither away, my mother told me that it was better to risk my life for freedom than endure a living death. She believed that if you have nothing to die for, you have nothing to live for.

She believed that if you have nothing to die for, you have nothing to live for.

Before she put me in the hands of smugglers, she said, “Follow your education and make a life for yourself!”

With forbidden American dollars taped to my body, at 17 I was smuggled out of the country on a dreadful 20-hour journey through what Time magazine called “the most dangerous desert in the world.”

I lived stateless and homeless in Pakistan for seven endless months until fate arranged passage to Canada, where without money, language, or connections, I built a new life for myself. Montreal Jewish agencies offered me the assistance of a social worker and the government gave me financial support until I was able to work and go to school. Lonely, I would think to myself of all that I had left behind, and though my grandfather was dead and gone, the thought of his rough hand and blazing love would light my thoughts.

I learned in the darkness of the desert that each person has the right to offer their traditions to those around them. My children have grown up with stories about their great-grandparents who lived in a far-way land of magic and flowers and fruit, where a dictator, like a terrible genie in a story, loomed over the people and oppressed them. They know of their Iranian grandparents, both of whom passed away in my new country of cold and snow and who, in the time they shared together, offered my family their deep and abiding love.

My children also know the stories of their paternal grandparents: their grandmother who died many years before they were even thought of, and their dear Hungarian grandfather, Arthur, who today at 90, is still with us to tell the stories of his own parents, lost in a different fire, that ignited by the Holocaust.

We build and renew ourselves through our traditions. Our stories are all meaningful, and they live on through our traditions. Sweet, bitter, tear-stained, joyful: our traditions celebrate our religion and underline our identity, as a people, as a nation, and as individuals. Together, we are a precious, unique tapestry, where each of us offers a story, a history, a color. Each of us is a line that leads to the past and each of us is a stitch that holds the cloth together.

As you light your candles for the eight precious nights and sing your songs and enfold the hands of those you hold dear, remember that you, too, are a light shining in the darkness of history, illuminating your family’s future.

Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from IranDr. Sima Goel has been a practicing chiropractor in Montreal since 1994. Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran, published by General Store Publishing House. Dr. Goel accepts invitations to share her story. Visit http://www.fleeingthehijab.com for contact info.