Earlier this week, Joshua Fattal wrote about being a Jew celebrating Christmas in Iranian prison. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about his experiences as a Jew held in captivity in Iran.
I struggled to remember ever scrap of Judaism that I could. My family is secular. My mother feels uncomfortable in yoga class because “namaste” is too spiritual for her. My mother’s father, my grandfather, was an atheist psychoanalyst who trusted Freud’s Moses and Monotheism more than the bible. My Iraqi-Israeli-American father disdains American synagogues with their unemotional comportment, their transliterations, and their Ashkenazi accents. My mother raised me as a Reform Jew, and all I remembered from Rodeph Shalom’s Sunday school was that my teacher bribed me with cookies to behave.
In cell fifty-four in Evin Prison, Tehran, I saw a sliver of the sky through the glass window and the two sets of metal bars. From its position and size, I deduced that it was waning and that it’d be a new moon in a few days. It was September and I believed that the coming new moon signified Rosh Hashanah.
The green walls of my cell, the menacing footsteps down the hallway, and the stale air made minutes feel like months. I had no communication with my family, with a lawyer, or with my two friends that were just down the hall from me. I had to wear a blindfold whenever I left my cell. My interrogators wouldn’t even tell me the name of the prison – let alone their names. I didn’t have enough to read to fill my endless, blank, undifferentiated hours. Though the idea of apples and honey felt ironic, I was glad to have a holiday to look forward to.
Three days later, breakfast consisted of flat bread, a diner-sized packet of honey and butter. Lunch included an apple for dessert. I saved the necessary ingredients and waited until sundown to mutter my prayer, “Baruch atah adonai…. shal Rosh Hashanah.” The sky out my window was pitch black presumably studded with a silent new moon.
Ten days later, I fasted for Yom Kippur. Five days after that, I slept without my scratchy wool blanket to simulate being in a sukkah. I realized that somewhere in my rapidly rusting mind, I remembered tidbits of my heritage, which helped me survive.
Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd were imprisoned in Iran in 2009. Shourd was released one year later and worked to secure Bauer and Fattal’s return in 2011. Since then, the three have pursued careers as writers. Their memoir, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, was published this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Read more about Joshua Fattal here.
A graduate of Berkeley’s program in environmental economics and policy, Joshua Fattal is an activist and organizer focused on sustainable development. Along with co-authors Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer, he has spoken at universities, human rights conferences, and private events to describe the experience of imprisonment in Iran. Read more about him here.