Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Guard It With Your Life

How Jewish musicians preserved—and are now saving—Persian music

Asher Shasho Levy
January 16, 2019
Photo: Orit Pnini
Photo: Orit Pnini
Photo: Orit Pnini
Photo: Orit Pnini

This week, Tablet looks back on 40 years of the Iranian Revolution.


There are many moments of intense beauty on Maureen Nehedar’s superb release from 2016, Gole Gandom, her first album of songs in Farsi. Perhaps none is more starkly stirring than her solo rendition of the Persian folk song “Juni Juni.” In this traditional song of the Māzandrān province, a region of central-north Iran along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, the lyrics express a lover’s anguish as he pines for his soulmate: “Juni Juni! / I’m lovesick and languish for you / I sent flowers for you, bouquet after bouquet / Since your mother tied a cradle for you / God tied my heart to you.”

The song was initially popularized by Delkash, born Esmat Bagherpour Baboli (1925-2004), one of the towering Iranian divas of stage and screen. Delkash’s original recording is a powerful and compact classic of Persian music, as tar and kamancheh dance around her robust, authoritative vocal, with deliberate percussion offering strong rhythmic grounding. In contrast, Maureen Nehedar’s interpretation is a study in the power of simplicity. Featuring only her crystalline, expressive voice and the simple, hypnotic drone of the setar, Nehedar magnifies the deep emotions of love and longing inherent in the melody and poetry. In this radically intimate performance of deep emotional gravitas, Nehedar sings “Juni Juni” directly to the listener, communicating straight to the heart. It is an awe-inspiring performance that gets directly to the essence of Nehedar’s artistry.

Nehedar was only 2 years old when she left her hometown of Isfahan, in central Iran, to immigrate with her family to Israel in 1979 in the early years of the Islamic Revolution. In a recent interview with Tablet magazine, she described Farsi as her mother tongue, but said that she once had limitations in terms of vocabulary, in a way that she does not with Hebrew. Growing up in Israel, she remained deeply connected to her Persian Jewish roots and Iranian heritage through the transportive power of music, which entranced her as a child:

At home in Israel, I would listen to Persian music. At the age of 12-13, I had a ritual when no one was at home. I would listen to the old cassettes that we brought with us from Iran, and my soul would just cry out. It was usually a certain piece sang by the legendary singer Parisa, and sometimes fragments of songs I knew as a toddler in Iran. I had an uncontrollable desire to hear this emotional, weeping singing, but as a kid I was embarrassed by this need. Today I know, of course, that this was the direct communication of my soul, and that I missed how natural a role this music had occupied throughout my early life.

Nehedar started her musical education at the Ankor Children’s Choir of the Conservatory in Jerusalem, and received two degrees from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, one from the vocal department and the second from the department of composition, conducting and musical education. She speaks of her time studying and specializing in Western classical music, while at the same time singing, performing, and independently studying Persian music as “living a double life.”

Later on, at age 18, my journey to find myself began through performances of Persian folk music in front of much older audiences, as I began searching for my own voice within the tradition.

In finding her voice within the tradition, Nehedar has brought a strong, assured, contemporary presence to the storied tradition of Judeo-Persian music. She joins generations of Persian-Jewish musicians as guardians and disseminators of Persian classical and folk musical traditions.


The overwhelming prominence of Jews as professional musicians throughout Persian history can only partially be explained by the fact that Jews were among the most ancient and established minorities in Iran. The era of Ṣafavid rule (1501–1736), which established Shia Islam as the official religion of the newly unified Iran, saw a dramatic change in the social status of music. During this time, all non-liturgical music was deemed haram (religiously forbidden); the only permitted music was that approved by clerics for religious events. This prohibition threatened the development and survival of the rich traditions of Persian music. Yet Persian music continued to thrive and develop in the hands of those who were not bound by these restrictions: dhimmi such as Zoroastrians, Armenians, and most prominently Jews.

Jews found themselves shut out of many trades as a result of their marginalization from society and the oppressive restrictions placed upon them due to najāsat, the state of ritual uncleanness. While all non-Muslims were declared naji, or unclean, najāsat was most closely associated with Jews. Highly restrictive laws regulated physical contact between Jews and their Shiite neighbors, as well as many other draconian restrictions. Shut out of many occupations as a result of their exclusion from the greater society and the multitude of religious restrictions forced upon them, a significant percentage of Iran’s Jewry turned to professional music making. For many centuries they were the custodians of the unique and ancient musical heritage of Iran, sometimes risking their lives by doing so.

In Ketāb-e sargozasht-e Kāshān, the 18th-century versified Judeo-Persian historical chronicle, Baba’i ben Farhad recounts that three Jews, Elihar, Kuchek, and Qalander, were arrested by religious authorities for the crime of playing kamancheh and percussion in the Mir Dayab Gardens of Kashan for a small audience. Though willing to convert to Islam, all three were sentenced to vicious deaths, which led to a flare-up in popular anti-Semitic violence. Eventually the grand mujtahid of Isfahan declared that Jews need only pay a fine for the haram act of playing music. Still, the collection of the fine often led to acts of even greater violence against the Jewish community.

During the Qajar era, some of these excesses were curbed, including the prohibitions on music. The position of court musician was reintroduced, and the shah and various nobles began to retain ’amala-ye ḵāṣṣ-e ṭarab, or entertainers’ ensembles. During the reigns of Nāṣer-al-Din Shah (r. 1848-96) and his son Moẓaffar-al-Din Shah (r. 1896-1907), four of the 14 court ensembles were exclusively Jewish. Many of the most esteemed masters of Persian music from this period onward were Jewish, including innovator Musā Khan Kāshi (1856-1939), inventor of the six-stringed kamancheh, and Raḥim Qānuni Shirazi (1871-1944), who reintroduced the qanun to Iran, which had not been used in Persian music since the 16th century. A disproportionate number of percussionists during this era were Jewish, most notable among them being tombak/żarb master Ḥossein Tehrāni (1912-74), who is considered the father of modern Persian percussion, and the musician most responsible for raising the status of these instruments within the context of Persian classical music.

The achievements of the legendary composer, teacher, and tar master Morteza Khān Neydāvud throughout the 20th century stand as perhaps the most important testament to the influential role of Persian Jews in preserving and developing the art of Persian traditional music. The son of Bālā Khān, a tombak and żarb master in the court of Nāṣer-al-Din Shah, Morteza Khān is credited with discovering and training the legendary singer Qamar al-Moluk Vaziri, known for her mastery of the radif (the collection of traditional Persian melodic figures handed down orally) as well as many other famous Persian musicians. He is most celebrated for recording the first and only existing complete recording of the classical Persian radif system, a total of 297 gusha (melodies), encompassing every dastagah (musical mode), and resulting in nearly 300 hours of recorded music, for which he took no compensation.

Nehedar’s journey toward finding her voice and place within the tradition of Persian music led her to the setar, and toward study of the dastgah system, both independently. “I learned the setar primarily alone, and also through watching other players. On one of my trips abroad I purchased a learning disk of all the dastgah scales with short demonstrations of each of them, and here too my study was independent, without the guidance of a teacher. I suppose my initial and exclusive exposure as a baby and little girl to classical Persian music made me familiar with these scales, and I understand them and their internal logic intuitively and naturally.”

The first album to emerge from Nehedar’s extensive research into traditional Persian music was Asleep in the Bosom of My Childhood. A beautiful collection of Persian Jewish piyyut, or liturgical poetry, the album is a vibrant work of new compositions as well as interpretation of traditional melodies.

The style of Persian Jewish piyyut is unique among the Middle Eastern Jewish communities, as Nehedar explains:

Throughout the Middle East, Jewish communities regularly took popular songs from secular society and adapted them to Jewish texts, piyyutim, and prayers, out of a desire to attract people, in particular the youth of the community, drawn to secular society, back to the synagogue. In contrast, the Jews of Persia were known for their unwillingness to assimilate, and as such, secular folk melodies were not consciously introduced into the music of the synagogue.

The hazzan was forbidden from employing the sort of virtuosic vocal ornamentation as is customary in Persian classical musical. This desire to not embellish was expressed as well through limited use of musical scales; only tetrachords were used, only three or four notes from the whole scale. This is a dramatic musical limitation, but it is ultimately very effective, as these seemingly simplistic, “underdeveloped” melodies are in fact highly memorable; they are easy to learn, and of a deeply meditative character.

Given the strength of Nehedar’s resolve to bring a new voice and new life to this tradition, her work has exposed this musical heritage to a wider audience than ever before. Nehedar insists on an artistic balance between preservation and innovation, one that always serves the traditional Persian essence of the music. She noted: “After over a decade spent researching, interviewing people, and listening to old archival recordings, I succeeded—through my project of the preservation and revival of these traditions—in exposing this tradition to hundreds of people, most of whom aren’t Persian at all.”

Though her work is rooted in deep scholarship, it is anything but academic, but rather a deeply personal expression of an ancient tradition:

On one hand, I insisted on preserving the melodies and the Persian Jewish character of the music in a way that felt most faithful to the original; while on the other hand, I composed new harmonies for every song in such a way that even “Western ears” would be able to connect and get excited. At the same time, I gave myself the freedom to introduce myself into the tradition, and to instill within it a new, personal dimension. This was expressed through my singing and presentation, as well as through my decision to continue this tradition that is not being carried on, through the composition of new melodies in ancient dastgahs.

For Nehedar, like the paytanim (liturgical poets) of old, the compositional process is one in which the text is the central aspect, and all else distantly follows:

The compositional process changes every time. Sometimes it is done orally without any accompaniment, and sometimes with. But the most important thing for me is the text, which is the “king” that will determine the melody and its character. I believe that each text already contains within it the melody, and my job is to “deliver” her out through the work of listening, which requires precision. There are quite a few examples of songs that I’ve heard where the melody does not correctly serve the text, and it is jarring to the ear.

In such cases, the listener will not really be able to get the depth of the text, and will not be able to dive into the words, to envision them and feel them palpably. He will not experience a change in his essence as a person, as happens when exposed to a melody precisely set to words. Good poetry stands on its own merits, even in a “dry” reading. The melody should give an extra dimension and enhance the text. The text has to carry emotional, symbolic value for me, and in particular to speak to me personally—that is, for me to be completely comfortable singing and interpreting a text in a natural, believable way, so that it feels as if I wrote it. If I feel that I don’t sound credible, then I won’t perform the song—no matter what.

The artistic and emotional depth of Asleep in the Bosom of my Childhood clearly resonated with the broader Israeli listening public. The album was a top 10 hit and remained on the charts for several weeks after. For her next album, Gole Gandom, her first album of songs in Farsi, Nehedar interpreted Persian folk songs as well as popular songs of the pre-revolution era; songs symbolic of the previous era beloved among the Persian Jewish community. In particular:

“Gol-e Sangam” evolved from a beloved pop song into an anthem, as well as a classic, because it was one of the last songs before the revolution and it symbolized the end of the era. I chose to perform it as a classic chanson, with production emphasizing its timelessness.”

The most powerful and moving track on the album for Nehedar, as well as for countless listeners, is an emotional duet with her grandmother, “Lalaiy”:

As far as I’m concerned, the monumental portion of the album is my duet with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, of the famous lullaby “Lalaiy,” and I got moving responses both from Iranians and also from people with European roots, and everyone wrote that the song managed to connect them to their own grandmothers, some of whom they never knew.

Here I wanted to show, via a minimalist musical soundtrack, the transmission of the torch between the previous generation, which my grandmother embodies through her weary voice, to the young woman and mother that I play. I wanted to show the way in which women were forcefully trafficked from the age of 12 and had to raise children while they were still children themselves. I also wanted to let my grandmother’s tremendous musical talent and legendary voice touch more hearts.

Nehedar’s artistry constitutes a solid bridge between the generations, an energizing and revitalizing force within the Persian Jewish musical tradition. Her new collection of piyyutim, Why Do You Stand Afar?, was released in August, and this past December she toured the United States, with appearances in Chicago and New York. As the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that drove Nehedar’s family to emigrate to Israel arrives, Nehedar remarks that while she doesn’t yearn for the physical home she left behind, she considers perhaps “a curiosity for the specific place where I left part of myself and my family, and could have been a part of my life today had it not been for aliyah to Israel.”

She continued: “In the Bible, there were good relations between the Jews and the ancient Persian people, as well as in modern times. King Cyrus allowed the Jews to go to Israel and build their Temple. Later on, Israelis flew to modern Iran and helped build important infrastructure. It’s sort of karma, and it’s not a coincidence, in my eyes. I want to believe that in another life there may be a relationship of peace, but at the moment it is far from reality, and of course it’s a pity.”


Read more about 40 years of the Iranian Revolution in Tablet’s special series this week.

Asher Shasho Levy is a Syrian Jewish musician and the artist-in-residence at the Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Los Angeles.