The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

January 8, 2019 by

The Persian-Israeli Singer Who Makes Me Feel Whole

Growing up in the 1970s in Queens, New York, as the first-born daughter of Jewish immigrants from Iran, I was unable to articulate how I felt different from the other kids in my public elementary school: I could tell my teacher, Mrs. Rice, loved me, but I had never been called “bubbeleh” before. There were plenty of Jewish kids, but none whose families, like mine, ate rice during Passover. The other kids spent their time at sleepovers and sleepaway camps my parents would not allow me to attend. One afternoon, in 1979, after the Iranian Revolution, as a bunch of us walked from school to Hebrew school at the synagogue up the street, I felt the sting of my differentness, when a boy I had known for years turned to me angrily and hissed, “You, Iranian!”

The upheaval of that revolution scattered tens of thousands of Iranian Jews away from their country, most to the United States or Israel.

So while I felt out of place in Queens, across the globe, in Israel, Maureen Neheder was feeling different from those around her too. Just two years old when the coup hit Iran, her family had moved from Iran to Israel, where her father soon abandoned her mother with two small children. Like many Iranian Jews whose lives were upended by the Revolution, Maureen’s mother went into survival mode to eke out a living. Preserving the language, music, poetry, art, dance and cinema of Iran was a luxury she could not afford. Besides, in the aftermath of the betrayals of the Revolution, many Iranian Jews bore too much resentment against all things Persian for this to have been appealing. Identified as a gifted musician, Maureen received intensive instruction in classical music and opera at one of Israel’s top seminaries. As she grew, Maureen began to sneak into her mom’s closet to listen to cassette tape recordings of leading Persian women singers hidden there. Eventually she applied her classically trained musicianship and scholarship to studying, reinterpreting, and enlivening both Hebrew piyyutim (sacred songs from  Temple times) and indigenous Persian folk songs.

While Maureen was piecing together her identity and musical heritage, I was in the United States growing aspects of my American, Persian, Jewish, and feminist identities in spurts, on separate tracks: I achieved oral fluency in Farsi but cannot read and write the language; I learned to read and chant Hebrew tefillot and leyn Torah, but do not speak Hebrew; I learned Persian cuisine, dance, music, poetry, and cinema; I graduated from a women’s college and then earned a law degree..

I married a Persian Jewish man, and we are raising a Persian-American family in a robust and diverse Jewish and secular community on Long Island. No longer alone or particularly different, I currently serve as president of SHAI, Sephardic Heritage Alliance, Inc., a not-for-profit organization whose mandate is to preserve and transmit Perisan Jewish culture while supporting the community’s transitions and acculturation to the United States.

And then Maureen Nehedar came into my life.

Last month, she traveled from Israel to perform at my synagogue, Temple Israel of Great Neck. She is a critical success in Israel, known for her voice,  compositions, arrangements and scholarship, with  her albums “Gandom” and “Asleep in the Bosom of Childhood” glowingly reviewed in Ha’Aaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and Achoti.At the invitation of the synagogue and SHAI, Nehedar performed for hundreds of men, women and children at a concert, then again for a large group of elderly Persian Jewish immigrants, and again at a talk she gave in my home. During each performance, audiences were transfixed. Many attendees wept silently as they joined her in singing once-familiar songs. Some people said they felt goosebumps as their memories of Iran came flooding back.

Perhaps it is not a surprise that her music evokes visceral emotions in those displaced by the Iranian Revolution. For me, having never even been to Iran, though, her performance was less about memories than about current possibilities: Maureen Nehedar affirms that the melding of the Persian, Jewish, American and feminist identities I have aspired to is possible—and beautiful.

For me, knowing and hearing her music validates healthy integration of it all. Rather than abandon any piece of herself, Maureen Nehedar managed to weave aspects of cultural, religious, ethnic and feminine ideals into a fusion entirely her own. The way she re-interprets and owns the piyyutim and folk songs with critical, post-modern, feminist sensibilities feels contemporary and fresh. She and her work are tikkun (repair) and revelation: Persian Jews and all who enjoy her music can learn from the way Maureen Nehedar brings together the disparate, shattered, discarded pieces of our magnificent Persian Jewish heritage to make us whole.

 

 

Here is a link to the concert:https://photos.app.goo.gl/i1ZAkhP9YjFgmaNZA.

 

Here is a link to SHAI website www.shaiusa.org

 


  • Janet Nina Esagoff

    Beautiful sentiments, thank you Rebecca.