The legacy of Iranian music

The long history of Jews in Iran is associated with honorable achievements in business, science and the arts. There have been many Jewish writers, poets and musicians throughout Iranian history, although many of their valuable works have been destroyed because of the frequent immigrations of Jews over the centuries.

Manuscripts, writings, valuable books and other once-prized objects in Iranian Jewish homes often were gradually forgotten, lost or destroyed. Many of the well-known Iranian-Jewish poets used their art to reflect upon their life situation and the pressures experienced by Jews, although others worked in the royal courts and wrote more to court favor with the aristocracy.

There also have been quite a number of notable musicians throughout the history of Jews in Iran. At a time when Jews made up only 1 percent of Iran’s population, the prevalence of Jewish musicians stood out. This was partially because, for members of the Shiite religion, singing and playing instruments in public were forbidden. By contrast, Iranian Jews were free to perform music, and this may be one of the reasons that Jews became so prevalent and had an important role in the development of Iranian classical and traditional music. 

Morteza Neydavoud, for example, was one of the most distinguished Jewish musicians and composers of Iranian classical music. Born into a family of musicians, he completed his education in music, performed in high-level classical concerts and established a music school. Neydavoud was a member of an Iranian radio organization, and his performances were broadcast to fans. In 1977, he immigrated to the United States with his family, and he died in California in 1990 at the age of 90.

But many Iranian-Jewish musicians chose to remain anonymous in classical and popular music. Jewish musicians often were invited to perform at parties and to entertain guests by performing on musical instruments and singing. However, entertaining at parties also was frowned upon in their society, so many Jewish musicians preferred to keep their identities private.

One of the most complete compilations of Jewish history in Iran was written by Iranian-Jewish philanthropist Habib Levy (1896-1984), whose book “Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran” contains very detailed information about Jewish life in Iran.

More recently, Alain Chaoulli, an Iranian Jewish philanthropist in Paris, published a book in French titled “Iranian Jews and Their Musicians.” That book, which stands out in the literature for exploring this subject, reveals the influence and effect of Jewish musicians on classical Iranian music. Chaoulli wrote the book based on existing documents as well as his personal observations. He also interviewed members of the Persian-Jewish community of Los Angeles to gather information. It’s a great contribution to preserving the history of Jewish life in Iran.

Iranian Jews: The art, culture and history