Iranian-Jewish community embraces a vision of training the visually impaired to teach music


It was a talent show that had to be seen. Or, well, not.

For one night in late January, more than 1,300 Iranian Americans of various faiths attended a sold-out night of music, comedy and more at the Wilshire Ebell Theater to raise money for a new nonprofit aimed at helping the blind or vision-impaired become music teachers.

“It was really a special evening where we had local Iranian performers from different religions — young and old, amateurs and professionals, those who had vision and those who were vision-impaired — all sharing their talents of playing musical instruments, doing comedy and singing,” said Saeed Deihimi, an Iranian-American pianist and music teacher who heads the show’s beneficiary, the Beyond Vision Music Foundation.

The nonprofit is the brainchild of Deihimi, 56, who started it two years ago to help those like him earn a living. He was diagnosed at a young age with having retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a hereditary degenerative disease of the optic nerves that has reduced his vision to the point that he can only see shadows of individuals and objects. Nonetheless, he has been performing and teaching music in Iran and the United States for more than 40 years.

“When I was very young, my mother took me to Austria for diagnosis of my RP and I was incredibly fortunate that the place she had taken me was also teaching children like myself music, and I took to it very quickly,” said Deihimi, who was born into a Muslim family but does not consider himself religious. 

“It was truly a gift for me because back in those days in Iran, if you were blind, you’d either have to beg on the streets for money or you’d have to sit at home all day doing nothing and being a financial burden on your family. I did neither because I was able to teach piano and music to others since I was 13 years old.”

In Iran, many of his piano students were Jewish. Two years after the 1979 revolution in Iran, which implemented radical Shiite Islamic laws restricting music and other individual freedoms, Deihimi left the country and settled in Los Angeles. He continued to teach new Iranian immigrants and their children at his home, and, in 1990, he formally opened his own school in Tarzana, World of Music and Dance.

Deihimi said 90 percent of his students over the years have been Iranian Jews, many of them welcoming him into their homes for Shabbat dinners.

“I can say that I truly feel like I’m a part of the Iranian-Jewish community because I grew up with them and taught them, taught their children and now I’m teaching their grandchildren music,” he said.

His new project, Beyond Vision Music Foundation, currently has four teachers and serves 15 students who are either blind or have some form of vision impairment and range in age from 8 to 60. 

“After all of these years, I realized how lucky I was for being able to support myself through music, and I always wanted to give that same ability to those with vision impairment or blindness,” Deihimi said.

“There are many schools in America that teach the blind to play music, but our foundation is the only one in the U.S. with the specific objective of teaching the blind or those with vision issues to become music teachers themselves, so they can teach others and earn a living on their own.

“We teach them music theory, we use Braille music sheets and also work with them one-on-one to teach them about rhythm or beats. One day, we hope to transform this nonprofit into a major national institute to empower those with vision impairment.”

One of Deihimi’s students is 20-year-old Devin Maghen, an Iranian-Jewish man who was left with vision impairment and other physical problems following a 2012 car accident. In an interview with the Journal, his mother, Shala Maghen, said her son was unsure of his future career decisions for a while because of his medical condition. Yet she said he was immediately drawn to a potential career of teaching music when he first learned that Deihimi had started a nonprofit school focused on helping individuals like him. 

“I’ve seen a real transformation in Devin since he started working with Mr. Deihimi in learning music. He seems more optimistic about his future career,” she said.

The Iranian-Jewish community has responded with strong support for Deihimi’s latest project. Among those who helped organize the talent show fundraiser was Fariba Lavizadeh Nourian, a close friend and Iranian-Jewish business consultant living in Encino.

“To be honest with you, the majority of us are Jewish, but it did not cross our minds even for a second that we were raising money for a non-Jewish group,” she said. “We just wanted to help a worthy cause in our community.”  

Officials declined to release the amount raised through the talent show.

Robert Khorramian, a Santa Monica-based Iranian-Jewish podiatrist who sponsored one of the performers at the event, said, “I’ve known Mr. Deihimi for many years, and he is not only an incredibly talented pianist but he is truly a remarkable loving and kind human being with an amazing heart.”

Southern California is home to nearly half a million Iranian Americans. Roughly 40,000 of them are Jews living in Los Angeles County. Despite their different faiths — Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Baha’i and Zoroastrianism — they remain connected by language, culture, food, music and the mutual respect the community maintained in Iran during the reign of the late Shah prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution. 

Sam Markzar, a Beverly Hills periodontist who impersonated popular Iranian comedians from the 1970s at the talent show, said he got involved because of Deihimi’s reputation in the community and a sense of tikkun olam, or desire to heal the world.

“Our culture, the Persian-Jewish culture, has always tried to help the larger community in which we lived in, whether in Iran or in the U.S., and as a result, we have maintained friendships that truly go beyond religion,” he said. 

Deihimi said it’s a gift to be able to share the beauty of music while helping others who share his disability. 

“When I close my eyes and play the piano, I feel as if I see a very powerful light or energy that is very special,” Deihimi said. “Music is the international language of love, regardless of what your religion may be, and if I can help even one person with vision impairment like myself share that beauty of music with the world and also be able to create a better life for themselves while doing it, then I’ve accomplished a lot in my life.”

To read Karmel Melamed’s interview with Saeed Deihimi and watch a video of Deihimi playing piano, visit the Iranian-American Jews blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews