November 19, 2018

Continuity, Persian Style

I am intermarried. 

That is to say, I am a Jew from Tehran who married a Jew from Shiraz, Iran. 

In the United States, that’s usually about as far as intermarriage goes for Persian Jews. For now, anyway. 

Some are beginning to marry non-Persian Jews, and their Ashkenazi spouses appear ecstatic to finally be able to eat rice during Passover — and only slightly less important, finally to have found love.

At a recent ketubah-signing for my sister-in-law (a Shirazi) and her fiance (a Tehrani), the sound of the non-Persian rabbi’s voice as he spoke about the obligations of marriage was drowned out by the melodic unity of Shirazi mothers pouring their hearts out singing “Vasoonak Shirazi,” the wedding song whose melody all Iranians in Iran know, regardless of faith. I knew that song before I could walk, talk or grill my own meat by the age of 3.

Beyond its soulful poets, famous gardens and, before the revolution, its winemaking legacy, the southern city of Shiraz also has produced one of the greatest Persian songs of all time, whose words, sadly, few in my generation of 30-somethings know (much less 20-somethings and younger folks). At least the original song has been commercialized — some will recognize it as “Mobarak Baad,” which has a few of the original couplets. 

I like to poke fun at anyone not from Tehran, but I was so mesmerized and moved that I began to cry between my bites of cucumber and walnuts.

As I watched those wonderful women — their hearts full of pride and their ankles swollen from 45 years of housework — sing in a cappella unison about a joyful bride and groom, I began to tear up from the heartwarming duality of watching a young Persian-Jewish couple who have their entire (American) lives before them, and much older Persian Jews who, when they pass on, may no doubt take with them everything that still makes us Persian, especially our songs. 

My mother-in-law also sang “Vasoonak Shirazi” for my husband and me at our ketubah-signing in 2014. The song originated in Shiraz and is sung at most Shirazi weddings, which explains why the non-Shirazi women at the ketubah-signing didn’t quite know what to do with themselves once the impromptu singing began. I like to poke fun at anyone not from Tehran, but I was so mesmerized and moved that I began to cry between my bites of cucumber and walnuts.

And the Shirazi women? In that moment of cultural sharing, it seemed like the only thing we cosmopolitan Tehranis could teach them was the priceless beauty of holding on to their own traditions.

I felt transported to a time and place when a wedding was celebrated by an entire community; when mothers, aunts and grandmothers came together to prepare a luscious wedding meal using recipes passed down several generations and with aromatic ingredients that don’t come close to what we have outside of Iran; a time when the concept of a Jewish wedding in my community was less about drones flying over guests’ heads to film $250,000 worth of extravagance, and more about the celebration of Jewish continuity. And lots of homemade Persian food.

After she led the song, my mother-in-law lamented to me that she was slightly more out of breath this time than she had been four years earlier when she had recited it for my husband and me. It was then that I wanted a copy of her handwritten lyrics to “Vasoonak Shirazi” so that, in a few decades, I may sing the song to my own children. They were born in Los Angeles; they don’t understand the language of their ancestors dating back 2,700 years (not yet, anyway), but they can run for president of the United States. You lose some, you win some.

The older Shirazi women that night were magnificent. I had no doubt that the matriarchs in their families also sang the same song for them when they were young brides, in a country that once was. 

Those women were the only threads — the last threads, I fear — between us and a homeland to which return is utterly impossible, as well as a certain Jewish tradition I adore. As they belted out Persian-language harmonies, competing with the Hebrew-chanting rabbi over singing rights, the full breadth and delicious tapestry of being Iranian and Jewish was on display for all to see. 

Well, for almost all to see. A lot of the younger folks were scrolling on their phones.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.