The Persian Pop Scene in Tel Aviv

Persian Israeli Singers: Part I of a series on Iranian Jews and Diaspora

Many American Zionists who vilify Iran as the incarnation of anti-Semitism may be surprised to learn that Iran contains the largest population of Jews in the entire Middle East outside of Israel (only Turkey comes close). In fact, the very concept of an Iranian Jew might seem impossible– unless you live in Beverly Hills, whose 2-time mayor Jamshid Delshad is one of 8,000 living in the municipality (making up about a quarter of the population)!

There are many, many Persian-speaking Jews out there, both inside and outside Iran. While the history of Iranian Jews and their diaspora deserves its own (very long) post, which I promise to write up soon, I thought I’d kick off the topic on a more entertaining note, with a look at Iranian-born Israelis who have contributed to a tiny but thriving niche subculture of Persian pop music. By far the most famous is Rita (nee Jahan-Farouz), who was born in Tehran in 1962 and immigrated to Israel 8 years later with her family. Rita is certainly a mainstream star, singing extensively in Hebrew (she even represented Israel at Eurovision in 1990) but her Iranian roots are well-known, as she often performs Persian classics for her adoring fans, such as the wedding song “Shah Domad” and Hayedeh’s “Gol-e Sangam”:

Rita, like several other Iranian-Israelis, has also suffered from an indignity all too commonly faced by the natives of many Muslim states: in March 2003, she was denied entry to the United States and forced to cancel a sold-out concert tour in New York, Miami and LA. The excuse of US officials was that she had applied for the visa too late for the FBI to complete the necessary three-month background check!

[Perhaps the more famous case (and even more embarrassing for Americans) is that of Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in 2002, when immigration agents at JFK airport refused to let him enter the US on the grounds that along with his Israeli passport, he also held an Iranian passport (not clear from the news reports on this incident why he would be carrying that around– or if he wasn’t, how immigration found out about it). Only high-level diplomatic phone calls (probably to the effect of “Don’t you know who this guy is??!”) got Mofaz through passport control.]

Within Israel, Persian Jews are recognized as having a distinct subculture; although politically they may be glossed as one of the many communities that make up the “Mizrahim” (Oriental Jews), who are predominantly Yemenite, Iraqi and Moroccan; their Persian language sets them apart. Check out the well-known caricature of a Persian Jew, Officer Shemesh (played by Yosef Shiloah), in the Israeli film “Sapihes”– unmistakable with his mustache and thickly Persian-accented Hebrew!

Popular music and dance are perhaps the major way in which young Iranian-Israelis express their ethnic roots, with Persian music videos prominently featured on the front page of the “Persian in Israel” website:

Furthermore, plenty of Persian Israelis embrace both parts of their hybrid identities, producing homemade music/dance videos performing Persian pop tunes in Hebrew and, more notably, Israeli Hebrew hits in (mixed or solid) Persian; for example, Kobi Peretz’s “Babeli Oto,” half Farsified:

In a true masterpiece, B-list Iranian-Israeli singer Hezi Fanian even rendered Amr Diab’s Egyptian Arabic “Habibi Nour al-‘Ayn” into Persian alongside a deliciously tacky belly-dance routine:

Even Mizrahi megastars who do not identify as Persian, like Kurdish Itzik Kalla and Azeri Sarit Hadad, have delivered performances in Farsi:

For reasons that remain unclear to this author, the world-famous Israeli Zionist rapper/hip-hopper Subliminal, born to a Tunisian father and Persian mother, made this somewhat bizarre nod to his heritage, “Klasit ve-Parsi” (“Classical [Music] and Persian”):

If that last one left you wondering, let me conclude by suggesting that while the intense political hostilities between Israel and Iran undoubtedly complicate life for Persian Jews– particularly those families that have members in both countries– Persian-language music performance is integral to cultural life of the Iranian diaspora in Israel as a seemingly “depoliticized” feature of their identities (leaving aside the entire historical politics of ethnicity and Israeli music, I would argue that nowadays, at least, Persian music performance is not necessarily considered subversive political activity).

When politics do enter into song themes, the messages can be ones of solidarity with the Iranian people as a whole; Hezi Fanian may or may not have redeemed himself with his musical offering in tribute to the late Neda Agha-Soltani:

Finally, because I have deemed this post to be so far insufficiently cute, I leave you with this adorable Israeli 4-year-old learning to sing in Farsi:

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