«Who here is actually Iranian?» asked Galeet and Danielle Dardashti, sisters and hosts of «The Nightingale of Iran» podcast, which was being launched on Purim.
Only a few people in the audience raised their hands.
I was at the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s «Spring Equinox Festival: A celebration of Persian heritage and culture during Purim and Nowruz.»

When I checked in, I asked the desk person if this festival was an annual event and he said he believed it was the first one.
This surprised me. And yet, as I entered the main auditorium to attend the launch of the highly anticipated documentary podcast series about Younes Dardashti, a religious Jew who became a national celebrity in 1950s Iran, even singing at the Shah’s palace and on the radio, I got a hint:
«For those of you who haven’t heard the podcast, we were so disconnected from our Persian roots,» said Danielle. «Our Iranian father was an Ashkenazi cantor in America. He was a teen idol in Iran. But we completely assimilated as far as his Persian-ness in America,» said Danielle.
Did he purposely choose to be an Ashkenazi cantor, I wondered? Was he trying to distance himself from fellow Iranian Jews in America? Or was it circumstantial?
The discussion on stage was completely enthralling. My trance was broken when Galeet broke into song – demonstrating the wailing sounds of classical Iranian singing. She said she was only able to emulate the technique after her father described it as being similar to crying.
«It’s almost like yodeling,» said Galeet.

Galeet is an anthropologist who specializes in Mizrahi culture and music. (This process also helped push her father to get back to his roots.) She established Divahn, an all-woman Middle Eastern Jewish ensemble, and was awarded a Six Points Fellowship for her project, «The Naming,» which interprets women from the Bible. Her latest musical project, «Monajat,» reimagines penitential prayers (sehilot) using digital technology to collaborate with recordings of her Iranian grandfather. (You can listen to the album on iTunes and other streaming platforms.)
Galeet’s interest in Mizrahi culture and music is what helped bring her father back to rediscover and reclaim his roots during his retirement. He was more nostalgic, as his parents had passed away. But there were other factors, too. Her sister Danielle explained:
«I think people are more interested now than at the time when he first came to America in the 1960s,» said Danielle. In the 60s, «it was expected of him to assimilate and become more Ashkenazi. And now there’s an appreciation of diverse cultures and of where he came from.» Now, she said, he’s doing speaking engagements about his family and life story. «And he’s singing in the Persian style when he does services.»
What does he think of the podcast series?
«As a journalist covering your own family story, it’s a little weird because you’re like, ‘Oh my G-d, how is my father going to react to this? How is this going to create pain for him? Is he going to be hurt by this?’» said Danielle.
She and her sister were so worried that they sat their parents down in Danielle’s White Plains living room when the pilot episode for the series was ready.

«Galeet and I literally sat there watching them as they listened to the half-hour episode. We watched their expressions, making sure they were okay. And when it ended, our father looked at us — you know, it ends with a tease to the next episode, ‘Find out why they left Iran’,» she says in voiceover style. «And then our father said, ‘I can’t wait to hear Episode Two. Why did I leave Iran?’»
The sisters laughed.
«He was listening to it like he was an audience member,» said Danielle. He was so captivated by the story that we were telling and realized he had discovered things he hadn’t thought about in 60 years.»
At the end of the hour-long talk, a man in the audience raised his hand. «I’m not Jewish but I come from Iran,» he said. «Your podcast really touched me. I think the audience is probably wider that you think.» (Turns out, the Dardashti sisters said the second biggest audience outside of the US is in Iran!) Then, he asked Galeet and Danielle if they’d ever consider getting an Iranian passport, since their father was born in Iran, so they could return to Iran and do further research. Would they?
«I had planned to do research as an anthropologist in Iran,» said Galeet. «Because of my name Dardashti, I could easily get a passport to go to Iran, but if I was to go, I would then be treated as an Iranian citizen, and not as an American citizen. Because I’ve been to Israel a million times, it would be dangerous for me, especially because our grandfather sang for the Shah.
«It was the only time in my life that my father ever said to me, ‘Over my dead body.’ I looked into it further and realized I could be treated as a spy for Israel. It’s unfortunate. I’m dying to see the country and I hope that the government will change and one day I’ll be able to go there.»

A (Bukharian) Shephard in Queens

The Spring Equinox Festival took place across all three floors of the museum, featuring fascinating events and experiences throughout the day.
My next stop was to the bookstore for a reading by Esther Amini, author of «CONCEALED: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian daughter caught between the chador and America.» Amini, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens to parents who emigrated from Mashhad, Iran, where they had been living as crypto-Jews. (Read more about the history of the Jews in Mashhad on page 28 of this issue: «Our People in Iran, Afghanistan, & India.»)
I didn’t know much about Mashhad, and how its community differed from the rest of Iran’s 7,000 or so Jews, until I sat down for the 30-minute book reading by Esther. Listening to a Persian Jewish American woman named Esther read from her memoir titled CONCEALED—on Purim—could there be a more perfect way to commemorate and contemporize the holiday?
She read her precious story «Shephard in Queens,» a chapter from CONCEALED, about how her mother, much to Esther’s horror, dressed her as a Bukharian Shephard when she was little, giving her a 7-foot staff to carry with her to her Ashkenazi shul. She wished she could have dressed up as a nurse or teacher like her all-American Jewish classmates, but she couldn’t say no to her mother. This turned out to be lucky in the end, as Esther, much to her surprise, was awarded a prize for having the best costume!
At the end of the reading, I approached Esther, asking her to sign a copy of her book, which I cannot wait to read. I took the opportunity to tell her about the Bukharian Times. She wasn’t familiar, but as I explained it, she grabbed the arm of the man next to her and said, «Ruben, do you know Erin?»
It was the elusive Ruben Shimonov, educator and calligrapher who was there representing the Sephardic Heritage Alliance Inc, one of the festival’s sponsors. Shimonov is also National Director of the American Sephardi Federation’s Sephardi House. We once published one of his calligraphies in our paper but I had never met him. This encounter proved to be incredibly fruitful, leading to a wonderful day learning about Bukharian history, culture, and his calligraphy that I will be sharing in the next issue.

Backgammon, tea, and Persian Parade 2024

Outside of the bookshop was a mock table setting for Nawruz (Navruz) called the «haft-sin,» representing an ancient ceremonial table.
There were green apples, boxes of grass, decorated eggs, sumalak, Jewish star-shaped noni toki, and a basket of bejeweled garlic—the most beautiful garlic I’d ever seen.
This haft-sin, which was designed by Sofreh Aghd By Ghazal, showcased the 7 S’s—seven items starting with the letter ‘S’ in Persian, each symbolizing hope, renewal, and prosperity for the coming year.
This reminded me trip to Uzbekistan last year, coinciding with Navruz. Until now, I realize I had only ever celebrated the holiday with my non-Jewish Uzbek friends. As the Editor of the Bukharian Times English Section, if felt fitting to finally witness and partake in a Jewish Navruz celebration.
Time for tea. I walked upstairs and discovered a room full of backgammon players. I had no idea it was such a popular Persian pastime. As I savored a free cup of tea and two Persian sweets—my preferred type of renewal—I strolled around the room. In one corner, a woman with curly hair basked in the sunlight on a raised Persian rug, reminiscent of a chaixona, amidst the backdrop of a glimmering Hudson River and Statue of Liberty—a poignant symbol of hope, freedom, and inspiration.
She introduced herself as Betty Emamian, organizer of the Persian Parade in New York City. «The next one is on April 21st,» she said, inviting me.
Hope to see you there.

By Erin Levi