In 1979, as Iran was in the throes of a violent revolution, my mom, my sister, and I came to the U.S. on a day’s notice. We went from couch-surfing with relatives in Tel Aviv to moving in with my grandmother in suburban Los Angeles, until my dad finally fled Iran to join us here. I’ve lived in Los Angeles all my life, and I’ve never returned to Iran. But as one of nearly 140,000 Iranian Americans—and 50,000 Iranian Jews—in Southern California, I have stayed tied to my homeland through food (I’m currently working on a cookbook of recipes by Iranian Jewish matriarchs), and music.
Life in Los Angeles can’t not be a mishmash: I have birria with my matzah (and dip it in consomé), and Taiwanese noodles are as much a taste of home to me as my mom’s gondi. Music is no different: Once I graduated from the alt-rock sounds of KROQ, I’d drive around listening to Superestrella, the local Spanish pop station, with a Spanish-English dictionary in the passenger seat so I could look up unfamiliar words at red lights. Persian music was my parents’ music, and I was a rebellious third-culture kid who favored Tori Amos over Mahasti. But you can bet that at every bat mitzvah, every wedding, as soon as certain songs started playing, my hands would shoot up, and I’d run to the dance floor.
In the early ’80s, as new immigrants finding our way, what grounded us the most were family gatherings. Whether it was Passover seders, our strange takes on Thanksgiving meals, or just a simple dinner with family, getting together with my aunts and cousins created that rare space where we could speak our native language and be fully understood.
Now, here’s the thing about Iranians, in my experience: It’s perfectly normal, at even a casual gathering, for everyone to get up and start dancing in the middle of the living room. Hear a certain beat and we all break into gher—that near-subconscious groove of the hips essential to Persian dance. At my Auntie Mohtaram’s house, this was also the moment when her husband, Nasser Khan as we called him, would pull out a tombak and join in with his own percussive drumming.
“Baba Karam” is a classic Persian song with a slow-like-molasses beat that has moved people to gher for decades. This version, by the beloved white-coiffed Armenian Iranian singer Viguen, is my favorite.
Bijan Mofid—“Avaz, Agha Moosheh” from Shahr-e Ghesse
We did a lot of road-tripping as a young family in a new country—up to Sacramento and Yosemite, or out to Las Vegas. And the soundtrack was always cassette recordings of musicals by the great Iranian playwright and theater director Bijan Mofid. His most famous, Shahr-e Ghesse (City of Stories), appears to be a children’s story populated by singing animals—but this avant-garde show was actually a dangerous act of resistance, exploring the clash of Iran’s traditional values with rapidly approaching modernity.
I didn’t understand all that as a child, but I definitely picked up on the sad, discomfiting undertones—including the heartbreak of the Mouse character on this song. I connected to it as a small child, and I still tear up listening to his squeaky, high-pitched voice.
Morteza—“Del Beh Tou Bastam”
My bat mitzvah was a great party. I recall a delicious spread of herbed rices and grilled meats, cocktails flowing freely, and a dance floor filled with family who’d come from Chicago, the East Coast, London, and Israel.
There is no line between pop stars and banquet singers in the Iranian community. My bat mitzvah singer was Morteza, one of the foremost Persian pop stars/wedding singers of the late 1980s. This song, with its gher-inducing tombak and violin intro, pulled the whole party—kids, grannies, and everyone in between—into a multi-generational dance party for the ages.
Los Angeles Iranian Jews’ musical tastes aren’t limited to Persian music, but there is a very specific mix of genres and nationalities that make up a typical Iranian Jewish party playlist. Obviously Persian dance songs reign supreme, but you’ll also find the Turkish singer Tarkan’s “Kiss Kiss,” Gipsy Kings’ “Bamboleo,” Omer Adam’s “Tel Aviv,” the Egyptian pop classic “Nour El Ein” by Amr Diab, any Ricky Martin banger, and of course, “Despacito.” Alabina brings this world of influences together in one band.
Led by an Israeli vocalist of Egyptian and Moroccan Jewish descent, and backed by a band of Spanish-speaking Gypsies from Montpellier, France, Alabina performs in Hebrew, Arabic, French, Spanish, and English, and the band’s live performances bring out the Los Angeles Middle Eastern constituency (Iranians included) in droves.
For years, I lived a double life. My friends from school would not have recognized the brainy, quiet girl they knew running to the dance floor in heels to get down with cousins, aunties, and even her own mother to unabashedly saccharine Persian pop songs.
So my first visit to Discostan blew my mind. At a dark, divey bar called Footsies, tucked away in Los Angeles’s Cypress Park neighborhood, DJs spun a mix of Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian songs. Blond hipsters sidled past the pool table to the tiny dance floor to groove to the very songs that played at our bat mitzvahs decades ago. The decidedly uncool soundtrack of my brown girl family life was suddenly hip!
Omid Walizadeh frequently spins at Discostan events, and I can’t get enough of his modern mixes of nostalgic sounds.
Galeet Dardashti—“My Flower (The Bride)”
A guiding principle of my work is to fight Ashkenormatism—the idea that Eastern European Jewish traditions are the only Jewish traditions. So many people know about the Yiddish language, but there are countless Judeo-Iranian dialects, including Kashi, the Judeo-Kashani language my grandparents spoke. During a series of virtual presentations from the Jewish Language Project, Galeet Dardashti performed this song in Judeo-Isfahani. It’s the wailing plea of a young bride to remain in her father’s home, and feels like an auditory time capsule from my grandmother’s generation.
Backed by an estimable Iranian Jewish musical heritage—her father is a cantor, her grandfather was a renowned singer of Persian classical music—and a PhD in anthropology, Dardashti brings traditional music to a new generation. Her latest album, Monajat, blends recordings of her grandfather singing traditional Yom Kippur prayers with her own vocals.
Adja Pekkan—“Viens Dans Ma Vie”
I was recently at a potluck dinner for “creative, artsy, blacksheepy Iranian babes,” and amid a playlist by one of our hosts, Rose Ghavami, aka DJ Rose Knows, was a French song with very eastern riffs and a definite ’70s sound. I couldn’t tell you a thing about this song, but I instantly recognized it from when I was a kid.
It turns out it’s a 1977 song by Turkish pop star Ajda Pekkan. Surely it was on one of the many bootleg cassettes my dad would ship to my mom in the U.S. while he was still in Iran. A core memory I didn’t know I even had—this French song from Turkey that was popular in Iran over 45 years ago—made its way back to me in a backyard in Lincoln Heights at a dinner for misfit Iranian women like myself.
As part of my culinary research, I attended a ladies’ lunch this spring in the West Los Angeles home of a Jewish woman from the Kurdish city of Sanandaj. All of the guests were in their 70s and up, and sported blown-out hair, manicures, and the chicest outfits. They chatted and gossiped in a mix of Persian and Judeo-Kurdish Aramaic as they took tea and Kurdish Passover sweets, then beer and cocktails, then a spring feast crowned with huge platters of fragrant herbed rice. After lunch, they gathered in the living room and to my delight, started singing.
One woman with a professional-level voice belted out a song I’d never heard, entitled “Vatan,” the Persian word for home. The lyrics loosely translate to, “This city is beautiful, I know. Its colors are bright and its waters clear, I know. It’s like a picture postcard, I know. But it’s not home, it’s not home, it’s not home.” Forced diasporic life in one verse.
Last September, I sat, astonished, as images of Iran’s mass protests erupted all over my Instagram. For the past few years, social media has offered me a window into contemporary Iran—chic cafe culture, bustling Tehran city life, old men selling handicrafts in tiny shops. Now, it showed me courageous women fighting the same oppressive regime that forced my family out of the country so many decades ago. “Baraye,” young singer-songwriter Shervin Hajipour’s somber ballad of freedom, quickly became the anthem of the movement, and captured hearts all around the world. I cried the first dozen or so times I heard “Baraye,” and over a year later, it still makes me emotional.
Chloe Pourmorady Ensemble—“Elohai Neshama”
On October 8, 2023, I hosted an intimate event in my living room spotlighting Iranian Jewish culture. This was supposed to be a night of joyful cultural exchange, with delicious home-cooked food and a performance by L.A.-based vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Chloe Pourmorady. But after the brutal attacks on Israel the night before, everyone felt shaken and frightened for what might come next. For a moment we considered canceling. Then Chloe—whose work blends her Iranian Jewish roots with a diverse set of global influences—said, “We will hold each other up and hold space for healing.” Her music did just that.
“Elohai Neshama” is a daily prayer of gratitude for the purity of our individual souls. That night, while it couldn’t fix anything, Chloe’s ethereal rendition was a timely reminder of our shared humanity and a needed moment of unity.