Persian Passion: Bringing Liturgical Poetry of Iranian Jewry Out of Oblivion

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Morin Nehedar.Credit: Orit Pnini

Morin Nehedar performed at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque a few months ago in a show that was organized by the online cultural magazine, Cafe Gibraltar. She came on after midnight and sang two songs by herself, one accompanied by a Persian stringed instrument and the other a cappella. The impression left by those few minutes would not be quickly forgotten. Although the room was dark, it felt as though a shaft of soft light spread between the singer and the audience. The lyrics, melodies and mostly Nehedar’s voice — it was clean, clear and even pure, but unlike other clear voices was deeply charged with feeling, experience, longing, pain and power.

When Nehedar said that she was about to release her debut album, it was natural to question whether she would be able to recreate the rare beauty of her brief performance that night. Three months and five minutes later, when “I Shall Praise You (Creator of All Living Souls,)” the excellent second track on her album "Asleep in the Bosom of Childhood," began to play, the answer was an unequivocal yes — her powerful beauty had been preserved. That impression only becomes stronger on listening to the entire album, and on listening again and again.

Nehedar describes the album, in the too-long liner notes, as a living doctorate. It is the result of many years of research into the liturgical poetry of the Jews of Iran, her country of birth, out of a desire to bring forgotten works out of oblivion. The Jews of Iran were ashamed of their tradition of liturgical poetry, she writes, seeing it as a coming out of ghetto life. She began working on a doctoral thesis, taking testimony from elder members of the community, but eventually realized that she would be better off devoting her resources to releasing an album, which would reach many more people than an academic paper.

There is nothing academic about this album, definitely not in the plain sense of the term. Most of the melodies of the liturgical poems it contains (six out of 11) are new ones composed by Nehedar. The others are melodies of hers that are based on folk melodies, and only two are folk melodies. Nehedar turns out to be an excellent composer who acts with freedom and momentum within the classical system of Persian musical scales, and it is surprising to discover that the songs that sound the most traditional (“You Shall Have Mercy [Beloved Daughter of God]” and “Will You Pursue Youth?”) are her own compositions, not based on any traditional melodies.

The arrangements and musical production (by Nehedar and Yankele Segal) mostly find the middle ground between artistic and popular, between the Oud Festival and the format played on Army Radio’s music station. There are only a few places where they stray into the slightly sterile “World Music” sound. But every time that happens, along comes a song in a different, less domesticated spirit, to sow salutary chaos upon the album.

The album flows very nicely along several channels until about two-thirds in, or the seventh of its 12 tracks, its title track, “Asleep in the Bosom of Childhood.” What happens in the home stretch is beyond beautiful, beyond the Hebrew word that is also the singer’s own surname, which means “wonderful.” “Bow before God” soars with an excellent melody and a stirring combination of thick electric guitar and Eastern stringed instruments, such as the tar, the saz and the bouzouki. “Prayer for Peace,” the album’s penultimate track (the last track is an instrumental version of the title track,) is the same song that Nehedar sang at the show in the Cinematheque.

Further listening reveals aspects that escaped my ear at the time, such as the way Nehedar concludes some of the sentences with a delicate break in the musical symmetry (maybe these are quarter-tones; I am not sure). Either way, it is a spectacular song that (almost) closes one of the most beautiful Israeli albums to be released in recent times.

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