The community gathers to commemorate the Persian New Year and 40 Years of freedom
Whether you spell it Nowruz, No-Ruz, No-Rooz or Nauruz, the first day of spring has been celebrated as the new year by hundreds of millions of Persians of all religions and throughout the Middle East and Asia for more than 3,000 years.
Meaning “new day” in Farsi, this year’s local Nauruz festivities were especially meaningful as March marked 40 years since the 1979 Iranian Revolution led to the influx of Persian Jews in Great Neck.
Sephardic Heritage Alliance Inc. (SHAI) hosted events throughout the month, culminating in an art exhibit with kosher wine and hors d’oeuvres followed by a concert featuring traditional Persian music on Saturday, March 23, cosponsored by UJA Federation and Temple Beth-El of Great Neck.
“It was an evening of superlatives and standing ovations, perhaps one of the most significant cultural events that SHAI has ever created in its 27-year history,” said Jacqueline Harounian, a former SHAI president, who served on the event committee. “Throughout the night, accolades were directed at Tania Eshaghoff-Friedberg, the talented visionary and SHAI board member, who organized every aspect of the event.”
The celebration attracted more than 500 appreciative guests from diverse ethnic groups throughout Great Neck and the New York area, with the attendees ranging in age from 5 through 95.
“For the many immigrants from Iran who attended, the evening was a very meaningful cultural encounter,” said Harounian. “The many works of art and vocal and instrumental musical performances created a transformative connection with listeners, viewers, spectators and participants.”
Kevin Sun of the Great Neck Chinese Association, who attended with his young daughters, agreed.
“It was such a wonderful event,” said Sun. “I was so impressed with Tania’s talent.”
The evening was a vision of Eshaghoff-Friedberg, a SHAI board member and Beth-El congregant.
“Tania came to the board about two months ago and said, ‘The community feels so fractured sometimes. Let’s bring back Persian arts to bring people together and unify the community,’” said SHAI President Rebecca Sassouni, in her welcoming address.
“Here we all are in a packed sanctuary with more than 500 people from multiple houses of worship, walks of life, ages and native tongues together to celebrate Nauruz, which is a secular New Year in Iran much as Dec. 31 is here in the United States,” explained Sassouni, who pointed out that in 27 years of service to the community, this was SHAI’s first-ever Nauruz event. “For many Jews, there was a reluctance to celebrate Persian culture. The art exhibit featuring local talent and the magnificent concert are a testament to Tania’s vision and the diverse community, which so obviously craved this opportunity to come together.”
Eshaghoff-Friedberg was encouraged to do the concert at Temple Beth-El, a Reform congregation and the first synagogue in Great Neck, by her friend Sepideh Jahvaeri-Kohamin, so she could introduce her music to an audience beyond the Persian population.
“Persian music is a rote learned tradition,” explained Eshaghoff-Friedberg, who has been performing on stages as renowned as Carnegie Hall for nearly 20 years and has played for Her Majesty Farah Pahlavi and ambassadors. “It was only notated in the last 70 or so years. So, for more than 2,000 years, this sound was taught mainly from father to son.”
The pianist was accompanied by world-renowned musicians, who she has performed with for the last 15 years, including Christopher Hoffman, Skye Steele, Ali Bello, Dr Edward Smaldone, Arieh Aghajani, all original members of the NoRuz Project, along with Adam Malouf, who recently joined the ensemble.
In lieu of an intermission, Eshaghoff-Friedberg decided to incorporate the art, so the program would have a true beginning and end. She also believed that the art and music would leave folks feeling inspired and proud.
“Iran is a beautiful country with nearly 2,000 years of a musical tradition preserved simply due to Iran’s mountainous borders,” explained Eshaghoff-Friedberg. “Those mountains are really the reason all of the Middle East speaks Arabic, but this one nation has preserved the Farsi tradition. Despite us being here, we are still a part of that world in some respects, though one can not freely visit. So, more reason for us to learn, study and experience that place here in the U.S. We are Americans first, but our sensibilities are still of that place. I just want to bring my childhood to the country we have now made our lives and our families.”
The concert also brought together local Cantors Vlad Lapin from Temple Beth-El, Isaac Janfar of Beth Hadassah Synagogue and Raphael Frieder of Temple Israel, who sang the final selection in unison to a standing ovation and encore.
“I never felt this music on such a spiritual way that I did on Saturday,” said Eshaghoff-Friedberg, “This audience, I felt, was waiting for these sounds to embody their minds and ignite their hopes and identities. I was a messenger of a sound and music that was of their childhood. It felt so rewarding that it was received the way it was. I feel this community longing for a connection to that place, ready to reclaim a music that is of a land that at this time is unreachable. It is in these songs and types of sounds that embody and carry their memories.”