More than 600 Los Angeles-area Iranian Jews gathered on September 19th for the community’s first ever Selichot prayers incorporating traditional Persian instruments in a Mizrahi musical performance.
The event was the brainchild of L.A.’s Iranian Rabbi Ruben Malekan, who for four decades has been performing the Selichot prayers-- or the traditional prayers of repentance done in the month prior to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur at various Los Angeles area Iranian synagogues.
“Music is something that lands in your heart in a powerful way,” said Malekan who is not affiliated with any specific congregation. “No one from the Iranian Jewish community has ever done the Selichot with music -- especially using classical Persian instruments. It was a magical mystical event that elevated everyone’s souls and better prepared them for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur”.
The musical event took place at Temple Beth El, the West Hollywood-based synagogue for the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) and was indeed historic for Iranian Jewry. During their 2,700 year history, Jews in Iran have never incorporated music into their religious services but chanted their prayers in the traditional Mizrahi melodies.
Likewise, following the Islamic invasion of Iran in 633 AD, Iran’s Jews and Armenian Christians for centuries were the country’s primary musicians and keepers of traditional music because the Muslim majority living in the country were prohibited from playing or listening to music by Islamic laws.
Currently roughly 40,000 to 45,000 Iranian Jews live in Southern California after fleeing Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution in that country.
Malekan said he does not follow any specific denomination of Judaism but has always tried to maintain and teach Jewish laws and traditions in a “moderate path” since 1971 when he first began teaching Hebrew, Jewish history and Jewish religion to young Jewish students in Iran.
“My goal in life has always been to help Jews in my community embrace Judaism to the best of their ability and encourage them to become more spiritual,” Malekan said. “My hope through this mystical musical Selichot event is to help them reach that higher level of spirituality and closeness with God”.
IAJF leaders said Malekan’s moving deep voice and warm personality which has always been popular among local Iranian Jews were their main motivations in asking him to conduct their High Holy Day services this year and welcoming him to organize this special musical Selichot performance.
“Selichot prayers are an old tradition for Iranian Jews and this very special event combining classical Persian music as well as the amazing voice of Rabbi Malekan will help promote unity in the community before the new year,” said Susan Azizzadeh, president of the IAJF.
The musical event also included performances by Manoochehr Sadeghi, the internationally known Iranian grandmaster of the Santur instrument, which is a Persian hammered dulcimer. Sadeghi, who is not Jewish, said he typically does not perform at smaller venues but was persuaded by Malekan because of the spiritual aspects of the event.
“Over the years I have had many friendships with people and students from the Jewish community who are very special to me,” said Sadeghi. “So when I was asked by the rabbi to perform at this very unique spiritual event that promotes peace and encourages people to become closer to God, I gladly agreed to do so”.
Interestingly enough, Ashkenazi Cantor Michael Stein of the Woodland Hills-based Temple Aliyah performed at the event with the guitar and oud, while his son Jared Stein played the violin.
“I love our Persian families. They are really wonderful people with deep religious feelings,” said Stein. “So when I was asked by the rabbi to perform at this special musical event, I said yes instantly because this is a great opportunity to bring the Ashkenazi and Persian community closer together through music”.
Both Malekan and Stein said they hoped the popularity of the musical Selichot performance in the community this year will in the near future lead to other Mizrahi musical performances that include full orchestras in a larger concert hall venue.
“God has given a great gift of voice and I believe it should be used for prayer in my faith and to bring people closer to God,” said Malekan. “God willing I hope to use that voice with a 40 or 50 person orchestra to sing Jewish prayers with the traditional Mizrahi melodies”.
Karmel Melamed is an award-winning internationally published journalist based in Southern California.