Cranberry sauce is left untouched on the Thanksgiving table. A mullah proposes a temporary marriage to a Jewess on a flight. A Southern woman who looks like she comes from generations of country club members is actually the daughter of an Iranian Jew.
In “Saffron and Rosewater: Songs and Stories from Perisan Jewish Women,” these experiences of Iranian Jewish women are explored in a series of pieces based on literary works. Directed by Eve Brandstein and produced by Ronda Spinak, this production of the Jewish Women’s Theater premiered in New York at the 92nd St Y on November 23. The house was packed.
The Jews of Persia have exercised a unique fascination for millenia. Cyrus of Persia was instrumental in ending the Babylonian exile and allowing the Jews to return home. The Purim story occurs in Persia. And in our time, from the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 to this week’s news, Iran has compelled attention. Today, they are a close-knit Farsi-speaking community living mostly outside of Iran, with large communities in Los Angeles and New York. Encountering their distinct cuisine is a pleasure.
The evening opened with Niki Black singing the much loved “Gole Sangam” (Flower of Stone). From the first, the audience was spellbound, partly by sentiment and mostly by good writing, beautifully interpreted. The production features work by New Yorker Esther Amini , Farideh Goldin of Norfolk, Virginia and Gina Nahai, Dora Levy Mossanen and Angella Nazarian of Los Angeles. Much of the material is autobiographic as these writers wrestle with a culture in which their grandmothers or mothers were married as young teenagers to men in their 30s. And in the years following the revolution, the oppression of women has only intensified.
Brandstein’s direction of her talented actors (Lisa Cirincione, Wendy Colman Levin, Gamal J. Palmer, Roxana Rastegar and Sohaila Zivari) gave life to each piece. The cast, working with minimal props and material that ranged from high comedy and satire to poignant drama, was a joy to watch.
Esther Amini’s “Barnard College” is a hilarious retelling of her attempt to leave home and take up residence in the Barnard dorm. Her over-protective father takes to his bed in fury and outrage, convinced that she will fulfil his worst nightmares of student sex. She battles her guilt, determined to live at Barnard.
The evening ended with a Q&A, with the writers (all but Nazarian were present), actors, director and producer. Gina Nahai made the point that while America has of course welcomed Persian Jews – to our “temples, federations and sisterhoods” – the Persian community has always been seen as “different.” In her view, while the community has freedoms in the U.S. that enable it to preserve its culture and mores, at the same time, it is denied full acceptance.
Farideh Goldin was moving as she described how as the first woman to be educated in generations, she has to speak for those who cannot tell their own stories.
‘Saffron and Rosewater’ merits more than just one night in the tri-state area.
Sharon Anstey is a business consultant and writer in New York.