Languages of the Jews of Iran: A New Event Series from The Jewish Language Project

A Judeo-Persian version of Nizami Ganjavi's Haft Paykar from the British Library.

A Judeo-Persian version of Nizami Ganjavi’s Haft Paykar from the British Library.

The Jewish Language Project, an initiative of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has announced a new event series on “Languages of the Jews of Iran.” From January through March, the virtual series will feature scholars, musicians, and language activists discussing this rich linguistic heritage, which is now critically endangered.

Jews in Iran historically spoke many languages from Semitic, Median, and Persian languages families. The languages or dialects of Jews in different cities and towns were so different that their speakers often could not understand each other. In the 20th century most Jews of Iranian descent shifted to speaking standard Persian in Iran, or to Modern Hebrew, English, and other languages after emigrating elsewhere. As a result, future generations risk having little or no knowledge of their ancestral tongues.

“Most Jews have heard of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino but are not aware of the many other languages Jews have spoken throughout history,” says Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, founding director of the Jewish Language Project and Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Linguistics at HUC-JIR. “This event series will raise awareness about the many Jewish languages of Iran.”

A major focus of the Jewish Language Project is the documentation of endangered Jewish languages around the world. To enhance these efforts, Dr. Benor has forged strategic partnerships with other groups committed to language preservation and public scholarship, including Wikitongues, the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, and the Endangered Language Alliance.

These groups are heeding the warnings of both scholars and communities who attest to declining numbers of native speakers. Many of the world’s 7,000 languages are endangered, with 1,500 languages facing likely extinction by the end of the 21st century. Documentation, through activities like fieldwork, interviewing, translating, and creating “living dictionaries,” is a crucial way to ensure that at-risk languages can be not only preserved, but also potentially revitalized. As Wikitongues co-founder and director Daniel Bögre Udell says, “It only takes a generation to forget, but it only takes a generation to remember.”

After identifying the cluster of Iranian Jewish languages as especially critical for research support, Benor began assembling a multidisciplinary, intergenerational, and global group of experts, activists, and musicians. Each event features a combination of information, conversation and musical performance. The series begins on Sunday, January 9th with a panel of scholars providing a linguistic and historical overview of the topic. That event will include a performance of a Judeo-Isfahani song by Dr. Galeet Dardashti, an anthropologist and musician descended from a distinguished Persian musical family. Subsequent events will feature scholars, activists, and musicians covering spoken regional languages like Judeo-Kashani and Judeo-Yazdi, the Jewish Neo-Aramaic of Jews from the Kurdish region, and new research on Judeo-Persian in the 20th century.

Dardashti, who is currently Artist-in-Virtual-Residence at Indiana University’s Jewish Studies Program, emphasizes the personal and collective significance of documenting Iranian Jewish languages. She says, “It’s so important to record these languages while we still can. . . I’ve never been able to visit Hamadan or Isfahan, where my grandparents came from, but I can sing those songs and poems, and feel like I can reconnect with that piece of my identity—and that’s powerful.” Dardashti and others explain their interest in this project in a touching video.

Series cosponsors include the Iranian American Jewish Federation, Nessah Synagogue, and the USC Casden Institute, as well as several local and national organizations. All events will be broadcast over Zoom and screened live at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. These events will not be recorded; admission is free, and registration is required.

For media inquires, please contact Dr. Benor at