For some, it is a religious commandment. For others, this has become a real trend. Once a year, people from different backgrounds, including many from Tel Aviv, leave their pubs, theaters, occupations and secularism behind, and come to listen to "slihot," the traditional prayers for forgiveness and atonement recited in the days preceding Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. By 10 or 11 p.m., they arrive in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City or the picturesque, narrow streets of Nahlaot, wandering from synagogue to synagogue, through Jerusalem's darkness, listening to the prayers for atonement and forgiveness recited in the early hours of the morning and rebuilding their ties to traditions that are hundreds of years old. "We host an average of 5,000 people every year, most of them not from Jerusalem," says Dudi Fuchs, coordinator for the "Midreshet Reshit" in the Jewish Quarter, an educational institution that specializes in organized, guided tours of the Old City and throughout Jerusalem. The "slihot tours" are among their most popular. "And we are not alone in the business," Fuchs says. "There are at least four or five other organizations that also do these tours." What turns trendy Jerusalemites and Tel Avivians into slihot tourists? Fuchs responds, "Some of the comers are just 'trendy,' but in my opinion, they are a minority. Most of them come because slihot have been a part of their childhood and now that they are adults, they wish to live this period again. Others are in a genuine search for spirituality - some look for it in India, some others prefer to find it close to home." And some, he says, are truly seeking to become religious, "but these are the minority. They do not need us, they already have a synagogue of their own." Tours such as those run by Fuchs make slihot easy. The chartered buses leave Tel Aviv, the groups organize at pre-determined sites, complete with guides and texts. "And then they go back to their usual routines," Fuchs says. Rabbi Yehuda-Ovadia Petaya, the well known poet-singer of the Babylonian community who was named after his famous kabbalist great-father, sees another important development. "I think the interest in slihot is one of the results of the incredible success of the piyutim [traditional Mizrahi religious poetry] which has conquered a very important place in the cultural life in Israel," he says. Three years ago, Petaya created the "Hayona [the dove] Ensemble," together with two of his brothers and his sister, Prof. Haviva Petaya of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. This was not long after Yossi Ohanna had begun a program of "Kehillot Sharot" (singing communities), in which people meet to learn and sing liturgical songs. Rabbi Petaya even performed together with rocker Berry Sakharoff. "I was there on the stage, with my haredi beard and garb, and he stood right beside me, with his electric guitar and his rocker look. People came to realized that reality is a little more complex than what the media tell them." Ehud and Meir Banai are also part of this trend of getting back to their sources and several years ago began to include piyutim in their concerts. Others have followed, and today, says Rabbi Petaya, "Rock concerts in which piyutim are performed have become a tremendous success. There are more ensembles and more young people, some of them with backgrounds in classical or rock music and every performance is sold out well in advance." According Prof. Petaya, the rabbi's sister and co-founder of the Hayona Ensemble, "the piyut is a textual creation, poetry that is intended to be sung out loud, with all the dimensions of conversation directed towards God or about God. The piyut is thus a prayer that expresses a wide range of emotions: praise, glory, joy, sadness, lamentation and crying out, longing and yearning." On the Web site that Petaya and others created one year ago, (www.piyutim.org.il), other, even more poignant definitions appear. "The piyut is the missing link between my father and my son," declares Eli Barakat, one of the researchers of the Web site. Or, as Ya'ir Harel (director of the Web site) notes, "The piyut synthesizes and purifies various components of the Hebrew culture: language, music, mysticism, history, legend, philosophy, prayer and personal, family and national emotion - into one whole. The piyut makes it possible to fully experience this in its entirety." On a warm night last week in Nahla'ot, hundreds of slihot listeners wandered through the pathways. Old and young, men and women, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, religious and secular. Some already have their "favorite" synagogue, such as Minhat Yehuda, or the Adass, or the Hessed V'rahamin, which are the most popular and best-known and are "must does" on the slihot visitor's agenda. "When I was a little girl, I used to go with my father to the slihot," recalls Sima, who now lives in Ramat Gan. "Imagine, a little girl allowed to go out at night, and although my father and the people at the synagogue didn't seem particularly joyous, I still remember it as a cheerful experience. Three years ago, for the first time, I convinced my husband, who's Ashkenazi, and a couple of friends to come. Since then, we've come every year, and it is wonderful." "I am not religious at all," declares Meirav, dressed in low-cut jeans and a rib-top. "But the sounds of the piyutim, and especially of slihot, touch something very deep. Look around you. It's dark and mysterious, Jerusalem really does seem spiritual and different. The sounds of the men, praying for forgiveness, seem to wander along the streets with us. I may not pray very often, but like everyone else, I have what to atone for, and I have what to ask forgiveness for, and even just listening, I find my own spirit." Rabbi Petaya observes, "There is a saying in our tradition that even what doesn't start out for the right reasons finally can become right. It's not that I want or expect all these visitors to become observant, but I think it gives them an interesting perspective on their Jewish culture, another look at the religion issue. It's a kind of revolution, a cultural Jewish revolution." By 1 am on a well-lit night last week, dozens of young boys and girls were hurrying throughout the streets of downtown Jerusalem to meet at the square outside the Gerard Behar Theater on Rehov Bezalel, which serves as one of the gathering points for the slihot visitors. Some were carrying the small books of slihot prayers. The atmosphere was special, mystical - just the sight of the streets of Jerusalem filled with people and motion at that hour seemed most unusual. The young people joined the older generations, including those who pray regularly, and the blend of people and colors seemed to symbolize something that only Jerusalem can offer: a renaissance of Jewish culture, far-beyond the stereotypical, routine divisions of religious/religious Jews. Just Jewish. According to most Sephardi traditions, slihot prayers are recited throughout the month of Elul and until the morning before Yom Kippur.

Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin

Think others should know about this? Please share