It’s not a common site in Jerusalem to see a colorful audience of over 650 Sephardim, Ashkenazim, religious and secular sitting together peacefully and riveted by the same performance. This was the scene on Tuesday night at the Ahavat Olamim (Eternal Love) Concert at the Gerard Behar Center, part of the Piyyut Festival.

The festival, which ends tonight, celebrates Jewish music and piyyutim (liturgical poems included in the services on Shabbat and holidays in addition to the established prayers) from all over the world, ancient and contemporary. In its fourth consecutive year, the Piyyut festival offers something unique and yet obvious to the Jerusalem cultural landscape. “Jerusalem is the piyyut capital of the world; it’s absurd that the festival never happened sooner,” says Yair Harel, artistic director of the festival.


The festival aims at striking a balance between traditional and contemporary. “It’s not just about preserving traditions. The music is a living tradition, and the festival is not a museum,” says Harel.

The festival makes a tremendous contribution to Israeli and Jewish society and opens a gate to a much wider approach to Jewish identity. Rather than look to create a uniform ‘new Israeli’ voice and neglect the varying traditions, Harel and those behind the festival believe in integrating, continuing and weaving in the traditions into a new Israeli identity. This year’s festival brings all sectors of society together as well as Jewish and Muslim culture. “Without tradition, Israeli identity would be hollow. The connection gives strength and meaning through the experience of music,” says Harel. “Music has the profound ability to break down borders, and bring people together through a shared love of the medium. It is a place where people can meet”.

Tonight includes a special performance by Nino Biton, a master of the Andalusian genre of music. He will be performing in collaboration with many of his students in honor of his long-awaited debut album. This will be followed by Piyyut & Roll featuring contemporary performers Alma Zohar, Efrat Gosh, and Ilan Damri. The festival ends with a massive party.

The Piyyut festival is set to become an annual much-loved Jerusalem tradition. “There has been so much joy during this project,” says Harel. “Many of the performers would not have believed they would be performing on stage with a Moroccan Rabbi; they simply did not see it as part of their world. The festival created this possibility and opened things up. Some go to the east to find meaning, but it is here and they just don’t see it”.

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