It is the Selihot season for one and all.
The Sephardic community began early-morning Selihot services around three weeks ago, at the beginning of the month of Elul, and Ashkenazim start their Selihot services tomorrow evening after Shabbat.
All of which makes it an opportune time for Yonatan Dror and Achiya Asher Cohen Aloro to unveil a new version of their diverse Likrat Neilah, a show based on renditions of Selihot from across a broad spectrum of communities and traditions.
For now, there will be two performances of the program. One is at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem on September 28 at 9:30 p.m., and the other is at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv on October 2 at 9 p.m.
Singer Dror and pianist-arranger Cohen Aloro are putting their all into the new production, and then some.
“We performed this project two years ago, but last year the Municipality of Jerusalem decided not to support us,” says Dror. “This year, too, they said yes, and then no. They decided to bring in artists from outside [Jerusalem] instead of investing in original Jerusalem art.
That’s a shame. So Achiya and I decided to take the whole thing on our own shoulders, come what may, and we hope the shows will generate the right buzz and reach as many people as possible and that we’ll be able to keep the thing going and develop it further over the years.”
If you are going to reach out to people with diverse traditional backgrounds, it makes sense to have some inside knowledge of where your potential audiences are coming from.
In that regard, Dror and Cohen Aloro are well primed. Dror comes from mixed Moroccan and Italian parentage, while Chabadnik Cohen Aloro traces his roots to Spanish Jewry.
The eclectic repertoire of the show, says Cohen Aloro, first and foremost emanates from within.
“The people involved in this project all come with their own musical background and traditions,” he says, adding that he was something of a novice himself. “My knowledge of the Selihot musical repertoire was more or less limited to the ancient liturgical score Adon Selihot. But I came to this with a lot of knowledge of Chabad melodies. Yonatan comes from a background of piyutim.”
Cohen Aloro’s musical backdrop is far from the current project’s orientation.
“My father originates from Algeria, but he comes from a home where they listened to jazz, and my father played in military bands during World War II,” he notes. “I was drawn to this project because of my connection with Yonatan.”
The pianist says he didn’t fall in love with the, for him, extraneous sounds of Sephardic piyutim at first sound.
“To begin with, it all sounded very simple, even simplistic,” he recalls.
“But when you get into it, you begin to realize that you can take this simple thing and run with into 1,000 different directions.”
In fact, the seed for Likrat Neilah was sown quite a few years ago.
“I come from Moshav Ben-Ami,” explains Dror. “We were the only religious family there, and my father set up a synagogue at the hospital in Nahariya [the Galilee Medical Center]. Patients would check in and check out of the hospital, so there might be more Ashkenazim one week and more Sephardim the next.”
Dror realized that the services had to cater everyone when, one year, he took on the mantle of cantor for the Yom Kippur services.
“I thought to myself, ‘If I don’t sing the nigunim [melodies] that the Ashkenazim know, it simply won’t be Yom Kippur for them.’ And it was the same for the Sephardim,” he says.
In the end, the cross-community solution was there for the taking.
“I realized that the Sephardim sang the sections of the prayers that the Ashkenazim recited quietly, and vice versa. So I just put it all together,” he recounts.
The all-embracing ethos worked spectacularly well.
“After Neilah [the closing service of Yom Kippur], Ashkenazim came up to and said they were moved by the service, and the Sephardim said the same. That was very satisfying for me, and I realized that we can all share the prayers and the music. It all appeals to everyone,” he says.
That is certainly what Dror and Cohen Aloro, along with producer Itai Tzur, instrumentalist and liturgical singer Ron Ish Ran and singer Hanan Ben-Simon are aiming to achieve with Likrat Neilah. The repertoire for the show comes from ancient prayers, presented through a musical prism that spans generations and leaps across cultural boundaries.
“We want to the make the music and texts accessible and appealing to everyone, regardless of their cultural background or religious leanings,” explains Dror.
Cohen Aloro, for example, will bring his jazz upbringing to the fray, and there will be rhythms, textures, colors and melodies that feed off Western and Eastern sources and from different eras of musical evolution, from centuries ago to contemporary rock music energies and arrangements.
The upcoming shows also mark the release of the new eponymous album, which was recorded at the initial airing of the material two years ago at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem. The numbers include “Kol Dodi Dofek,” based on a well-known Chabad tune, and “Ben Adam Mah Lecha Nirdam,” the opening piyut of the Sephardic Selihot service. Other piyutim include “Yah Shema Evyoncha,” with words by medieval poet, philosopher and doctor Rabbi Yehuda Halevy, and “El Nora Alilah,” words by Halevy’s contemporary Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra to music that incorporates a Sephardic Jerusalem tune and a Moroccan melody with an Arabic music arrangement.
It was not all smooth sailing for Dror, Cohen Aloro et al from the outset.
“Ron Ish Ran is much more conservative than us, and he was a bit taken aback when we suggested taking the melodies into more contemporary spheres,” says Dror.
“We had this tension between adhering to the tradition and going in a more innovative direction. I think that tension has produced something really exciting that many people can enjoy.”
The mass appeal factor will be boosted by the fact that the words of the songs will be projected onto the back of the stage, and the members of the audience will be invited to join in the vocal fun.
“It worked well two years ago, and I hope it does this time too,” says Dror, who recently released a single, “Kumi Lach,” from his upcoming CD.
“Everyone is welcome. This should be a lot of fun,” he says.