Week of sacred verse

Jerusalem and Yerucham host a week-long celebration of piyutim.

Much has been written, especially in the pages of Billboard, on the growing popularity of piyutim, the canon of para-liturgical poetry mostly composed by Judaism's various exiled communities since the destruction of the Second Temple. Especially noteworthy in recent years has been piyut's penetration of mainstream Israeli consciousness, as evidenced through a renaissance of piyut-oriented community organizations and the popularity of ethnic revival performance ensembles. Popular musicians like Ehud Banai, Ovadia Hamama and Berry Sakharof have even been inspired by medieval rabbinical sources in the creation of recent works. With its goals of furthering a Jewish identity that is both inclusive and accessible, the Avi Chai Foundation has been lubricating the gears of the piyut renaissance machinery for several years now. Together with the Avi Chai-funded piyut.org.il web hub and Beit Avi Chai, the organization's relatively new central Jerusalem performance space, the Atid Bamidbar community institute has announced plans for The Piyut Festival, taking place this Sunday, March 30, through next Saturday night, April 5. A full schedule includes a cornucopia of piyut-related programming both in the capitol and in the ordinarily sleepy Negev town of Yeruham, with highlights including multimedia presentations, piyut performances with unlikely themes, and several free and inexpensive offerings. For the duration of the festival, every evening from 4 to 10, a high-tech, interactive, audio-visual experience will be held for free in the basement of Beit Avi Chai. Here, ceramic bells featuring a rotation of iconic imagery - calligraphy, Jews from various backgrounds, symbols and the like - draw the public in to a world of piyut ambiance, while computers allow participants to contribute to a call-and-answer chant that is both introspective and collaborative. At the Yeruham Music Studio venue at 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday and at Beit Avi Chai's Het Sheva room at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, marathons of piyut-related documentary films run daily. Several offerings on the schedule explore new piyut fusion frontiers. Held in Jerusalem, the festival's opening event (at Beit Avi Chai on March 31 at 7:30 p.m., with tickets priced at NIS 30/60) mixes holy poetry with jazz styles. Renowned piyut crooner Chaim Look and a Middle Eastern men's choir trade licks with New York-based bassist Omer Avital of Third World Love and local piano prodigy Omri Mor in a program that covers North Afrcian, Arabian and Israeli sacred verse. Next Thursday, piyut is pitted against rock and roll (at the Gerard Bechar Center on April 3 at 9 p.m., with tickets priced at 30/60 NIS), as soaring, jangly guitar rock outfit Knessiat Hasechel hosts the Andalusian Orchestra's resident featured soloist, Morroccan cantor Lior Elmalich. Elmalich is no stranger to projects like these, having shared stages in the past with the likes of Ehud Manor, and Micha Shitrit and even superstar rapper Subliminal. Other noteworthy performances expose audiences to esoteric and specialized sectarian piyut styles. Central Asian piyutim are introduced with a free lecture at 6 p.m., followed by a concert at 8 (at Beit Avi Chai on April 1 and at Yeruham's Heikhal Hatarbut on April 3, with tickets priced at NIS 30/60). Here, Bukharan cantor Ezra Malkov premieres a new piece by composer Peretz Eliyahu before launching into a revue of some of the best loved Bukharian Jewish folk songs. Argued by some to not exist, Ashkenazi piyutim go under the spotlight with a free lecture at 6 p.m., followed by a concert at 8 (at Beit Avi Chai on April 2, with tickets priced at NIS 30/60). The European-themed program is overseen by Bar-Ilan University Professor Walter Feldman, an expert on Turkish sufi music as well as klezmer. In addition, the Kol-Oud-Tof Trio performs Tangieri and Balkan wedding songs (at Beit Avi Chai's Het Sheva room on April 2 at 8:30 p.m., with tickets priced at NIS 15/30); Jerusalem's own Mt. Zion community presents its traditional songs of longing, dating from the turn of the last century (at Yad Ben Tzvi on April 3 at 6 p.m., with tickets priced at NIS 10/20); and the Rag Sounds ensemble performs piyutim from Bombay (at the Yeruhham Music Studio on April 2 at 5 p.m., with tickets priced at NIS 20). Tickets can be ordered to all events by calling (02) 621-5900, and downloadable complete schedules for each city are available at www.piyut.org.il/festival2008