Singing the praises of Kehilot Sharot

For the members of Kehilot Sharot, recognition by the outside world was still missing.

A Kehilat Sharot group gets together to explore ‘piyut’ (liturgical song) and ‘nigun’ (tune) (photo credit: Courtesy)
A Kehilat Sharot group gets together to explore ‘piyut’ (liturgical song) and ‘nigun’ (tune)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In June 2009, a prominent Egyptian newspaper published an article about a new Israeli cultural trend in which Israelis of different cultural backgrounds shared their love of ancient liturgical songs. The article included a photo of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and some of the musicians involved in the project, emphasizing that the admiration of the Shas spiritual leader for famous Egyptian musicians and singers such as Oum Kalthoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab led him to allow their music (with a twist, using Hebrew words) to be used in Jewish liturgy.
Last week, Yossi Ohana talked about the importance of the Egyptian story.
Singing Communities (Kehilot Sharot) holds a special place in the larger wave of what is commonly called the Jewish Renaissance, a renewal of interest in various aspects of Jewish culture, including Sephardi liturgy and music. The trend of Israeli rock stars – such as Ehud Banai and Berry Sakharoff – to include liturgical songs and poems in their music began about 15 years ago. It all started with a small group of Jerusalemites, and Ohana was one of them.
The idea that traditional music and songs with a clear link to religious traditions could raise interest among the younger generation first occurred to Ohana while he was on a mission in the US. He had been appointed director of the Beit Hillel center at the University of California, Berkeley campus, where he first saw the impact of spirituals on the African-American community.
“I knew this music from before, but I saw how it impressed young students, and I began to meld different styles that had roots in ancient religious traditions, like klezmer and spirituals,” he says. “It became clear to me that it could be a wonderful tool to address social issues.”
Back in Jerusalem, Ohana joined a new project, Mi Mizrah Shemesh, supported by the Avi Chai Fund and initiated by one of its board members, Meir Buzaglo. The son of Rabbi David Buzaglo, one of the greatest paytanim (writers of Sephardi liturgical songs), he was well aware of the cultural impact of this art form.
But Ohana was still looking for a specific aspect in this new stream.
The breakthrough came in 2003 when Ohana described his vision, by now more crystallized in his mind, to Buzaglo, who came back to him with an encouraging proposal from the Avi Chai Fund: Ohana was invited to do research on the status of liturgical songs and the public’s interest in it. Within six months, Ohana had the results. He had surveyed various groups of people, as diverse as possible – religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, young and old – people for whom the link between traditional music and poetry and the present represented an appealing possibility. People who wanted to share its gems and learn it together.
“The next step was to approach the paytanim and convince them to cooperate with us in this new concept,” says Ohana.
The first step was to have those men accept the idea of teaching the semi-sacred piyutim to a mixed group. (Liturgical songs are part of the synagogue and High Holy Days tradition but not part of the prayers.) Surprisingly, there were no harsh reactions, and in most cases the paytanim willingly took it upon themselves to open the world of traditional chants to a public that was eager to learn them.
The format is the same in all the groups. There are weekly sessions led by a professional staff and a moderator trained by Ohana. And at its center is the paytan – each time from different tradition, such as the Ashkenazi tradition of hassidic poetry and nigun (tune).
Ohana says it was a win-win situation. The public learned about their own or their neighbors’ cultural origins. And the paytanim developed the capacity to teach their art; and through the session, they reached a world beyond their traditional audience and strict religious realm.
“That’s how Kehilot Sharot was born,” Ohana says.
Today, there are nine groups around the country that gather and sing together. Ohana is convinced that his project is one of the keys with which to bridge the troubled waters of the cultural and socioeconomic gaps between the various sectors of Israeli society.
Two faithful participants of Kehilot Sharot are Tzipi Witztum and Rica Bar-Sela. Both are editors of music programs on the Voice of Music, traditionally a bastion of Western classical music. But over the years, they have included the piyutim they learned to sing at the Kehilot Sharot sessions. Witztum and Bar-Sela have done a lot for the project by airing on their radio programs the liturgical works of poets and musicians from the Jewish communities of Yemen, Iraq, Morocco and more, whose sounds have become a natural part of the high-quality classical material of the station.
But there is no question that for Ohana and the members of Kehilot Sharot, recognition by the outside world was still missing.
Two weeks ago, the Hebrew University, through one of its prize-giving foundations, gave the project its stamp of approval. The university, which established the annual Flegg Award and lecture promoting understanding, acceptance and cooperation among different sectors of the contemporary Jewish world, awarded Kehilot Sharot official recognition.
This prestigious award could not have been more appropriate for the tools Ohana had in mind more than 10 years ago – traditional music and poetry to bridge gaps and bring people together.
The award ceremony fittingly ended with performances by cantor Rahamim Zini of the Algerian tradition, followed by classical singer Gila Bashari, with a short exploration of the Yemenite liturgical tradition. They were accompanied by the attendees – all members of the various groups of Kehilot Sharot – and a deeply moved Yossi Ohana.