A female take on Shabbat

The annual Piyut Festival features the Womanly Kabbalat Shabbat.

Maya Belzitzman performs at the Piyut Festival (photo credit: MAYA SHALEV)
Maya Belzitzman performs at the Piyut Festival
(photo credit: MAYA SHALEV)
Even those with just a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew probably realize that there is a distinctly feminine side to the Lord’s (sic) Day. Shabbat is a feminine noun as are kalla – “bride,” an epithet frequently attached to Shabbat – and kabbala, used in tandem with Shabbat to signify the ritual kickoff of the Sabbath, kabbalat Shabbat.
That female aspect of the seventh day of the Jewish week will be highlighted and celebrated at the Womanly Kabbalat Shabbat slot of this year’s Piyut Festival, which will take place at its perennial berth of Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem from October 6 to 9.
The event is scheduled for Friday, October 7, at 1:30 p.m. Beit Avi Chai CEO David Rosenson notes that this is the first time in the festival’s nine-year history that Shabbat-based events are scheduled to take place on Friday and Saturday evening. The events will be hosted in the inner quadrangle of the richly appointed Jerusalem institution.
It is primarily a musical production, featuring three top performers: cellistvocalist Maya Belzitzman; singersongwriter Rona Keinan; and multidisciplinary artist Netta Elkayam.
Their sonic entertainment will be augmented by a speaking spot by leading Kabbala researcher Ruth Kra- Ivanov-Kaniel. The female trio will be backed by a male instrumentalist.
For Belzitzman, nothing could be more natural or more welcome than proffering her feminine take on the Shabbat opener.
“I was delighted when I was asked to act as musical producer for this,” she says. “We didn’t just take the traditional kabbalat Shabbat and take it to the woman’s side. We looked for something else.”
The cellist says that the personnel lineup lends itself to an eclectic reading of the religious custom.
“Each of us comes from a very different background. We each dug into our background and the way we individually relate to Shabbat,” she says.
That also directly informed the eventual musical repertoire.
“We took Shabbat songs, but each according to our own family customs.
I come from a completely secular background; we didn’t have kabbalat Shabbat at home. But I delved back into my own roots and looked for where kabbalat Shabbat speaks to me, and I got to places where I connect with it in a musical sense,” she explains.
That led to a diverse stylistic playlist that should keep the audience guessing, intrigued and thoroughly entertained.
“I looked into different versions of the songs, and there were some songs I composed for the occasion. But I come from a classical background and, to tell you the truth, all this material connected really well with that. It’s pure music,” he says.
With that in mind, Belzitzman pulled out all the instrumental, arrangement, writing and execution stops.
“We will have a string quartet that will play throughout the program, with me on cello,” she continues.
“We’ll have someone on drums and percussion, and we’ll also have someone on oud.”
The latter, seasoned performer Yaniv Raba, will no doubt serve to flex the ethnic spread even further, presumably in an Eastern direction. That, and more.
Belzitzman does add an Eastern element to the program, but there are all sorts of numbers in the lineup.
“There are pop-oriented songs, classical songs and Israeli songs. The instruments I chose will be played the way you’d expect, but they will also venture into unexpected areas,” she says.
Indeed. The oud, for example, is also used to perform flamenco material.
“Yes, and you can play classical music on oud or an Israeli song,” says the cellist, adding that the instrumental sum will be greater than its individual parts.
“The combination of oud with a classical string quartet, and percussion which is not really ethnic in nature, but more like a drum set, and I think that embraces a very wide range of cultures,” she says.
As far as Belzitzman is concerned, the melange is a win-win situation for all concerned.
“Because of the variety of types of music, it allows all the musicians to bring something of their own to the performance,” she asserts.
That goes for the audience as well.
“I didn’t set out intentionally to try to reference all the ethnic origins of Jews living in Israel. The idea is to include things which the members of the audience know from their home background but also to introduce them to things with which they are not familiar,” she elaborates.
That will be conveyed in the most user-friendly manner possible.
“We want to create an intimate atmosphere,” Belzitzman explains. “We, the musicians, will sit in a kind of circle, and the audience will sit in a circle around us. It won’t be like a standard show, with musicians on a stage and the audience seated separately. The audience will be part of the show.”
The musical and textual mix will be rich and diverse.
“I wrote music for a very important piyut (liturgical song) called ‘Yedid Nefesh,’ and Netta [Elkayam] will sing quite a few psalms,” continues Belzitzman.
The Friday evening prayer service includes “Lecha Dodi,” a piyut written by Rabbi Shlomo Elkavetz, a 16th-century paytan and Kabbalist with Spanish roots who lived in Safed. The original version of the prayer was printed in Venice in 1584 and was subsequently put to music by all comers across the Jewish community spectrum.
“We will perform ‘Lecha Dodi’ in four different versions,” says Belzitzman.
“That, for me, is the high point of the whole show.”
The cellist-musical producer says that Womanly Kabbalat Shabbat is not designed to tender a religious experience per se, and she hopes that everyone who attends will get something out of it.
“The idea, for my part, for our part, was to integrate the religious aspects – the liturgical songs from Kabbalat Shabbat – and the world in which each lives. The first part of the show is a sort of transition from the secular part of the work to the holy part. Each of us brings something that she feels serves that purpose. Netta [who hails from a Moroccan family] will sing something in Arabic, and Rona will sing something written by her father,” she says.
The latter is the late internationally renowned writer and multidisciplinary artist Amos Keinan.
“And I will sing a piyut,” Belzitzman adds. “Tradition is an important part of the show.”
For tickets and more information about the Piyut Festival: (02) 621-5900 and www.bac.org.il