Bringing the synagogue to the stage

The A’irra Shachar concerts feature four styles of bakashot.

Maimon Cohen (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maimon Cohen
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Over the past decade and a half, Jerusalem has changed radically. The Light Rail has transformed the center of town, and buildings in the capital are becoming increasingly taller.
Then again, this city has such deep roots in the history of the Jewish People, that nothing can repress our age-old customs. Bakashot (supplications) have been chanted at pre-dawn Shabbat prayers in synagogues here for some five centuries, although generally not all year round.
“It is primarily a winter activity,” explains Ronnie Ish-Ran.
Ronnie Ish-RanRonnie Ish-Ran
He ventures that it is because in the days before we had electricity, people went to bed when darkness fell, which in winter is quite early.
“They went to sleep early, so they woke up early,” he proffers.
That led to men going to their local synagogue at 3 a.m. in the wee hours of Shabbat and singing their way for whole hours, right up to the start of the Shacharit service on Shabbatmorning.
The centuries-old tradition, which was begun in the 16th century by Rabbi Yisrael Najara of Safed, will be presented in a concert format at Jerusalem’s Confederation House in the A’irra Shachar four-part series, which will run January 22 to 25 with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the Culture Department of the Municipality of Jerusalem.
Ish-Ran, the artistic director of the liturgical musical program, is a veteran vocalist, instrumentalist and educator, and a regular at bakashot sessions at the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood.
“Ades and the Moussaieff Synagogue in the Bucharim neighborhood are the only two synagogues in the world that still maintain the tradition,” he notes.
Ish-Ran explains that there are four principle idioms of bakashot: Halab- Jerusalem, Moroccan, Turkish- Ottoman and Babylonian (Iraqi), all of which will be portrayed in A’irra Shachar. The title of the series, taken from Psalms 57, translates as “I will wake the dawn” and references the night-day timing of the synagoguebased chanting activity.
The artistic director has lined up some of the leading lights of the bakashot scene. The series kicks off with Shir Yedidot (A Love Song), with singers Shimon Iluz and Maimon Cohen showcasing the Moroccan dialect. That will be followed on the morrow by the Turkish slot, Hadash Kakedem, with singer Hadas Pal- Yarden and singer and qanoun player Elad Gabbai front and center, and Ish- Ran in vocal support. The January 24 Babylonian program features Moshe Habousha, a Jerusalemite musician whose grandfather was a renowned cantor in Baghdad. Habousha will be supported by four instrumentalists, including oud player Elad Harel and ney (flute) player Yaakov Elyahu. A’irra Shachar closes on January 25 with the Halab-Jerusalem installment Shachar Avakeshcha. The title references a liturgical work by 11th-century Spanish poet and philosopher Rabbi Shlomo Ben-Yehuda Ibn Gvirol. Habousha will also front the final concert alongside a strong vocal lineup that includes Raphael Barazani and Ram Mizrahi, with Ish-Ran joining in the vocal fray.
While bakashot traditionally takes place in the synagogue, the textual liturgical material touches on numerous aspects of everyday Jewish life as well.
“The words can talk about Shabbat and religious holidays but also a brit mila, a bar mitzva,” notes Ish- Ran. “They also relate to events that take place during the course of the year, and not just happy events. On Tisha Be’Av we also recite piyutim [liturgical poems], which we call ‘kinot’ [lamentations], and during the Days of Awe we call them ‘shlichot.’ Songs sung at the family Shabbat dinner table – zmirot shel Shabbat – also come into the piyut category. That is the umbrella category which includes bakashot,” he explains.
The series closer promises to be the most varied of the four and reflects something of the eclectic cultural tapestry that has developed in Jerusalem over time. Halab is the Hebrew and Arabic name of the Syrian city of Aleppo. Ish-Ran says that musical and cultural elements made their way from there to Jerusalem and were subsequently augmented by various other influences.
“Halab took over Jerusalem. There is the Sephardic-Jerusalem style, which really incorporates all the Eastern synagogues in Jerusalem that do not pertain to a specific cultural source, that are not, say, specifically Moroccan or Yemenite. The style became known as the ‘Jerusalem style’. The Moussaieff Synagogue is one of the only places that still maintain the Halab-Jerusalem bakashot tradition,” he says.
Over the years, the musical backdrop of bakashot has picked up all kinds of local cultural colors, with songs composed and performed by such giants of the Arabic music scene as Oum Koulthoum, Farid el-Atrash and Abdel Wahab finding their way into synagogue chants, as well as Ashkenazi melodies from Hungary.
The world of bakashot is a rich and varied domain, and A’irra Shachar will offer a glimpse of a group activity which is normally the preserve of the hardy souls who rise long before the Shabbat sun.
“With this series, I am bringing the synagogue to the stage,” says Ish-Ran.
The A’irra Shachar series will take place on January 22 to 25 at Confederation House in Jerusalem. For tickets and more information: (02) 624-5206 ext. 4;; (02) 623-7000; *6226;