Taking on the Golem at the Jerusalem Int’l Oud Festival

The idea of the golem came up in the corona year. It comes from the idea of the cruel behavior in the world, and how we have become golems.

HAVIVA PEDAYA – a musical, moral and intellectual odyssey. (photo credit: HAI AFIK)
HAVIVA PEDAYA – a musical, moral and intellectual odyssey.
(photo credit: HAI AFIK)

Haviva Pedaya wants us to shake us up a bit, but in the most creative and artistic way she knows. The 63-year-old poet, author, cultural researcher, and professor of Jewish history, has a penchant for crafting intriguing musical projects with significant subtexts that address all manner of topics.

Her slot at this year’s Jerusalem International Oud Festival, at 9 p.m. on Saturday at the Jerusalem Theater, goes by the forehead furrowing name of “The Golem: Musical Works to a Contemporary Poem.” Pedaya has put together quite a few evocative multi-layered productions over the years but this looks like it is right up there with the most challenging ventures she has taken on to date.

But Pedaya generally packs a cultural punch or two and, when she gets started on something, it is hard to know where it will all end up. In the case of “The Golem” she has spread her wings just about as far as they can reach. The work comprises numerous layers of a musical, thematic and cultural nature. In the festival blurb it is described as: “a kind of rhapsody, or techno-rock-pop-and-soul piyyut opera.” That’s a pretty hefty epithet, but it sits comfortably with the creator. “There is similarity [with the operatic format],” she notes. “There is a narrative basis, there is a concept. The music is informed by a concept.”

The concept contains a desperate existential message – the ongoing destruction of our planet. “This is the story of the postmodern golem,” says Pedaya. The idea of the golem came up in the corona year. It comes from the idea of the cruel behavior in the world, and how we have become golems who have reneged and attacked our own creator. We are destroying the planet on which we live.”

The idea of the golem courses through Jewish folklore since time immemorial. It is said that Adam, the first human being, was essentially a golem, formed from dust. However, the term is normally associated with an anthropomorphic being made from inanimate material, generally clay. The most famous incarnation of the fabled being is the golem which is said to be the work of Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century rabbi of Prague. Tradition has it that, one Shabbat, the monster, which ben Bezalel created in order to protect the Jewish community from antisemitic attacks, went on a rampage before the rabbi managed to deactivate it. Should you participate in a synagogue tour in Prague your guide will, no doubt, tell you that its remains still rest in the attic of the Old New Synagogue.

The Golem on stage (credit: Courtesy)The Golem on stage (credit: Courtesy)

The Czech tale may not translate verbatim into Pedaya’s work but the dystopian message is crystal clear. “The tale [in The Golem] is based on the Garden of Eden, which is called Pardess (Orchard) in Farsi, and continues onto the story of God who creates man, man who creates the golem, the golem that rises up against its own creator, leading towards apocalypse,” Pedaya continues.

The musical substratum to the whole work feeds off the spirit and textures of Persian music, of various ilks. “There are classical passages, rhythmic parts, instrumental and vocal,” Pedaya explains.

But Pedaya has never been one for sticking to the tried and trusted mainstream pathway to artistic fruition. She always remains receptive to contemporary vibes and modes of expression, and has forged an oxymoronic mosaic of sounds that may delve into time-honored thought and culture, but also injects some more feral 21st century dynamics.

The latter is largely the brainchild of Jerusalemite electronic music composers Ruhama Carmel and Fika Magrik who push the rhythmic and textural ante up several dozen notches. Set against the more traditional fare, delivered by the likes of Iranian-born multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Amir Shahsar, Muslim Iranian-born haredi instrumentalist-vocalist Eyal Said Mani, vocal artist Victoria Hanna and percussionist Maayan Doari, the more here-and-now energy pumped out by Carmel and Magrik, complemented by composer-electronics artist Daniel Slabosky, makes for a beguiling stylistic admixture. There will also be some jazzy seasoning along the way.

The texts are in English and Farsi and, at least, judging by the English lyrics, Pedaya means ecological business. “I wrote about this in my [2008] book In the Eye of the Cat. I don’t think anyone envisaged that the world would go so far off the rails. I wrote about that, strongly, in In the Eye of the Cat but now I write about it in terms of climate disaster.” “The Golem” includes such lyrics as “we are all slaughtering slaves, we are all slaves shamelessly slaughtering.” “The words sound very powerful when they are sung in the show,” she adds. “They point a strong finger at us for the way we live and behave, our greed and lust, the pollution of our oceans.”

The inclusion of classical Persian music along with words of the 13th century and 14th century Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz, and the mores that it evokes, also lies at the core of what Pedaya is aiming to convey. “In the Book of Daniel there is a figure, in the apocalyptic prophecy there, which is made of four metaphors – clay, silver, gold and copper. That became the symbol of four kingdoms, four eras, which greatly influenced Jewish and Christian tradition.”

Therein lies much of Pedaya’s personal and artistic mindset. As the daughter of olim from Iraq who, she says, experienced the trauma of displacement from their centuries-old roots, she believes we need to reconnect with our past way of life, to an earlier less complicated, more moral and clearer-headed time, on all sorts of levels. “In my work the golem comes through in the form of the plastic and metal, and nylon bags. That’s our era, the Anthropocene era of human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.”

Pedaya feels we have much to learn from our forebears, and that delving into our past would augur well for our chances of survival. “To my mind, I see that the traditional world did not cause such damage to Earth. So there is a logical connection which means that traditional music has something to say about all this.”

Naturally, Pedaya would like her audience to leave the Rebecca Crown Hall with a thing or two to mull over. “There are Russian musicians in the show, who either came here as babies or were born here soon after their parents made aliyah, who live with that rupture. We have to think about our past, where we come from, and think about how we are living and the repercussions of our actions.”

A musical, moral and intellectual odyssey is duly ensured this Saturday evening.

For tickets and more information: http://www.confederationhouse.org/en/