Singing praises

A new website is part of the renaissance of piyutim.

Forget everything you know about Jewish liturgical music: Elderly people gathered in synagogues, trying to hold onto rituals and tunes that the younger generation isn't interested in following. Think instead of renaissance: young, gifted and talented musicians, from different backgrounds, reviving ties with centuries-old traditions from the world of Oriental Jewish music, creating a new space for the revered masters of the art of the "piyutim" the traditional songs and liturgical music, based on religious texts of the synagogues. This is definitely the new trend. Young musicians, some of them from religious families and others from totally secular backgrounds, poets and singers all sharing the same love for the Sephardic Jewish music tradition, playing together, recreating the forgotten tunes. The tradition of the piyutim initially developed hundreds of years ago to augment and enhance individual and community prayer, and was sung by the cantor and the audience as part of the service. Over the years, the tradition developed to include piyutim for the holidays and life-cycle events. But the tradition was almost lost after the establishment of the State of Israel, says Haviva Pedaya from Ben-Gurion University. "The generation of the paytanim [singers of piyutim], who came here in the early 50s and 60s were almost totally wiped away upon their arrival. Their sons were ashamed of this music the use of the maqam, the Arabic tradition, was not appreciated then. The piyutim almost fell into oblivion," she explains. But Israeli society has changed and so has the attitude towards Oriental and Arabic traditional music. Much of the change originated in Jerusalem, home to so many immigrants from the eastern countries and the scene of intense mizrachi political activism. The creation of the Arabic music department at the Rubin Academy of Music a decade ago was the formal turning point for the piyutim, says Pedaya. "The music became legitimate, a matter of culture, not tied solely to religion. This made a place for young musicians." Then came a series of Shabbat afternoon projects at the Hillel Houses on three campuses. The huge numbers of people who came and enjoyed the program soon spread out to "singing communities," groups that meet once a week, in different places across the country, where people gather to listen to the old tunes and their own memories and to sing piyutim with the most famous paytanim. In Jerusalem there are two such groups, one for the advanced and one for beginners, which have been meeting regularly for over two years. Says Pedaya, "Today, there is a new attitude, a multi-cultural approach that makes a place for ancient Oriental traditions and heritages. We have gone beyond the attitude that refused the legacy of the Diaspora and left no place for any tradition whether Yiddish or Oriental. The third generation has found its way to renew its ties with the past." And perhaps, she adds, the newly growing interest in piyutim could provide an antidote "to the somewhat low and sometimes even embarrassing level of what is commonly called 'mizrahi music' here in Israel." The audience seems to grow larger each time that the piyutim are played or performed. Now they have a website, too, launched at a recent evening program with support from the Avi Chai Foundation and the Adalus Orchestra. Named "Hazmana L'piyut" (An Invitation to Piyutim), the website includes the largest collection in the world of this liturgical tradition of song and music, a tradition developed over the generations in Jewish communities world over, and especially in the east. The site contains the annotated texts of some 200 piyutim and another nearly 500 musical recordings, including some rare recordings that have never before been heard publicly. It also presents a dictionary of terms, a number of historical introductions and various academic and popular articles regarding the role of the piyut in today's culture. By the end of the year, they hope to include some 250 texts and 750 recordings. The website (www.piyutim. was launched at a recent evening program at Mishkanot Sha'ananim. The hall was full. People even sat on the stairs, yet the atmosphere was delightfully warm and gentle. And neither the audience nor the songs performed were solely Sephardic two tunes from the hassidic tradition were included, too. The evening concluded with a performance by Ehud Banai, son of the well-known Jerusalem Banai family of performers and paytanim. Today, Banai, who began his career in the world of pop, is considered a modern paytan par excellence. His song perhaps better referred to as a canticle "One Ha'agas Street" seems to embrace the whole audience under its graceful wings, taking them back to the Jerusalem of then, with its old and narrow streets, its songs and its prayers. A set of speeches introduced the performers, but the speakers kept their remarks brief, recognizing the audience wasn't interested in their words, but rather in the piyutim and their song. THE CONTENT of the website's articles is drawn from academics, including professors Haviva Pedaya, Edwin Sarussi and Meir Buzaglo; the most famous paytanim who currently perform in Jerusalem and Israel, including Moshe Havusha, Rabbi Haim Lok, David Menahem and Yehuda Ovadia Pedaya (among so many others); and the younger generation, including Yair Harel, Nitzan-Hen Razel, members of "ensemble Hayona" and "Ensemble Shaharit." Most of the members of these two groups are graduates of the Oriental Music Academy in Jerusalem. Speaking at the concert, Pedaya, heir to a well-known kabbalistic family and sister to one of the famous paytanim performing today, called the new trend "The seventy faces of Geula (redemption), which stand for the 70 Galuyot (Diaspora)." Pedaya says the website was created to answer the growing demand from people who wanted to remember or learn the traditions and out of a desire to preserve and research the field. "Since we've opened the website," she says, "not a single day has passed that we have not received at least one call from someone who has an old recording at home, something they want to share or preserve with our help. This is exactly what we hoped to achieve." Philosophy professor Meir Buzaglo from the Hebrew University is one of the initiators and founders of the project. His own father was one of the most famous paytanim of the North African tradition. Buzaglo believes that a search for a Jewish identity is motivating the interest in the piyutim. "These programs and the interest in piyutim are a way for young people to express that they are no longer willing to have a dichotomous dialogue with Judaism either you are observant or you are not, and if you are not, then you have nothing in common with your own Jewish heritage. "This is a very different approach, and it puts the meaning of 'hazara b'tshuva' ('return to religion') into a more complex dialogue with religion, tradition, Jewish identity, and finally Jewish culture. It is part of the search for spiritual identity that concerns so many young people you can see them travelling to the east, searching for spirituality." Buzaglo, who is completing a book on Judaism as a tradition and "not as a culture," he emphasizes, concludes by saying: "This goes far beyond the common use of the term, 'ethnic.' It is genuinely authentic, and not merely a matter of 'fashion,' or of being 'in.'" As contributors to the website note, the experience of piyutim seems unnatural and foreign to the Internet medium. Piyutim, the text reads, bind and condense into one creation the components of the Hebrew culture language, music, mysticism, history, exegesis, philosophy, prayer, and personal, familial and national emotion into one. An anonymous surfer defined piyutim as "The bridge that connects the soul of the individual with the soul of the nation." Buzaglo defined them as "The branch that feels comfortable to hold the dove."