Who by fire

A Piyut Festival inspired by the work of Leonard Cohen.

The Heart and Fountain concert feeds off the spirit of hassidism, with Middle Eastern seasoning. (photo credit: PR)
The Heart and Fountain concert feeds off the spirit of hassidism, with Middle Eastern seasoning.
(photo credit: PR)
Pluralism is, increasingly, the name of the religious observance game. More and more communities outside the strict confines of Orthodoxy are springing up with all sorts of ideas of how to go about conducting prayers, weddings and others acts of Jewish ritual. However, it is safe to say that not too many of the aforementioned have considered including the works of a folk-pop singer/ songwriter in their synagogue services. Then again, when the artist in question is the late iconic Jewish artist Leonard Cohen, the idea may seem a little more acceptable.
Cohen’s oeuvre serves as the substratum for one of the shows in the lineup of this year’s Piyut Festival.
The program, which will take place at Beit Avi Chai for the 10th year, September 24 to 28, under the creative aegis of artistic director Yair Harel, is a stylistically expansive affair that, as Beit Avi Chai executive director Dr. David Rozenson notes, is the result of a natural evolutionary progression that has brought liturgical material into mainstream cultural consumerism.
“A decade has passed since Beit Avi Chai created the first Piyut Festival. Over this time, we are pleased to see that we have succeeded in transforming what was once a very niche musical audience into a significant and central part of the Israeli musical world. Major Israeli musicians sing piyutim, incorporating the words and sounds into their most popular repertoire. And piyut festivals abound all across Israel. This is really a terrific development.”
The bill for next week’s festival features some big names from across a wide range of musical endeavors, such as singer/ songwriter Micha Shitreet, haredi multidisciplinary artist Shuli Rand, veteran pop megastar Shlomo Gronich, jazz bassist Omer Avital and doyen of the liturgical music community Rabbi Haim Louk. Other slots of note include offerings from acclaimed musician-musicologist Piris Elyahu, vocalist Neta Elkayam, ethno-jazz band Yemen Blues frontman Ravid Kahalani and a concert with Ethiopian liturgical material presented in Hebrew.
With such a generous spread of talent and avenues of expression on offer, perhaps the Leonard Cohen-liturgy confluence seems less surprising. Avi Cohen certainly has no qualms about proffering Cohen’s lyrics and music at the festival. Actor-vocalist Cohen will join forces with a stellar instrumentalist-vocalist lineup, including veteran bass guitarist Yankeleh Segal, percussionist Roni Ivrin, guitarist Shlomo Oz, cellist Yehonatan Niv and singer Bat Chen Edri, in the “Broken Prayer” tribute to the Canadian troubadour, who died last year at the age of 82.
Cohen was a frequent visitor to these shores and his shows always generated much excitement and, naturally, commensurate ticket sales. He also did his best to support us in our times of trial and came here in 1973, to lift our brave troops’ spirits during the Yom Kippur War. That was not only a spiritually rewarding experience for all parties concerned, but it also begat one of Cohen’s best-known numbers, which is also on the “Broken Prayer” roster – “Who By Fire.” Cohen et al.will perform the song in English and Hebrew, with Cohen adding a brief tale about how the song came to be.
“He was very small, about five years old. It was on Yom Kippur, and Leonard was at the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue in Montreal, which his grandfather built, and he heard Unetaneh Tokef,” Cohen explains, referring to the prayer that serves as one of the pinnacles of the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services.
“That was a powerful experience for him.”
That childhood memory was resurrected many years later, during the Canadian’s wartime foray here, which eventually fueled the writing of “Who By Fire.” The “Broken Prayer” rendition takes the original score and adds some Middle Eastern seasoning – primarily through Oz’s silky finger work – in the bridge.
The Israeli Cohen first encountered the Canadian’s work as a child.
“My older sisters listened to his records, so I heard them when I was about 12 – before I held a guitar in my hands, and before my voice broke.” There is no arguing about the advent of the latter and, today, Cohen’s voice tends towards the bass end of the musical register. That also suits his famous namesake’s singular gravelly vocal delivery.
The Israeli also imbibed liturgical sounds and sentiments as a youngster at the synagogue his observant family attended. Later, Cohen opted for a secular lifestyle and it was some time before he was drawn back to the sacred texts and scores.
“I came back to the world of piyut through working with the [Ben-Zvi Institute Piyut] ensemble, after many years when it was very alien to me,” he says.
“And now at the Piyut Festival, of all places, I have an opportunity to do an evening of Leonard Cohen.”
That, says Cohen, is a neat merger and one that might not have materialized in years gone by.
“The Piyut Festival has been around for many years now. I think that, maybe, we needed that passage of time to arrive at a crystallized definition of what piyut actually is, to establish something there [at Beit Avi Chai].”
He adds that the word has gotten out and about.
“I think this festival is ‘to blame’ for at least part of the revival of piyut music. They have shaken up the whole perception of what piyut is. As soon as you air out the definition of piyut, one of the first writers of prayers or piyut is Leonard Cohen.”
Cohen finds a poignant passage from Sylvie Simmons’s incisive 2012 biography of the feted troubadour, I’m Your Man, which succinctly conveys the Canadian’s Jewish roots side.
“Sometime around the 1980s Leonard Cohen published a poetry book called Book of Mercy. It is a special book. There was a rabbi who was in touch with him – Rabbi Mordecai Finley [of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Los Angeles] – who said that Leonard Cohen’s poems had something of a prayer element to them,” says Cohen, adding from the biography: ‘Were you at all conscious of that? Something like a prayer?’ And Leonard said: ‘That’s what I thought I was always writing – prayers.’ In other words, if you bring something from the heart, from something you are at one with, you get to some deeper place.”
Finley identified an element in Leonard Cohen’s work that made “Broken Prayer” a shoo-in for this year’s Beit Avi Chai event.
“Finley says Leonard Cohen’s writing arouses a sense of paytanut [liturgical poetry and song], that it has something rhythmic and bypasses the brain and goes straight into us.”
Finley was clearly taken with Cohen’s poetry and saw his work as just as sacred as the regular texts recited in synagogues around the world. Avi Cohen reads on from the biography: “The rabbi [Finley] says, ‘In Judaism there is a tradition of paytanut whereby great Jews wrote poetry which was subsequently integrated into prayer books. They didn’t aim to write prayers, and I think that, at the end of the day, Leonard Cohen is the greatest living prayer writer today. I recite his songs from Book of Mercy in my synagogue during the Days of Awe. I think Book of Mercy should be part of the siddur [prayer book].’ That’s quite a statement.”
It certainly is, and one that Cohen and the rest of the band will amplify at Beit Avi Chai on September 27 (10 p.m.).
For tickets and more information about the Piyut Festival: (02) 621-5300 and www.bac.org.il