Ode to a woman

Maureen Nehedar, the first female performer of liturgical music, is running a workshop in Tel Aviv.

Maureen Nehedar (photo credit: ORIT PNINI)
Maureen Nehedar
(photo credit: ORIT PNINI)
Ever wondered what piyutim are all about? Ever considered a wee-hour saunter over to a synagogue in, say, Jerusalem’s Nahlaot district, to catch a liturgical singsong session? If that is the case, wonder no more, and just get yourself over to the Beit Daniel Center for Progressive Judaism in north Tel Aviv for a workshop series of eight weekly sessions that began this Tuesday.
The weekly meets are being presided over by 36-year-old Maureen Nehedar, a leading expert in Persian liturgical music and pioneer female performer of the traditional material. Last August, Nehedar released an album with the somewhat cumbersome but highly pictorial title of Asleep in the Bosom of Childhood. It caused quite a stir in and around the world and ethnic music sector, and did well in record sales.
She has been appearing all over the country with a show based on the album, which will culminate with a concert at Jerusalem’s Confederation House on July 2.
Nehedar has been in the piyutim business for quite some time; you could almost say her entire life. Born in Iran, she made aliya with her family as a small child, when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Persian liturgical music has been a constant in her life since the word go, so it was natural for Nehedar to become the country’s first paytanit, or female performer of the synagogue-rooted material.
“Quite a few women have followed in my footsteps – it seems I kick-started something – and, at the end of the day, I am very happy about that,” she enthuses.
Considering the traditional male dominance of the sector, has Nehedar had to withstand any criticism or, at the very least, discouraging – if not disparaging – responses to her musical pursuit? “Not really,” she discloses.
“Yes, people have asked me if the religious have looked on what I do in a negative way, but I have to say that I have received a lot of positive feedback.”
Nehedar says it is the most natural thing in the world for her to sing piyutim. “I always heard piyutim as a child, but I didn’t really know what it was called; it was just there. I never really set out to become the first paytanit, or be some kind of flag-bearer. It just happened naturally.”
She really got into the material while a student at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance of the Hebrew University, and decided to do a doctoral thesis based on Persian Jewish music under the aegis of musicology professor and director of the university’s Jewish Music Research Center Edwin Seroussi. It quickly transpired that if Nehedar was going to make serious headway in the field, she would have to put in the footwork.
“Edwin told me that I had all the requisite attributes for doing the thesis, but he warned me that there was very little written material and few historical records of the music.”
Nehedar duly rolled up her sleeves and got her nose to the grindstone. “I soon realized that I would have to get out there into the streets, go from house to house to speak to people, and collect the material.”
The PhD eventually fell by the wayside, but her research endeavor gathered apace. “I thought to myself that I would never get the thesis done, and felt that what I really wanted to do was to be a singer. I wasn’t formally doing a PhD, but every time I met someone who could tell me something about the history of Persian piyutim, I’d make a mental note of it and accumulate information.”
The initial upshot of that street-level exploratory work was a show Nehedar launched in 2008. “It was the first time anyone had done anything like that – a show based on ancient piyutim of Persian Jewry,” she notes, adding that it was not just about reviving and preserving traditional fare, but also very much about bringing it into the here and now. “I wasn’t interested in just learning the material and reproducing it in parrot fashion. I also wanted to see where I came into the picture, how I brought my own voice and baggage into it.”
That involved adding new strands to the traditional material, including incorporating non-traditional instruments such as electric guitar and even harmonies, which are really extraneous to Persian music. “I also composed new material, but I adhered to very strict guidelines that I set for myself, to stick to the Persian musical framework and scales. I allow myself to play around with the material and even introduce new arrangements, but I don’t change the fundamentals.”
It proved to be a good route to travel. “[Haaretz music critic] Ben Shalev said that the works I wrote were genius, and I got all sorts of amazing responses. This music is a way of life for me, and I wanted to make it accessible to the general public.”
That is just what Nehedar has set out to do with the current Beit Daniel workshop series, which will run until July 28. “There are basically two categories of piyutim,” she explains, “piyutim that are sung on religious holidays, and piyutim that mark life-cycle events like bar mitzvas and that sort of thing.
“The piyutim for the religious holidays are sung as is, with no changes, but you can adapt the other kind, personalize the piyutim and even add individually tailored stanzas. The Yemenites do that, too.”
Nehedar may be pushing the boat out somewhat, but she has certainly paid her dues. “I have been singing in public since I was 18, to the older generations who were really hard-core, and that was while I studied at the academy. It was sort of living in two worlds at the same time. I can say, with a sense of pride, that I was among the pioneers of world music in Israel, and then I helped to lead the way with piyutim. I am glad there is so much interest in piyutim now.”
Nehedar has clearly contributed to the increase in popularity of Persian liturgical material, not least through her CD. “I tried to create a new sound for each song on the album,” she reveals. “I think I managed that.”
That experience should stand her in good stead and, no doubt, help to keep the patrons on board throughout the workshop series.
For more information: (03) 544-2740 and www.beit-daniel.org.il/