Sounds of the forest

Olga Avigail and Avishai Fisch’s show at Jerusalem’s Piyut Festival is influenced by hassidic music and Polish strains.

Jerusalem’s Piyut Festival (photo credit: HILA GUTREIMAN)
Jerusalem’s Piyut Festival
(photo credit: HILA GUTREIMAN)
It is probably safe to say that most of us believe that the large Jewish community of pre-World War II Poland resided exclusively in the cities and large towns across the country, as well as in shtetls.
However, according to Olga Avigail, there’s more to it than that.
“The Jews also lived in villages, alongside the non-Jewish Poles,” she says. “They lived together side by side.”
That physical juxtaposition also generated some interesting musical cross-fertilization, some examples of which we will be able to enjoy on September 30 as part of the seventh annual Piyut Festival, which will take place at Beit Avi Chai from September 29 to October 2.
Avigail’s show is called Kol Baya’ar (A Voice in the Forest), in which the Polish-born Jerusalemite singer and accordionist will join forces with singer-actor Avishai Fisch. The name alludes to the custom of hassidim taking off for bucolic excursions with the purpose of communing with nature and achieving a higher plane of spiritual awareness through silent devotion and song.
Avigail says that music has long been an effective source of communication and harmonious coexistence for Jews and Poles in other areas of musical endeavor as well.
“In the 1930s and 1940s, there were Jewish Polish composers and musicians who came to Palestine and started the cabaret scene here,” she explains.
“There was, for example, [musical theater] Li La Lo, who were inspired by cabaret groups from Warsaw.”
Li La Lo operated from 1944 to 1948, with the lyrics for 19 out of the theater’s 26 productions written by Natan Alterman, with Warsaw-born composer Moshe Wilensky writing many of the hit numbers. Alterman, too, was born in Warsaw, and came to Palestine at age 15.
As the hassidic movement began in the region of Galicia, which today straddles the Polish-Ukrainian border, hence hassidic music contains elements of both cultures and was influenced by them over the years.
Avigail notes that the Kol Baya’ar project was largely inspired by a book written by Polish-born Yosef Opatoshu, titled In Poylishe Velder (In a Polish Forest), about Jews who lived in villages together with gentile farming folk. Opatoshu, who came from a hassidic family, moved to New York as a young man.
Interestingly, Avigail notes that much of the hassidic repertoire she performs, which will feature in her Piyut Festival show, borrows from non-Jewish Polish material.
“The non-Jewish culture had a lot of influence on the Jewish community because the Jews felt there were some holy sparks in the secular Polish music, and they often used the Polish tunes and changed the lyrics and used some metaphors that were similar for both cultures. It might be a song about a father looking for his children in the forest, and that could be a metaphor for God taking care of us,” she explains.
Avigail is living contemporary proof of the power of music to bridge cultural gaps and to move people to taking a greater interest in seemingly extraneous themes. She made aliya just over a year ago, but prior to that she traveled between Poland and Israel for quite a few years.
She was born Christian but was drawn to Judaism through music.
“I was staying in Ein Kerem, and someone suggested that I attend a service at a local synagogue,” she recalls.
“It was a mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi community, and I heard them singing ‘Yedid Nefesh,’ and that really moved me. That was really the beginning of my conversion to Judaism. I think that drew out the holy sparks, the Jewish sparks inside me. Some people believe there are Jewish sparks in gentile music, and if you peel away the outer layers you get to that.”
Avigail’s spiritual-musical epiphany in Ein Kerem also led her to making the instrumental transition from piano to accordion.
“I wanted to play something that would allow me to sing and move around at the same time,” she explains.
While Kol Baya’ar feeds off a hassidic repertoire, it will do so through a varied sonic prism. Fisch is a multi-talented performer who is capable of a wide-ranging vocal delivery, from falsetto operatic expression to vocals that sound like they come straight from the depths of the shtetl heartland, with an abundance of humorous asides and rough and ready Ukrainian white voice singing.
The cross-border musical incursions also lead to a linguistic mix.
“There are what you call macaronic songs, which have two languages – it could be Yiddish and Ukrainian, or Yiddish and Polish, and sometimes with Hebrew, too,” says Avigail. “We will also perform macaronic songs in the Piyut Festival concert.”
The musical-cultural span stretches far and wide, and the Kol Baya’ar lineup also takes in old meditative songs sung by righteous Jewish men, raucous and comic hassidic drinking numbers, non-Jewish folk songs that were absorbed into Jewish culture, non-Jewish tunes with hassidic lyrics and songs that feed off the interface between Hebrew piyutim and Yiddish folk songs.
Avigail and Fisch will be joined on stage at Beit Avi Chai by young Polish tsimbl player Marta Maslanka.
“It is an instrument that is very important for Jewish klezmer music of Eastern Europe,” says Avigail. “It is now almost forgotten and almost unknown in Israel. There is something magical in the sound of the instrument. It really moves people.”
In addition to providing vocals, Fisch will also play flute, violin and piano.
Avigail is hopeful that her show will move her audience and enlighten them about the various strands of song and melody that came from Galicia of yore and in the region over the centuries.
Elsewhere on the Piyut Festival roster there are enticing offerings from Shai Tzabari, Shuli Rand, Aviv Gedge, Rivka Zohar, Mark Elyahu and the Andalusian Orchestra Ashkelon with rock band Knesiyat Hasechel.
There will also be guided walking tours of Nahlaot and Mahaneh Yehuda, as well as slihot tours of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
For tickets and more information: (02) 621-5900 and