Center Field: People prefer pious piyutim to pitchfork politics

It was that kind of evening.

Slichot at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, September 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Slichot at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, September 2018
Last Saturday night, I attended the strangest rock concert. There was no cursing, no objectification of women, no strutting, no gyrating, no boorishness. There was no anger, no nihilism, no despair. God-talk and lovely values of fellowship and faith infused every song – most of which were traditional prayers pulsating with modern melodies.
This wasn’t Christian rock or the Yeshiva Boys Choir. This sold-out concert featured some of Israel’s top pop stars at Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool, framed by the Old City’s walls. Six thousand Israelis attended, religious and non-religious, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, young and old.
Welcome to slihot, Jerusalem-style. Three days before Yom Kippur, David D’Or – the first Israeli singer to sing in Hebrew before the Pope – and Jackie Levy – Israel’s world-class talker-teacher – shared the stage with a half-dozen stars. They produced an inspiring, spiritual evening, exposing the real Israel beyond the headlines.
These days, pitchfork politics defines us. We appear divided, paralyzed, mean. Instead, the piyutim – pious poems – Israel’s peoplehood-people sang unleashed our famous sabra sweetness, proving that we’re more united than most people believe. Our culture, tradition and values bind us, not just our enemies and our headaches.
Mizrahim recite slihot with numerous piyutim, daily, starting four weeks before Rosh Hashanah. The army offers Mizrahi soldiers an extra hour and 40 minutes every morning for these supplications. Ashkenazim sing fewer pleas, starting just days before the new year. While more central to Mizrahi culture, slihot are now part of mainstream Israeli music, lore and ritual-practice.
Jackie Levy’s amusing jokes assumed the mostly bareheaded attendees were Jewish literate – they were. Representing a politically incorrect culture that respects the dignity of difference enough to lovingly mock distinct backgrounds, Levy noted that Moroccan synagogues put dead-honorees’ names on everything – from floorboards to fans. Adapting this loosely for English, he recalled fuming as a six-year-old that the fixture above his family’s seats called some dead person “an ass.” Suddenly, after a growth spurt, Jackie saw that the fixture’s other side read: “et to our community” – making ass… asset! He warned: before condemning, try seeing the other side, while judging everyone generously from the grandest heights possible.
It was that kind of evening.
CALLING DAVID D’Or, a “singer” is like calling champagne a “liquid.” D’Or’s honeyed, celestial voice launched us toward the heavens. Once roasted as Israel’s famous falsetto, he didn’t strike one inauthentic note – while demonstrating astonishing range, vocally, musically, religiously, existentially. Dressed in early hip-hop hassid, with a baseball cap covering his head and multiple fringes drooping from a white shirt with a black vest, D’Or embodied inclusivity with a backbone. He and some famous buddies sang entertaining, entrancing, and enriching songs, culminating in an amazing medley of the slihot penitential prayers.
Rejecting sourness and schisms D’Or proclaimed: it’s “zman ahava,” time to love. Fusing traditional Judaism with cutting-edge Israeliness, he sang his signature song, “Shmor al haOlam yeled,” (“Child, preserve the world”), and “Pitach libcha,” (“Open your heart”), his haunting elegy immortalizing the three kidnapped teens from 2014. They “taught a nation exhausted by inner-hatred to unite in a familial hug.”
That was the evening’s profound message: you couldn’t hear these infectious melodies and uplifting words, sung by such electric entertainers, without joining in. As we all “anneinu-ed” – answer us – we felt the togetherness these cultural-religious celebrities strengthened – and Israel’s politicians sabotage.
Slihot has become a seasonal phenomenon. Hundreds of thousands pour into the Holy City for these lengthy prayers – at the Western Wall and elsewhere, creating mass midnight traffic jams. Jackie Levy joked that a few Jerusalemites used to wake up crazy early before Yom Kippur to recite these soulful, tuneful prayers. Today, busloads follow that same handful, watching, then inevitably participating.
Israeli politics – and the Diaspora Jewish conversation about it – still pivots around binaries, like religious versus secular. The wire-crossing liturgical legionnaires represent the new normal, what Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs call “Jewsraelis,” in their path-breaking #IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution. With 97% of Israeli Jews attending Rosh Hashanah dinner and 74% fasting or only drinking water on Yom Kippur, let’s retire that s-word “secular.” I call them P-squareds – Peoplehood People.
There are so many signs of these P-squareds – and the Jewish connective tissue that makes Israel far more functional than reporters admit. Note the holiday season jumps in apple, Etrog and antacid sales. Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearings offered another classic Israeli touch. Some prosecutors and defense attorneys observed the Tzom Gedalia fast day – then took a sunset break during the marathon first day, to break their fast together, on falafel.
Few American Jews encounter these tidbits because most don’t speak Hebrew. I read about the falafel summit in Yediot Aharanot, the Hebrew tabloid. In his fabulous new book, Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes, my friend Jeremy Benstein warns that being the rare community in Jewish history – lacking a unique Jewish language – condemns most American Jews to remain “tourists,” not “locals,” in what should be their defining “cultural or spiritual” identity.
In humans, dense connective tissue links bones together at joints – precisely where they might split. Healthy societies need dense connective tissue transcending our ethnic, political, regional divides. Speaking Hebrew, embracing our traditions, knowing our history, singing together, strengthens our invisible but essential Jewish ties.
Within Israel and within the Jewish world, may this new year multiply our often-overlooked connective tissues, strengthening our joints – where more prominent forces threaten to tear us apart.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.