Orthodox, secular Jews keep ancient poems alive in singing groups across Israel
If the piyyutim are so ancient, and are shared by Jews from many cultures, how come the piyyut is now a species in danger of extinction?
There is a musical genre that exists in the twilight zone between the sacred and the secular, sung by both religious people and total atheists, by men as well as women. Its words are similar to prayer but are not prayer. It is not sung by professional singers, because it does not belong to the popular and commercial world, nor is it sung by cantors, because it is not limited to the world of the synagogue. Its text is poetic and uses high Hebrew, but this text has no right to exist without the melody. And the opposite is also true - its music, with its complex melodic and scalar structure and, frequently, exalted beauty, is meaningless without the words.
And another wonder: Here, it is permissible to adapt a new text to the lovely melody, and also various melodies are often adapted to the same text. In this genre there are ancient thousand-year-old works, as well as new ones. In order to sing them well you have to study for many years, and at the same time their validity does not come from expert performers but from the works' acceptance by the audience because, in spite of their complexity, they effectively belong to the audience, whose members learn them from one another, without notes and without recordings. And the experts, who are called paytanim, know how to improvise on the audience's melodies, to adorn them, to trill them freely, but the basic notes are set and precise, and if anyone makes a mistake another singer will immediately correct him.
This highly contradictory genre is the piyyut, or liturgical poem. The popular Hanukkah song "Maoz Tzur," for example, is a piyyut, as is "Ha Lahma Anya" from the Passover Haggadah, and "Dror Yikra," one of the songs sung at the Shabbat table. These familiar piyyutim, and others less familiar, are context-specific and are usually sung on special occasions, a holiday or Shabbat or a life-cycle ceremony - a birth, a wedding, a lamentation on the death of a loved one. And in addition, many piyyutim cross boundaries of ethnic group and origin, and their texts are shared by Jews from the East and the West.
The piyyut "Yedid Nefesh," for example, as Meir Buzaglo explains on the Hazmanah Lepiyut website (Invitation to a Piyyut - www.piyut.org.il ), was sung by Jews in India, Morocco, Aleppo (in Syria ), Babylon (Iraq ), Yemen, Ashkenaz (France-Germany ) and Georgia, although in each of these places the same words were sung to totally different melodies. And that reflects another important trait of the piyyut - its music is the product of a connection between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in the countries where they lived.
But if the piyyutim are so ancient, and are shared by Jews from many cultures, how come the piyyut is now a species in danger of extinction? Because only isolated islands of memory are preserving it in the State of Israel, and the piyyutim that remain in the general repertoire are isolated examples from among thousands. Hundreds of people gather every week, in 10 groups all over the country, to study piyyutim from experts, as part of a unique movement called Kehilot Sharot (Singing Communities ).
The study groups reflect a new eagerness to discover piyyutim - the eagerness of the second generation of immigrants, which is beginning to discover its musical and cultural origins, forgotten because of the changing world and the natural tendency of young people to turn their backs on their parents' values, which are seen as old-fashioned. But mainly because piyyutim were deliberately consigned to oblivion. They were plowed over by the ideology of the melting pot in the early days of the state, an ideology that despite its name did not melt the various origins into one, new, all-encompassing Israeli musical culture, but preferred certain cultures over others.
The magic paytan
Neveh Yisrael neighborhood, Herzliya. A slight sense of panic begins to creep into my heart when paytan Maimon Cohen starts to sing, as he presents the veteran group - who have been in Kehilot Sharot for six years - with the piyyut they are about to learn, "Ashir Lach, Eretz Hemda" (I Will Sing to You, Land of Delight ). I join the group this evening knowing there is no chance that I will manage to learn such a complex work. The piyyut is composed entirely of irregular rhythms, asymmetrical lines, sharply changing melodic themes and sudden flights to the heights. I'm scared stiff.
I look around me. If I, with years of experience in choral singing, learning sight reading, developing a musical ear, writing melodies and harmonies, don't manage to learn this piyyut, how will the people around me, not professional musicians, do so? But I'm wrong. Ten minutes, maybe 15 - that's how long it takes Cohen to teach us the piyyut. And learning with Cohen means an encounter with a teacher who is a real magician, a paytan with a voice of unparalleled beauty, a personality overflowing with humor and wisdom and knowledge, which illuminate the piyyut with fascinating insights.
At a more advanced stage of the lesson, Cohen dwells on the proper way to sing the words - softly, flowingly, listening to the music and without insisting on precise pronunciation. "I'll sing you the origin of this piyyut, in Arabic, so you'll get an impression of the music flow," he says, and suddenly it seems as though the small room in the Herzliya community center is flying to a Morocco of another time. Cohen, accompanying himself on a drum, sings this piyyut - which was written by Rabbi Yitzhak Rosh, and is about longing for the Land of Israel - in Moroccan Arabic, and it turns out to be the lamentation of a father on the death of his daughter, a song that is very sad and at the same time a musical paradise. Several of those present, themselves natives of Morocco, join in quiet humming.
Poetry for the soul
Barnea neighborhood, Ashkelon. The evening is festive and unique - it's the first gathering of a new Kehilot Sharot group. The evening begins with brief and warm words by Yossi Ohana, the founder and director of the movement, who has come to participate in the new group's launch and to sing with everyone. Those present introduce themselves, and the cross-section of people is typical of the movement's groups - men and women, secular and religious, with origins in Morocco and Yemen, Ashkenaz and Babylon; people from a wide age range who have come to learn piyyutim out of a longing for the tradition on which they grew up, or with the curiosity of someone who once heard a piyyut and was entranced by its beauty and spiritual depth, or out of a desire to understand a forgotten culture more thoroughly.
The paytan is Rachamim Zini, who will teach the piyyut "Yayin Tov Ratov" (Good Wet Wine ) from Algerian Jewish tradition. Zini was born in Algiers, the capital city, his father was the last chief rabbi of Algeria. He explains that in Algeria there were Jews until 1962, and as early as 1870 they received French citizenship. The French occupation influenced Jewish culture to the point of assimilation, says Zini, and to illustrate his words he sings the piyyut "Mi Zot Olah," first in the French-influenced version, in measured, tonal music, rhythmically regular and square, and afterward in the original, which is ornamented, improvised, "with a lot of soul," as he puts it.
Zini is a computer engineer by profession, and a paytan for his soul. And he started early - at the age of 4 his parents heard him, to their horror, humming the melody of a piyyut he had heard at a funeral of all places.
We start learning. After an instrumental opening by the group's leader, violinist Elad Levy, a member of the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra in Ashdod and a student of the late Yeshua Azulay, Zini gives a beautiful rendition of "Yayin Tov Ratov," and begins to teach it. This is a piyyut for Shavuot and Simhat Torah, a love song which is transformed into the love of God, and it includes praises in the style of the Song of Songs and a call to give the beloved good wine to drink in order to arouse his emotions - with the nation's love for Torah compared to young love.
Singing the Hanukkah miracle
Yad Eliyahu neighborhood, Tel Aviv. This evening, the veteran Tel Aviv group is waiting for musician Abate Barihun, who will teach piyyutim from Ethiopian Jewish tradition. But Barihun is ill, presenting an opportunity to practice several piyyutim that were learned in the past. One member, accompanying himself on the oud, dedicates the evening to piyyutim from the Tunisian tradition, and thereby in one week completes for me a cycle of "piyyutei ha'emet," as Zini had called the tradition of Algeria-Morocco-Tunisia the evening before, "emet" being the Hebrew acronym for "Algeria-Morocco-Tunisia."
As in all the communities, here too a table full of delicacies awaits the participants at the 9:30 P.M. break - hot and cold drinks, generous quantities of homemade baked goods prepared by the singing students. The first part of the meeting is dedicated to the piyyut "Yareach Yakar" (Dear Moon ) by Rabbi Yitzhak Farji Shawat, and the second to a modern piyyut that tells the story of the miracle of Hanukkah. Rabbi David Buzaglo, "Shofar Hashofarot" as the greatest of the Moroccan paytanim in the past century was dubbed, wrote this rhythmic piyyut, which is a melodic and rhythmic celebration, with very imaginative rhymes.
At a certain moment an argument begins about the version being played. A female participant who is a native of the island of Djerba is familiar with the melody with slight changes, and is incapable of singing differently, and two other participants who are natives of Meknes, Morocco, present it in the original Arabic version.
And at home, reviewing the piyyutim I have learned - with the help of the Hazmanah Lepiyut website, which is a treasury of recordings and articles - is like a meeting with an old acquaintance, a living and breathing creature with a character of his own, a dear friend who has been acquired for eternity.