Israeli Pop Singer Putting Feminist Spin on Mizrahi Liturgical Music

Rakefet Amsalem refashions the piyut.

Rami Shalev

A small newspaper ad for a course in liturgical singing changed the life of musician Rakefet Amsalem. Up to then she sang pop, rock, blues and jazz, as well as Mizrahi music on occasion. Then the two-year course, offered by Kehilot Sharot – Singing Communities, gradually exposed her to the world of piyut, liturgical music, something that was completely foreign to her before.

“Liturgical music is a man’s world,” she explains. “But the director and founder of Kehilot Sharot, Yossi Ohana, broke it open, because his courses were also open to women. Before that I didn’t know this world at all, certainly not the Mizrahi liturgical music.”

Five years ago Amsalem, 45, released her first album, “Yahad Shivtei Yisrael,” produced and mixed by her brother Oren Shahar. The material is mainly liturgical, with original adaptations of ancient melodies and texts, and there are also a few nigunim (wordless tunes).

“My soul is drawn more and more to piyut. I’m most interested in the Mizrahi side of it, that’s my personal preference,” she explains. “But when I perform, I also sing things like ‘Hashmi’ini et Kolech’, the piyut composed by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. I see it as a piyut that calls on women to make their voices heard everywhere.”

Unlike her first album, which contained traditional piyutim, for the new disk she’s working on, Amsalem composed all the piyutim herself. Last month she recorded the first single from the new album – “Little Sister,” a piyut she composed to a 13th-century text written by Rabbi Avraham Hazan of Girona. She explains that the piyut is a prayer that is sung in Sephardi synagogues.

“I came to this text a month before Rosh Hashana and when I composed my version I brought my own personal direction to it and the words took on another meaning, an additional meaning, because it was written in the feminine form and so I could connect to it in a deeper, more personal way. I wasn’t afraid to connect to the words from a feminine place, to pray to the little sister in me. Some of the text is about exile, about pain – things that I read as implying a personal and internal exile, and as a plea to end the pain and leave it behind and look forward to a better year filled with hope.”

Speaking to women

Amsalem’s feminine twist on the reading of the piyutim is not confined to the material on the new disk. She chooses to read the piyutim as coming from and speaking to women, and in the texts, beyond their religious meaning, she sees a broader, more universal one.

“Piyut has been a lesson for me, because at first I had this resistance to anything connected to religion and religious people, and suddenly I connected with something that is religious but not in the sense of do this and don’t do that,” she says. “There’s something deeper to it. Judaism has many shades. There is much in it that needs fixing, especially when it comes to women, but it still contains much that is important and fascinating. And I say: Women should use their strength. If they think there is something important here, it can be taken and renewed.”

Professor Haviva Pedaya, a poet and scholar of liturgy whose works include the book “Piyut as a Cultural Window” (Hebrew, Van Leer Institute and Hakibbutz Hameuhad), met Amsalem when the singer accepted her invitation to perform at gatherings of the Spiritual Movement for Peace that she founded. She isn’t surprised by the feminine interpretation Amsalem is giving to piyutim.

“Women are the high priestesses of life and death, and in the Eastern tradition, this status of women was preserved,” Pedaya explains. “There are traditions, such as in Cochin, where women sang in the synagogue, and in all the other traditions women were a part of the piyut and the Shabbat. That’s the way I was raised too, with the whole family singing. Today you can see how each of the female piyut singers we have, like Morin Nehedar, Ziva Atar and Rakefet all bring their unique spiritual side to it and give life to piyut.”