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Israel is singing

The pulse of Israel beats in the rejuvenated musical tradition of prayer poems, an ingathering of hip-hop, devotional music, the Yom Kippur service, and clapping for unity
The Firqat Alnoor Orchestra, on the Piyyut Festival's program, October, 2019. (Screenshot)
The Firqat Alnoor Orchestra, on the Piyyut Festival's program, October, 2019. (Screenshot)

Israel is preparing for Yom Kippur through song.

The annual Piyyut Festival, celebrating the musical tradition of prayer poems of the Jews of the East, opened last night in the courtyard of the National Library on the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus.

If you aren’t paying attention, you are missing the soundtrack of contemporary Israel. The spiritual revolution is being led by Mizrahim, but is penetrating throughout Israeli society. This is music at its most generous, most embracing. All of Israel seemed to be there last night – secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, and also Muslims and Druze.

The piyyut phenomenon has come of age.

The first stage was retrieval: gathering the nearly forgotten songs discarded by modern Israel and bringing together the great paytanim like Rabi Chaim Louk, with the leading artists of Israeli rock.

In the second stage, those musicians adapted their own musical language to the traditional prayers — beginning around a decade ago with two extraordinary albums, Berry Sakharoff’s “Ibn Gvirol” and Meir Banai’s “Shma Koleinu,” (hear our voice).

In the third stage, Israeli musicians began creating not only a contemporary Israeli sound for piyyut, but writing their own prayers. They included Shai Tsabari, Evyatar Banai, Narkiss, Morin Nehedar, Shuli Rand, Etti Ankri — among our very best.

And now we are in the stage of ingathering. Piyyut has become not just part of the Israeli musical mainstream but the basis for the most creative and original expressions of indigenous Israeli music — the meeting point of east and west, religious and secular, even Jewish and Muslim.

The location of the festival — the National Library, repository of Israel’s cultural treasures and national identity — was itself an indication of how far piyyut has traveled in its journey from periphery to the heart of Israeli consensus.

That ingathering was on full display on stage — beginning with the extraordinary Firqat Alnoor Orchestra, led by a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jew and bringing together men and women from across the faiths to play Jewish and Muslim devotional music.

Then there was Hadag Nachash, Israel’s great hip-hop band, symbol of leftwing secular Israel but joyfully embracing – and being embraced by — the spirit of piyyut. The Firqat Alnoor Orchestra performed an Arabic style version of the band’s Sticker Song, a riff on all the vehement political slogans of left and right (and written for the band by Israeli novelist David Grossman), which converge into a single entwined passionate cry.

Shaanan Street of Hadag Nachash sang a hip hop version of an Ashkenazi melody to the prayer, “Who is like You, Adonai” which led effortlessly into the closing prayer of the Mizrahi Yom Kippur Service, “El Norah Alila:” “God of awe, God of might/pardon us in this final hour/before the closing of the gate.”

Shai Tsabari noted that, while the politicians speak about national unity, we can bring together right and left by clapping – that is, joining our right side and our left side. And so we clapped along with him as he sang, Hamelekh, The King — “O King, bring us into Your inner chamber” — a song that sounds as if it were written by a 16th century Yemenite paytan but was in fact written by Shai.

And there was Narkiss, one of the great voices to emerge here in recent years. Narkiss embodies many of Israel’s cultural contradictions: She grew up in a family that was evacuated from a Gaza settlement in 2005, became part of Tel Aviv bohemia, then became Haredi and is now trying to find her own unique devotional voice. Narkiss sang “Aneini,” Answer Me: “Master of all created beings, answer me. I am pouring out my cries before You.”

Afterward, I ran into Yair Harel, master impresario not only of the festival, but of the piyyut transition from periphery to essence of contemporary Israeli music. Yair said, “We should bring all 120 Knesset members here and let them understand who the people of Israel are and what we really want. Look around: Everyone is here, together. This is Israel.”

This phenomenon isn’t only of significance to Jews in Israel, but to Jews everywhere.

Pre-state Zionist music, followed by popular Israeli music in its formative years, was the carrier of the ethos of the “new Hebrew man,” divorced from 2,000 years of Diaspora life. By contrast, the new Israeli music, inspired by piyyut, is the carrier of the re-Judaization of Israeli culture. The implicit message of the old Israeli music to Diaspora Jews was: this does not belong to you, only to those who live here. The message of the new Israeli music is exactly the opposite.

This is the soundtrack for a new covenant between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, for a shared responsibility for the future of Judaism and the Jewish people world-wide.

The revolution is here, and it is playing live from Jerusalem.

About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.
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