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Listen to her voice

Yossi Klein Halevi credited so many marginalized figures coming to the fore in the piyut revival movement, yet he forgot a key population: the women
Ahuva Ozeri and her bulbul tarag. (courtesy,  Ilan Bessor, Haaretz)
Ahuva Ozeri and her bulbul tarag. (courtesy, Ilan Bessor, Haaretz)

On a breezy night between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I attended the opening of the BeSod Kolot Rabim Piyut Festival. Unbeknownst to me, sitting nearby in the crowd gathered in the courtyard of the National Library of Israel was also Yossi Klein Halevi, who wrote powerfully about the magical night. In his article, Klein Halevi seized the opportunity to layout the way the Piyut revolution in Israel has come to maturity and found a place in mainstream Israeli culture. His article was geared towards an English speaking audience — for many of whom the cultures of the Magreb and Misrak are utterly foreign.

While showing how Mizrahi music had been marginalized in the early years of the state and is still overlooked by many Diaspora Jewish communities, Klein Halevi himself has overlooked several key players in this movement: women.  He does foreground Narkis, who performed at the event and mention Etty Ankri and Maureen Nehadar, but there are several artists whose contributions were, and still are, critical to the movement who are noticeably absent from the piece.

Most strikingly, Klein Halevi mentions Shai Tsabari’s “Hamelekh” as an example of  “a song that sounds as if it were written by a 16th century Yemenite paytan but was in fact written by Shai.” While Shai did write the incredible music that was responsible for the popular success of the song, the lyrics are actually a poem written by a current feminist Kabbalah scholar and activist Haviva Pedaya. And Pedaya’s poetry makes a conscious feminist statement.

Piyutim in the Kabbalistic tradition are often written from the perspective of the female partner who pines for the male partner, the king, God. Traditional piyutim, and indeed the Kabblistic world were constructed by men, and therefore, ironically, the role of “female” in this scenario is actually played by the male Kabbalist. This leaves the embodied female, that is actual women, completely out of this cosmic spiritual equation.  On this backdrop, Pedaya is making a choice to reinstate herself as an actual woman into the piyut and kabbalistic tradition, as a scholar artist and spiritual practitioner. When Pedaya writes as a woman, she breathes new (and subversive) life into the sexual religious imagery of 16th century Kabbalists.

Moreover, Pedaya’s message is theologically radical in ways that are not directly related to feminism. The theological core of the song is articulated in one of its central lines: “For many days I have gazed/ But I’ve seen nothing; I’ve promised not to peek/ [a promise] easy for me to keep.” Here Pedaya turns classical mystical theology on its head.  In earlier mystical tradition the mystic is in pursuit of knowledge and intimacy that is barred from him. There is an attempt to break through cosmic boundaries to touch a concrete but elusive deity. Pedaya knows that in the modern era this is a bit of a bluff. We play a sort of game where we pine, where we try to look, but we also don’t really believe that we can actually see. Pining for the king now is inherently different than pining in the 16th century and Pedaya’s words masterfully hint at this tension. We are still yearning, but it is not so much for the hidden God to be revealed,  as it is a for the lost faith that there is anything to look at.

Haviva Pedaya is not alone. There are other women, poet Bakol Serloui, for instance, who have made similar artistic and theological moves recently. Serloui’s words opened another piyut festival a couple of years ago where they too were performed beautifully by Shai and the Adumei haSfatot Ensemble.  Maureen Nehedar, mentioned above, has almost single-handedly saved the Persian piyut tradition from near extinction and Neta Elkayam has brought the Moroccan music of her foremothers and fathers to center stage. These are only a few examples, there are still more women to be revealed if we continue to pull away the curtain. 

The rap ensemble HaDag Nachash also appeared at the BeSod Kolot Rabim Piyut Festival.  As Klein Halevi wrote, they performed their famous “Sticker Song”—known for its fantastic beat and lyrics comprised of actual bumper stickers that perfectly captured the charged political climate of the early 2000s; on this occasion, they performed an “Arabic style version.”  In its original manifestation, this song was created and performed along with Ahuva Ozeri and her famous bulbul tarang (an Indian instrument that she learned to play from superstar Ravi Shankar.)  In fact, Ozeri’s contribution to the cultural process that Klein Halevi has described is significant and in this column at least, completely overlooked.

Ahuva Ozeri who died a few years ago was known by some close to her as the Queen Mother of Mizrachi music. Her first wave of productivity in the 1970s was melancholy, her most famous song was  Hayhan haHayal Sheli “Where is my Soldier” a popular song that conveyed the painful emotional toll that the Yom Kippur war took. The tone was inspired by Ahuva’s childhood career as a mekonenet, a professional mourner, a position traditionally held by women in the Yemenite community, which dates back to biblical times. Ahuva wrote the song about a neighborhood friend who went missing during the war;  her personal longing gave voice to the country’s pain, of those left at home, of daughters and mothers and friends. The song made national mourning deeply personal and changed the way Israelis were “allowed” to express loss.

Her song Imi Imi, Mother Mother, is also a painful prayer of longing and loss and Kol Koreh Li BaMidbar, A Voice Calls Me in the Desert, is a piyut for all intents and purposes, chock full of biblical references and mystical longing.  In fact Ahuva believed so strongly in the mystical power of her songs that, at a certain point in the 1980s, she stopped singing, for fear that her melancholic songs were having a negative effect on Israeli society! Fortunately, she returned in the late 1990s and continued to produce and create music for almost two decades, even after she lost her vocal cords to cancer.

While Ahuva’s story and music were influential and her concerts drew large crowds, it took some time for most Israelis to really get to know her and for critics to take notice. However, Ahuva herself apparently was not too worried about marginalization, particularly when it came to the Mizrachi music scene. As part of the creative movement in Tel Aviv’s Kerem haTemanim, in the 1980s that pushed Yemenite music to the forefront, she shared the stage with the likes of  Zohar Argov, Yehuda Keisar and Shimi Tabori.  Unlike some of her counterparts, Ahuva was not bitter that their music took a while to gain recognition. She believed that the music itself, its power, the emotional and spiritual places it would touch, would break through.

When I see the success of the “piyut revolution,” it is clear that Ahuva was right. It was only a matter of time before this melding of old and new, east and west, female and male would emerge powerfully. Ahuva was certainly a central figure in making it happen. Practically, she was involved in the Nana Disc label, which was behind important projects such as Berry Sacharov’s Adumei haSfatot; she mentored younger artists like Shiran Avraham, Shai Tsabari and others who sought her out with a similar desire to break the boundaries between holy and profane, east and west, and old and new. When concerts full of people are singing Hamelech, when a club of secular Israelis sing Ibn Gevirol and then come together with a modern prayer “rak l’nagen ahava” —  “Just to Play Love,” we have Haviva Pedaya and Ahuva Ozeri and so many others to thank for leading the way.

About the Author
Rabbi Shoshana Cohen is a senior faculty member and research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where she serves as rabbi and mentor for Israeli and American gap year/mechina students and US rabbinical students studying in Israel. Living in Jerusalem with her family, Shoshana travels frequently as scholar-in-residence in communities around the US as part of Hartman's Courageous Communities project.
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