Talk about democratizing religion! Wouldn’t it be nice, you say to yourself, to have a website compiling Jewish musical traditions and songs from all over the world, sorting them by geography, liturgy, and historical period, providing free music recordings and the accompanying texts, so that I can learn new songs from the Jewish tradition that are only available usually if you know an old guy from Bukhara or Morocco? Well, look no further than Invitation to Piyut.
Last Wednesday night, I went to “Currents of the River: An Evening of Piyutim — Sacred Jewish Poetry and Music,” a concert and presentation of Invitation to Piyut website by Israeli Tefillalt Ensemble hosted by Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, MA (best known perhaps as “Moshe Woldoks’s Shul”).
Let me tell you, I left so excited I could barely contain myself.
It’s a very simple idea really, which is why it is so revolutionary.
The Jewish people in their travels have encountered the musical styles of much of the world. Through the Jewish tradition of the piyut, the liturgical poem (often exploring Biblical themes in contemporary language and imagery), Jews interacted with their local musical and poetic culture and combined it with the Jewish liturgical tradition to produce such famous piyutim as Yedid Nefesh which we sing at Kabbalat shabbat every Shabbat in many communities and Adom Olam which also makes regular appearance in Shabbat liturgy, as well as lesser known pieces appearing throughout High Holiday machsorim and ones that have been lost from today’s liturgical practice entirely. Especially in Sephardi communities, congregations would anxiously await their local paytan‘s latest creation, to be shared in synagogue.
Today the living art of the piyut has faded. There is an entire world of music, culture, and history out there in danger of dying out as the Jewish communities of the world increasingly make aliyah to Israel or assimilate.
That’s where Invitation to Piyut comes in. You have to see it for yourself. In a few short clicks, you can hear the oldest musical setting known to us, an 800 year old North African tune of “Who Like Moses,” found in actual sheet music in the Cairo Geniza. Or, looking for a new tune for Yedid Nefesh to use this shabbat? Choose from the 22 recordings here. Sign up for a weekly piyut email, or send one to a friend for her birthday.
As they say about the website,
We aim to gather in one place a meaningful selection of piyutim from all Jewish cultures in a manner recognizing the varied styles and influences existing in the Jewish tradition, turning the website into an “international home” for piyut.
Gathering this material is just the first stage of our project. A complementary goal is to convert the material to approachable forms – not just technically, but culturally, particularly for those who were not raised with a particular traditional background. We hope to offer tools in order to make it possible for the general public to encounter, understand, and feel the experience and messages of piyutim. We are also committed to working diligently to verify that materials presented on the website are researched and examined by experts with traditional background as well as senior professionals in related fields. For more on this effort, see the “Staff” section of the website).
This challenge, as mentioned above, is daunting. First, the repertoire of piyutim is nearly infinite and scattered across the world. In many cases, we refer to recordings difficult for the modern ear to understand both for technical reasons and because of cultural gaps. We believe piyut holds beauty and power which is timeless, and sometimes one must patiently brush off the dust or listen closer in order to capture the voice of a piyut. Sometimes one must allow the heart and mind to carry new blood to the work without violating traditional authenticity. We aspire to succeed in becoming a link in the long chain of piyutim at the same time as supporting new creativity.
We are confident of the relevance of piyutim to the wider Israeli public and throughout the world, perhaps even more than any other form of traditional Jewish creativity.
Special thanks to Basmat Hazan for her presentation and Yair Harel, General Manager and Editor-in-Chief (who also sang on Wednesday). Anyone in Boston, I’m hoping to start up a singing exchange group with one of the Tefillalt Ensemble members who is at the New England Conservatory in Boston, so I’ll keep the Jewschool community posted!