Culture, Global, Identity, Israel, Politics, Religion

Bringing the music of our people to… us! "An Invitation to Piyut"

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!

13 thoughts on “Bringing the music of our people to… us! "An Invitation to Piyut"

  1. Your first link to Invitation to Piyut (“Well, look no further than [Invitation to Piyut].”) is broken – you need to insert the “http://”.
    That said, the site looks like it could be a great resource. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I hate to be the old bickering guy at the back of the shul again, but I think is a very problematic project, for a number of reasons:
    1. It places the sefardi Jewish communities (less than 30% of the world’s Jews!) in the center of the website, as if its only them that have a musical heritage worth preserving. Most piyyutim have found their way to the Ashkenazi and italian traditions, which are both all but ignored by the site.
    2. It invents this saccharine notion of authenticity, as if all an Israeli singer has to do to be Jewish is to move into a minor scale, buy an Oud, and strum some quarter-tones.
    3. It ignores the amazing sophistication and erudition of the Early Palestinian-Italian piyyutim, and favors the more popular, later, arabized spanish and sephardi piyyutim. i.e. it favors popularity over sophistication and culture.

  3. Adam, the news about resistance to apartheid may be worthy, but sticking it here, in a conversation about traditional Jewish liturgical singing, sends the message that Jews, any Jews doing god knows what, must be confronted with Israel bashing. It reeks of scapegoating Jews, as opposed to Israeli state actions. It’s inappropriate.
    Way to win support buddy….

  4. I’m really impressed by this website, and unlike Amit. That said, I agree that I was surprised that there is nothing in the way of Polish/Russian/Lithuanian piyutim. Look forward to those additions.

  5. Amit, I just went to the program this evening that Piyut held. They said that they probably only had 20% of all the music out there and were looking for more help in adding more. They seemed more than pleased to take suggestions and to add melodies others know about. If there is a melody you don’t see which you would like added you should contact them! I didn’t get the sense they were trying to exclude anyone and if anything it’s great to have resources like this on the web and we should encourage more like this!

  6. My main problem is that piyyut is not music. Piyyut is – in word and in form – sophisticated, literate, poetry. makes it like piyyut is some folklore, country-bumpkin thing made in 16-century rural yemen. I don’t like that. I think piyyutim should be appreciated for what they are, and introduced back into the synagogue for what they are, and not be put on a website with mp3 files for people to say “wow, how cute”

  7. I think piyyutim should be appreciated for what they are, and introduced back into the synagogue for what they are, and not be put on a website with mp3 files for people to say “wow, how cute”
    It seems to me that the latter can assist with the former. For example, through music, Hadar’s high holiday services have resulted in a greater appreciation of piyyutim (the text as well) in the Hadar community and other places where the music has spread.

  8. Shalom Amit
    As a person who work in the site i would like you to send your questions to our site to Yaniv.
    I will be happy to discuss it with you.
    As for the Ashkenazi Piyutim. We have three people working on it (for example: Morocco-1,Yemen-1….), Because the material is not edited for our needs and most of the available recordings not Ashkenazi ones.We hope that this year you will see a great change.

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