Poetry abounds in Jerusalem as Rosh Hashanah approaches

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By Judy Lash Balint

Judy Lash Balint

JERUSALEM–One of the great things about living in Israel is how easy it is to really “feel” any upcoming holiday. Just take a walk through the shuk and the stacks of honey jars, piles of perfectly ripe pomegranates and barrels of shiny Golan apples all make it easy to anticipate the High Holydays. Radio & TV ads are full of New Year wishes and mailboxes full of heart-wrenching holiday appeals. But paradoxically, all that can be a downside, because it’s just too darn easy to take it all for granted.

In the old country, where you had to finagle time off from classes or work and explain the intricacies of why you were living in a booth for eight days in the chilly autumn rain, getting ready for the high holidays was a more deliberate and serious endeavor. Here in Israel, it’s too easy to take things for granted and can sometimes become just a matter of anticipating a week off work and deciding which trips to take during chol hamoed–the intermediate Sukkot days.

That’s why events like the Festival HaPiyut are just the right antidote.

It’s hard to explain piyutim. Essentially they’re the poetry that adorns various prayers throughout the year. The pre-High Holyday piyutim are the verses Jews recite at this time of year to butter up God. They’ve evolved over the centuries and are generally sung as a community, not by the individual, and for some reason Sephardim have a more finely developed sense of using piyutim than Ashkenazim.

Piyutim are experiencing a revival here in Israel with young paytanim (singers of piyutim) commanding large audiences; a website devoted to the genre as well as a wealth of scholarly research and concert halls filled with devotees.

In the delightful walled courtyard of the Beit Avichai Center on King George Street, several hundred mostly religious people gathered for the opening of last year’s Festival.The event was billed as encompassing three generations of paytanim from Nachlaot, the old Jerusalem neighborhood not more than 7 minutes walk away.

Indeed, the all-male performers range in age from 10 to 80, each one chanting one of the soulful but lively piyutim to the accompaniment of an outstanding group of musicians.

Many of the piyutim are from the 19th and early 20th century–mostly originating in Tunis or Egypt. The music is amazingly complex with changing rhythms and odd beats with darbuka drums, the oud and violins all playing major roles.

The two hour concert draws to a close after two veteran paytanim were honored. One, Rabbi David Raichi, who immigrated from Tunis in 1956, was a long-time piyut practitioner at the renowned Ades synagogue in nearby Nachlaot.

As Rav Raichi drew out his final notes, I couldn’t help thinking of Rev. Samuel Benaroya the late chazan of Sephardic Bikur Holim, my congregation in Seattle, who was a world-renowned expert in every kind of Sephardic makam, and whose personality and ability to pass on those traditions is legendary. His special knowledge of the Ottoman style maftirim would have been a worthy addition to the evening.

Walking home with the melodies and the poetry of the piyutim still in my head, I realize that the journey toward the High Holydays will no longer be so easy to take for granted.

*
Balint is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.  This is reprinted from her website, Jerusalem Diaries:In Tense Times

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