If you’re talking what’s hot and what’s not in Israel, the piyyut is in a period of Glee-like fame, according to some learned sources. These ancient liturgical poems are being sung all over Israel, particularly by Singing Communities, as Kehillot Sharot is called in English, which has made piyyutim into a weekly activity for many Israelis, creating groups across the country who come together each week to learn and sing piyyutim.
The piyyut is in a period of retro revival, according to some learned sources. These ancient liturgical poems, written since Mishnaic times and in Hebrew or Aramaic, are being sung all over Israel, by musicians, in groups and, in synagogues, where they’ve always been chanted.
In fact, most of us are familiar with piyyutim, we just may not know that we are. Ever sung “Adon Olam,” at the end of a Shabbat service? Or “Yigdal”? Both are piyyutim, as is “Lecha Dodi,” that well-known part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Many piyyutim, like “Adon Olam”, follow some poetic scheme, with an acrostic following the order of the Hebrew alphabet or spelling out the name of the author.
Musician Ehud Banai recently recorded “El Adon,” a piyyut sung in the Shabbat morning service, and Eti Ankri is currently touring and singing the songs of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, a famed piyyut composer. There’s also Singing Communities, as the organization Kehillot Sharot is called in English, which has made piyyutim into a weekly activity for many Israelis, creating groups across the country that come together each week to learn and sing piyyutim. There are Piyyut Shabbats, at which people gather at a hotel and sing their way through the weekend, and Piyyut festivals, at which piyyut choirs sing in a kind of Glee-esque piyyut mash-up.
What’s fascinating about the trend – besides the renewal of an ancient song trend – is how the piyyut gathers groupies across a wide divide. There are religious and secular folks, young and old, men and women, across all cultures, ethnicities and types. Take a Kehillot Sharot meeting in Jerusalem on recent Monday night: Nine men, nine women, with half of the men wearing kippot and most of the women in pants, which means you don’t really know who’s religious and who’s not. Teacher Morin Nehedar, a dimpled drummer and guitar player with a practiced flick when drumming, was strict when it seemed her pupils were taking too much time drinking their tea, but full of compliments when they started to pay attention.
The piyyut, Morin told the class, requires a lot of attention, like most songs. You have to plan five or steps ahead for where it’s going, she said, like a path that you can’t just wander down, but which requires planning, knowing if there’s going to be a tree root that needs to be stepped over or another path veering in a different direction.
“Prepare yourself a line before,” says Morin, “and shoot at the basket.
Get ready for the piyyut.