Turning Traditional Liturgical Poetry into Modern Music

Dec. 10 2015

The musician and vocalist Yair Harel performs Sephardi and North African piyyutim (religious poems), basing his arrangements on traditional melodies. He has also been involved in creating educational resources to preserve and disseminate information about these songs and their history. In an interview with Sephardi Ideas Monthly, he discusses their appeal:

The music is melodic, dynamic, and even ecstatic. It’s rooted in popular music of the past and also includes a variety of influences—Spanish, Arab, African, Amazigh (Berber), and, of course, Jewish—so there are different musical elements that engage and communicate with the audience. Most deeply, for Jews today, the music facilitates a spiritual language that people are looking for. It gives voice to prayer. . . .

Historically, piyyut absorbed popular music from the surrounding environment. Take the piyyutim of Rabbi Israel Najara [ca. 1555–1625]. Najara lived in the cosmopolitan Ottoman empire and converted popular love songs into piyyutim that then became part of the ritual lifecycle. This meant that the piyyutim were sung in various contexts, from the synagogue to the Shabbat table to wedding parties. So the music was popular before it even entered the synagogue. . . . Then, once it became part of the religious ritual it assumed the status of sacred song, or prayer, which also affected the way it was musically performed. If it succeeded in touching people’s hearts across the generations, it became part of the tradition and was preserved.

Read more at Sephardi Ideas Monthly

More about: Arts & Culture, Israel Najara, Jewish music, Judaism, Mizrahim, Piyyut, Sephardim


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount