Last week, the annual piyyut festival took place at the National Library in Jerusalem, drawing a large crowd and some of the country’s most popular musical acts. Originally meaning “liturgical poem,” piyyut has come to refer to musical performances of these poems, or variations of them, which have now become an element of the Israeli popular-music scene. Yossi Klein Halevi explains the significance of this genre’s success:
Piyyut has become not just part of the Israeli musical mainstream but the basis for the most creative and original expressions of indigenous Israeli music—the meeting point of East and West, religious and secular, even Jewish and Muslim.
That ingathering was on full display on stage—beginning with the extraordinary Firqat Alnoor Orchestra, led by a ḥaredi Jew and bringing together men and women from across different faiths to play Jewish and Muslim devotional music. [It] performed an Arabic-style version of the “Sticker Song,” [by Israel’s best-known hip-hop group, Hadag Naḥash].
Shaanan Street of Hadag Naḥash [then] sang a hip-hop version of an Ashkenazi melody to the prayer, “Who is like You, Adonai?” which led effortlessly into the closing prayer of the Mizraḥi Yom Kippur Service, El Nora Alilah: “God of awe, God of might/ Pardon us in this final hour/ Before the closing of the gate.”
Pre-state Zionist music, followed by popular Israeli music in its formative years, was the carrier of the ethos of the “new Hebrew man,” divorced from 2,000 years of Diaspora life. By contrast, the new Israeli music, inspired by piyyut, is the carrier of the re-Judaization of Israeli culture. The implicit message of the old Israeli music to Diaspora Jews was: this does not belong to you, only to those who live here. The message of the new Israeli music is exactly the opposite.