This year I have the unique privilege of spending nine months in Jerusalem studying at the Hebrew University and teaching at the Hebrew Union College. Within a few blocks of my apartment in Jerusalem there are more synagogues than you can imagine.
Situated right between the old alleyways and courtyards of Nachla’ot, and the bustling shopping of Ben Yehudah, my temporary home is just about a block away from the first Reform synagogue in Israel, Kehilat Har-El, on Shmuel Hanagid street. Bouncing between all these different types of Jewish communities gathered together in such close proximity, I am continuously reminded that the sounds of Judaism are so much more diverse than any one community can ever contain.
Some of these places preserve melodies that have been sung for hundreds of years, accompanying the community through different historical eras and geographical locations. Other places experiment with new types of musical expression, reaching out to the “secular” Israeli population by following the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – “May the old be renewed and may the new be holy.” I wish that I could personally take you with me on a tour of the exciting Jewish sounds all around my Jerusalem apartment, but instead, I’ll share some of those sounds and sites with you using Youtube.
We’ll start at the “Great Synagogue Ades of the Glorious Aleppo Community.” This stunningly beautiful building in Nachla’ot is the center of the Syrian Jewish cantorial tradition. Every Saturday night, from Sukkot until Pesach, members of the community gather at 3:00 AM and sing piyutim (liturgical poems) and psalms for four hours in a ritual called “Bakashot.” After a whole night of singing, the community starts their Shabbat morning service at 7:00. It is quite the undertaking to visit, but the spirit and joy of the community makes it all worth it. Check out this video to get a sample of this Bakashot ceremony (filmed in 1976, but things haven’t really changed much). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BsIW4yGljM
Moving from Nachla’ot to my favorite music store on Ben Yehuda Street, Hatav Hash’mini (The Eighth Note), I would love to share some of the newest Israeli popular music that takes Jewish texts and melodies once limited to the synagogue and gets them on the radio.
Sagiv Cohen has combined traditional Yemenite melodies with contemporary pop arrangements on his new album Hal’lu. Listen for his Yemenite pronunciation of Hebrew on this recording of the 150th psalm.
The New Jerusalem Orchestra released a live recording of their inaugural concert, lead by the incomparable Rabbi Haim Louk, the leader of the Moroccan cantorial world. This unique ensemble brought together Jazz, Arabic music, Classical music and modern Israeli music – something that has never really been done before. Listen to their recording of “Ya’alah Ya’alah,” a classic Moroccan festive song.
Etti Ankari has been a major figure on the Israeli popular scene for 20 years. After six albums of beautiful, secular songs, she went through a religious transformation, and recently came out with an album of original melodies to religious poetry by Rabbi Yehudah Halevy (1075-1141). On this extraordinary album is a touching setting of Psalm 23 – watch her in a live performance here.
Going back up Ben Yehuda Street, there is a new major Jewish institution on King George Boulevard, right next to the Jewish Agency building. Beit Avi Chai (bac.org.il) is a center that offers an unbelievable array of concerts, classes, programs and exhibits around issues of Israeli culture, Jewish tradition, food, music, theater… It is impossible to keep up with everything that goes on there. Check out this small sampling of exciting videos on their Youtube channel.
Guy Zuaretz (an Israeli TV star) singing “Cuando El Rey Nimrod” in a concert of Ladino music:
Here is a group performing the text “Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” from Psalm 23 to an Arabic melody:
Here is a jazz ensemble performing a classic, nostalgic song made popular by North African Jewish singers about the city of Barcelona:
Look around their Youtube channel – it is a tremendous treasury of the newest and coolest Jewish culture coming out of Israel today.
For one more synagogue visit – I want to take you to an exciting new place called Nava Tehila (http://navatehila.org/site/index.asp?depart_id=35897&lat=en).
This relatively new community meets once a month for Friday night services and offers continuing classes on Jewish spirituality and kabbalah. Mostly using their own melodies, this community reaches out to Israelis in a musical and spiritual language that feels natively Israeli. They post videos of their musicians performing many of their new melodies so that people can come to synagogue prepared to sing. Check out this melody for Psalm 98, part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service (and then look around the rest of the site)
I wish that I could bring you into more places – but for now this taste will have to suffice. Jerusalem is alive with Jewish music and Jewish prayer that never ceases to amaze. Just when I think I’ve heard it all – I wander into another place and find myself enthralled with something I’ve never even imagined. As I enter my last few months of time here in Jerusalem, I wonder how I will be able to bring this music back to my synagogue in California. As Reform Jews, we are committed to an ever-expanding vision of Judaism. This year at your Passover seder, when you recite the words “L’shanah Haba’ah Birushalayim” – “Next year in Jerusalem” – and you think about the sounds and sites of the holy city, may you be inspired with a vision of Judaism and Jewish music that celebrates all the diversity and excitement Jerusalem can bring.
Israel on my iPod - Literally by Cantor Penny Kessler
Some time in the previous century, if you wanted to hear Israeli music, you had to have a record player. I had a beat-up Geula Gill album right out of the mid-’60’s. Read more