There was a time, more than century and a half ago, when piyyutim were seen largely as a kind of cultural burden to be cast aside in order to make the service shorter and more meaningful. Early liturgical reformers argued that the siddur and machzor had grown too lengthy and no longer inspired modern Jews. Piyyutim – medieval poetic extensions of the traditional prayers, with allusions incomprehensible to the average congregant – were first on the chopping block. The irony, however, lies in the fact that the piyut was itself a sort of liturgical reform. While earlier generations of Jews were unable to change the statutory service itself, piyyutim allowed for an imaginative embellishment of that service. It highlighted and expanded particular parts of the liturgy. It added additional opportunities for congregational singing. It was, in short, an early version of the “creative service.”
Over the past decade, there has been a growing phenomenon in Israel centered around the rediscovery and revival of medieval piyutim – not just in the synagogue (in fact, largely not in the synagogue), but rather in the cultural realms largely controlled by self-defined “secular” Jews. Once seen primarily as an impediment for the modern worshiper, piyyutim are now being studied and sung by local “kehillot sharot” / singing communities that gather weekly in homes and community centers. These groups combine community building, ethnomusicology, history and text study. New CDs by popular artists are constantly being released with new musical settings to these piyyutim. Piyyut festivals in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have drawn hundreds of people of all ages. The interest in reviving piyut is fueled in part by the small but significant programs and projects that driven by native-born self-described “secular” Israelis rediscovering the Jewish bookshelf, and reclaiming Jewish heritage on their own terms and in their own way.
There is an amazing website that has a staggering collection of recordings of piyyutim from dozens of different communities, explanations of the piyyut’s authorship and history, and the lyrics. One piyut alone might have a dozen recordings made from paytanim, chazanim and congregations. The most robust part of the site is in Hebrew only, but a significant selection of materials is available on the English language part of the site. Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York convened a conference a few years back aimed at bringing the piyyut phenomenon to America, and some materials that emerged from that effort are also on the English language part of the site.
Creating a new Reform machzor that will be used for the next 30-40 years requires us to pay attention to this growing piyyut revival. From these creative efforts, our congregations may find new models for re-introducing this classic poetry to the Reform synagogue.
The new openness to expanding the number of piyyutim is found in several places within the machzor, but most especially with the selichot prayers of Yom Kippur, particularly the most fully developed version in Kol Nidre.
So here are two piyyutim that we have included in the draft of the new machzor, and a link to one traditional and one contemporary recording of each. Enjoy.
Here is Yonatan Razel singing Adon HaSelichot (Chatanu lifanecha.)
Here is the same piyyut sung in the traditional style of Jerusalem Sefardi community.
Here is Meir Banai singing his arrangement of Aneinu.
And the same piyyut sung by the Cochin Jews of India.
Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.