The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Religious Ritual Reenacted: A View from the Israeli Concert Stage

On a warm night in June 2021 an unusual concert took place in the Zappa club in Jerusalem. The popular venue, which usually hosts A- liners like Chanan Ben Ari, hosted a reenactment of the "bakashot," a paraliturgical event which normally takes place after midnight on winter Shabbatot in Sephardi synagogues. The nine male singers who took their places in a semi-circle on the stage started singing the piyyutim of the bakashot unaccompanied, in their original order, according to the Sepharad -Yerushalmi tradition, as would have taken place in the Ades synagogue. Watching this concert at Zappa, I was experiencing the sound-site split that has been termed "schizophonia". This phenomenon occurs often in Jewish music concerts when a lullaby, synagogue song or zemer for Shabbat is moved to the stage, in the absence of a cradle, a synagogue service or a sabbath meal as a backdrop. However, the schizophonia is further complicated since the bakashot is itself an arena of reenactment, with many of these piyyutim performed in the sacred space of the synagogue, sung to popular songs borrowed from the golden age of the Egyptian Arab music.

A second case of reenactment is that of ‘Ochila’, a musical-spiritual evening the night before Yom Kippur led by Orthodox female musician Odelya Berlin, in front of an all-female audience of 1,500 in Binyanei HaUma in Jerusalem. Incorporating beloved High Holiday piyyutim accompanied by state-of-the-art arrangements and laser show, Ochila blurs the boundaries between a concert and a prayer service, employing communal singing to create a heightened, participatory spiritual atmosphere in a way typically unavailable to women in an Orthodox synagogue.

Both cases invite us to think about what actually takes place when liturgical or paraliturgical piyyutim are performed on stage: Are religious experiences engendered by these musical performances? And if so, what is their nature? Examining these and other such cases can lead to insights about the new contexts and theatrical elements of religious experiences in Israeli society today.