Musical poems from Old World bring meaning to new

Clutching a Middle Eastern frame drum, Yair Harel coils his body before a group of 18 Cal students. As he taps out a syncopated rhythm on the hand-held percussive instrument, he incants a high-flying melody ornamented with grace notes.

Harel is in his comfort zone, singing a piyyut, a liturgical Hebrew poem set to music.

Yair Harel

The Israeli singer is in the middle of a 2-1⁄2-month residency at Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, supported by the Schusterman Visiting Artist Program of the Israel Institute.

He has been teaching and performing at Bay Area Jewish institutions. At each presentation, including the recent class for U.C. Berkeley students, Harel brings to life the evocative modal beauty of piyyutim.

“You cannot perform any [Jewish] ritual without song,” he tells his students. “[Piyyutim] allow us to more deeply say what we want to say.”

The term “piyyut” may be unfamiliar, but examples of the form abound in Jewish life, among them the liturgical Sabbath songs “L’cha Dodi” and “Yedid Nefesh.”

Harel, who lives in Jerusalem, says piyyutim were created as preparatory songs for the main fixed prayers. The lyrics often express longing for redemption or connection to the Divine.

For centuries, piyyutim have been composed across the Jewish diaspora, from Spain to Iraq, Lithuania to Azerbaijan, marking occasions such as Shabbat, brit milah, Havdallah and even the warding away of evil spirits from a newborn. The many permutations of melody across time and space have made for a kind of Jewish world music.

“The tradition of Jewish music has always been about relationships between Jewish culture and the world,” Harel says. “It’s a meeting point that has many faces. One song may have 40 different tunes. It’s a microcosm of the music of the world.”

Harel, 42, has been collecting and performing piyyutim for years. With backing from the Avi Chai Foundation in Israel, Harel launched the website “An Invitation to Piyyut” (, which has archived 5,000 piyyutim from around the world, both notated and audio versions.

The songs are not meant as museum pieces. Harel wants them sung, so he launched myriad projects with performance in mind. Most notably, he was part of a team that launched “singing communities” across Israel, bringing together secular and religious Jews of all backgrounds to sing piyyutim together.

Partnering with New York congregation B’nai Jeshurun, its rabbi Roli Matalon, and with the support of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, he launched Piyyut North America, which spawned a number of singing and Jewish meditation communities in the United States and Canada. Harel also has staged piyyut festivals in Israel, the U.S. and Russia. 

“I’ve tried to brand him as a community organizer,” says Magnes curator Francesco Spagnolo, who lobbied to bring Harel to the Bay Area as an artist-in-residence. “Through his action he creates communities and empowers them to exist.”

Spagnolo and Harel are team-teaching the Cal course, titled “Jewish Nightlife.” They’ve also joined forces with Berkeley Hillel Rabbi Dorothy Richman to teach piyyutim to 25 local rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators. The two are spearheading Piyyut North America’s reach in the Bay Area.

“In our day, there is a need for a new form that will find itself through a sincere Jewish spiritual expression,” Spagnolo says. “Things are happening. People are trying all kinds of things.”

Harel grew up in an Orthodox home, but has played a prominent role in the country’s emerging Jewish Renewal movement (“Hitchadshut Yehudit” in Hebrew), using piyyutim as his calling card.

“Through different traditions of music and singing, you get this energy and practice that makes things more meaningful,” he says. “People of my generation have the same longings. The need is clear: How do you create meaningful Jewish practice and culture?”

In his class at the Magnes, Harel leads the students in a 19th-century Hassidic piyyut for Selichot, and a Havdallah tune from 13th-century Spain, “El Eliyahu.” He brings out an astonishing array of rhythms from his drum (called a tar) and an even more astonishing level of Jewish spirit from his predominantly non-Jewish students.

“Music is a gate,” he says. “ You open it up and go deeper.”

Yair Harel will perform and teach a selection of piyyutim at 7p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F.



Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at