Piyut (pronounced p’yoot) is the global music of the Jewish people, particularly from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. In the last decade, Piyut has become a national movement in Israel, with annual music festivals, recordings by Israel’s rock stars, and new crossover music by some of the most sophisticated Israeli jazz musicians in New York and Jerusalem. Piyut North America is focused on bringing the richness of the Piyut renaissance from Israel to Jewish communities in the US.
The first phase of the project—initiated jointly by Rabbi Roly Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun in New York and Yair Harel, director of “Invitation to Piyut” in Jerusalem—culminated in 2010 with a national US retreat that brought together 80 musicians and leaders from Israel and the most innovative North American prayer groups, synagogues, and schools to learn and disseminate a core body of Piyutim (melodic meditations).
Following the success of the retreat, project leaders sought to expand the influence of Piyut beyond the walls of the synagogue and launched the current three-year project, which involves 10 Piyut pilots in New York, Boston, and San Francisco that link the music of Piyut to the contexts where millions of Jews can be found: culture and crossover music, yoga and meditation.
Piyut North America’s first pilot to launch was Shira B’Shishi, a monthly Friday-night program run by the pioneering project “Israelis in Brooklyn.” Planned for 50 participants, Shira B’Shishi is now brimming with over 350 people each month, drawing both Israeli and American families for communal singing of Piyut and a Sabbath meal.
In the area of yoga and meditation, Piyut North America has developed Shira Yoga, a creative practice that pairs two ancient traditions: yoga and the global music of Piyut. Shira Yoga is attracting dozens of practitioners to weekly classes at Down Under Yoga, one of Boston’s premier yoga studios, and to monthly workshops at Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun and JCC.
Piyut North America has also developed several Piyut-based university courses, including a seminar at New York University on Piyut and the culture of Jews in Arab lands taught by award-winning composer Elizabeth Swados, and an upcoming residency at UC Berkeley, led by Yair Harel and Dr. Francesco Spagnolo.