University of Minnesota Hosts Global Piyyut Symposium

Even if you don’t know what a piyyut is, if you’ve attended a Jewish worship service, it’s more than likely you’ve heard one before. While piyyutim are historically written as poems, they are often sung and set to music; Adon Olam is a piyyut as is the Hanukkah classic Ma’oz Tzur. 

The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities’ Center for Jewish Studies will be hosting a symposium dedicated to piyyutim, a form of Jewish liturgical poetry, Nov. 13-16 at venues in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The conference titled “The Contemporary Piyyut” will involve scholars and musicians from Minnesota and across the globe giving talks, leading workshops and performing piyyutim in concert.

Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg of Shir Tikvah will be participating in the conference as a performer. Rosenberg, a student and enthusiast of piyyutim, says  “[they] are addressed both to community need and some sense of the Divine.” Rosenberg also describes how piyyutim carries a sense of the Jewish diaspora within them. “The same text can have settings that were created in Afghanistan and that same piyyut can have a melody that was composed in the Pale of Settlement.” 

Lekach-Rosenberg is a large proponent of incorporating music and piyyutim into Shabbat services. Before the COVID pandemic, Rosenberg also helped organize a piyyut learning circle in the Twin Cities and expressed her interest in potentially starting it up again in some form. She encourages anyone interested in piyyut in the Twin Cities area to reach out to her via email.

Shir Alon, an assistant professor of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies on faculty at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Jewish Studies has spearheaded the organizing of the conference. 

“I thought it would be wonderful if we could do something that brings people together after a couple of years of isolation and Zoom meetings,” she said.

The conference starts with an event co-sponsored by Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council and Mount Zion Temple. It will feature a dialogue with Dr. Galeet Dardashti, a vocalist, scholar, and composer of piyyutim, and will take place at Mount Zion Temple at 7 p.m. Tickets can be reserved on the Rimon website.

Following this will be two days of talks, workshops, and performances. Monday, Nov. 14 will begin in the President’s Room of the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union with opening remarks and various talks from 9:45 a.m.-3:30 p.m. followed by a participatory workshop presented by educator and performer, Hadar Ahuvia, at 4 p.m. Monday will be capped off with a free concert at the Cedar Cultural Center including both Dardashti, Rosenberg, as well as Professor Yaron Klein from Carleton College among others. The concert is free, but attendees are asked to RSVP at the Cedar website.

Tuesday will begin at 10 a.m. in the President’s Room of Coffman with talks on piyyut in Mizrahi Jewish culture followed by a conversation at 11:45 with Mizrahi documentary filmmaker Rafael Balulu. The rest of the day’s events will move to Coffman’s Mississippi Room with the keynote lecture at 4 p.m. given by poet and translator Peter Cole entitled “A Way of Happening, a Mouth: On Petition and Repetition in Baqashot, or When the Best Translation Isn’t Exactly a Translation.” Tuesday will end with a Piyyut workshop given by the co-founders of Global Piyut, Yair Harel and Rabbi Roly Matalon.

To cap off the conference, Wednesday, November 16 will also include a free concert by the musicians of Trio Mediterraneo as a part of the University of St. Thomas’ Chapel Art Series at 7 p.m.

For anyone who can’t make it in person, the events taking place on the University of Minnesota campus are all going to be livestreamed on YouTube. “[The] conference came out to be far more comprehensive and large than I expected and it’s very unique in the people that it’s bringing together,” Alon said. “I think it’s the first conference in North America dedicated to this topic.”