The Rauch Planetarium at the University of Louisville is an incredible space for a program, and when Galeet Dardashti delivered the 2016 Naamani Lecture, “Sacred music Hits the Israeli Pop Charts: Money, Music and Mizrahiyut,” there on Sunday, April 17, it was clear that the location was perfect.
Dardashti, a Jew of Persian descent with a strong family singing tradition, traced the development of Middle Eastern music, particularly piyyutim from Jewish communities living in Arab countries, from their original religious purposes to their usage in modern Israeli pop music today. Along the way, she shared many examples, performing a few and sharing clips of others performed by a variety of artists.
A piyyut, she said, is hard to define. It is often translated as sacred song, but it is often artful Hebrew poems, some of it dating back to the Middle Ages and produced under Arab rule. Some of it doesn’t distinguish between sacred and secular.
When the State of Israel was established, Dardashti explained, the dominant culture was Ashkenazi – the culture of European Jewry – and Mizrachi Jews – Eastern Jews, mostly from Arab lands – were often treated as second class citizens and their culture was disdained.
Today, thanks largely to the investment of Avi Chai, that has changed. Avi Chai is a private foundation endowed by Zalman C. Bernstein, that is committed to the perpetuation of the Jewish people, Judaism and the centrality of the State of Israel to the Jewish people.
Avi Chai funded a study of piyyutim and began teaching Mizrachi music in casual secular settings. In their forums, men and women, Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews) and Mizrachi, observant and secular, came together to learn piyyutim. It evolved so that all sang together and women sometimes lead the sessions.
With Avi Chai’s support and encouragement, Mizrachi sounds and piyyutim transitioned into popular music as well.
The many video clips in Dardashti’s presentation were projected on the planetarium’s dome above her head so everyone in attendance could see clearly and even the smallest type was legible. The state of the art sound system made the whole range of audio clips at real treat. It was almost as if those present were attending a concert rather than a lecture.
The Naamani Memorial Lecture Series was established in 1979 to honor the memory of Professor Israel T. Naamani, key educational figure, scholar and teacher at the University of Louisville, and beloved Jewish community member. The series is supported by donations to the Naamani Memorial Lecture Fund. The Naamani Lecture is presented by the University of Louisville Jewish Studies Program.