“The Contemporary Piyyut: Global Networks of Middle Eastern and North African Music”

On November 14-25, 2022, the Center for Jewish Studies hosted a symposium, “The Contemporary Piyyut: Global Networks of Middle Eastern and North African Music.” Piyyutim, Jewish liturgical songs sung in religious services, ceremonies, and gatherings, make up an archive of thousands of poems and melodies composed and performed by Jewish communities around the world. Over the past twenty years, the Middle Eastern and North African piyyut tradition has become the object of wide interest and unprecedented creative evolution. The piyyut now circulates in new virtual media, and it bridges, sometimes uneasily, diverse communities, cultures, and languages. Performers, participants, and audiences include Mizrahi, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, both secular and religious, from across the political spectrum.

Both an academic event–exploring topics such as recent shifts in the settings in which piyyutim are performed, the ongoing exchange between the piyyut archive and other art forms and media, the sociocultural and political contexts in which piyyutim function today, and the ways they connect various communities and identities–as well as an experiential and performative event, featuring participatory workshops by contemporary artists whose work engages histories of the piyyut, the symposium featured 21 scholars and musicians in seven panels, lectures, and workshops. The highlight of this international gathering was a concert, free and open to the public, at the Cedar Cultural Center the evening of November 14.

The symposium was a resounding success, so much so that many of the participants have asked if we can host a repeat in future years. In addition to the learning that took place for those in person as well as for the several hundred  who watched online over the course of two days, we expect to see several important publications as a consequence of this gathering, and some new collaborations developed between the participants that will assuredly be productive for several years to come. The gathering also enabled professionals within the local Jewish community to spend two days learning about the piyyut.

The concert at the Cedar Cultural Center proved to be one of the Center’s most successful educational outreach activities in years. We completely filled the Cedar, with people standing (and dancing) on the sides and back when the seating filled, and the concert brought together diverse parts of the local community to learn about and celebrate Jewish culture, in addition to bringing great joy to those in attendance. 

Although the concert was not recorded, you may view the symposium lectures and panels online https://z.umn.edu/piyyutsymposiumchannel

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