The Jerusalem Post

'Selichot Journey': Giving a modern look to High Holy Day prayers - review

 The Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem. (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
The Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: STEVE LINDE)

The book Siyyur Selichot is thus the product of many years’ work and has been produced to appeal to a Hebrew-speaking audience.

It was the day before Yom Kippur, about 4 in the morning. A Tel Aviv couple were making their way to the well-known Adas Synagogue in the Jerusalem quarter of Nahlaot. There, they were to be exposed to the chanting of selichot (penitential prayers) in a traditional setting among the Sephardi worshipers.

They were not alone. Their host was Mishael Vaknin, who had invited these secular friends to join him. They were visiting the capital and wanted to know where to spend their last night doing something meaningful. They thought of joining a tourist group who were to be taken around a number of synagogues where selichot were being said.

“I said to them,” recalls Vaknin ‘If you’re going to hear selichot, why not go to a real service and experience the full flavor of these ancient poems and prayers and take in their chants and melodies?’”

Vaknin was glad that they accepted but was nevertheless apprehensive:


“How could I invite people, who didn’t know the inside of a synagogue, and throw them into a ‘hard core’ community, Jerusalemites whose families hailed from Aleppo in Syria. So I opened my computer and began to write a short introduction explaining what selichot are and the history of the custom.

 Mishael Vaknin holding his book. (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
Mishael Vaknin holding his book. (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)

“I also wrote commentaries on some of the selichot. I gave this to them, telling them also to look carefully at the shamash (beadle) who goes around the synagogue all the time with cups of tea and coffee and hands them out to all those in the synagogue.”

Vaknin’s friends loved the experience. “They were impressed. This was something they had never known. They loved the music and the texts. So I thought if these sheets of explanation can engage these friends of mine, maybe they can be used for other people, too.”

Over the next few years, Vaknin wrote commentaries on all the selichot.

Giving selichot a modern look

“I made them very basic, so they would be accessible to everyone. But when I finished, I thought they weren’t enough; they were just sheets of paper. Maybe I could make a more aesthetic booklet. I went to the National Library in Jerusalem and asked to see manuscripts that dealt with selichot. From there, I went to find other manuscripts in other libraries – Oxford, Cambridge, the British Library in London, then on to the USA, France, and Germany. Back in Tel Aviv, I came across Bill Gross – the great Judaica collector. He is 81 years old and had been collecting manuscripts for many years. I phoned him to say that I was editing a book on piyutim (sacred hymns) and selichot and was searching for original manuscripts. I had heard that many of these manuscripts were in his possession. Could I make use of them? He invited me to his house to view his collection. I went there and sat for hours as he opened his fantastic collection. From then on, my project began to take shape: explanations, piyutim, plus photographs of these old manuscripts. From a point of view of range, they were extremely diversified: India, Italy, Germany, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq – there was almost no place where there weren’t some manuscripts.”


Even after all his research, Vaknin felt that his project still lacked something.

“I said to myself: ‘What I’ve written so far is for people who don’t know anything about selichot, but what about myself or my friends who do know about these traditions? For these people I need something deeper, more researched, more commentaries.’

“So I began to write to more people, including musicians like Avi Baleli. Now, Baleli was also a part of a rock group called Nikmat HaTractor. In 1989 they made a disc, and among the songs they played a selicha called ‘Adon Haslichot.’ They set it to synthesizers, and it became a big hit. So I asked him how he came across this. He told me that after the army he traveled to Germany. He thought of himself as the David Bowie or Lou Reed of Israeli pop. Both of these pop greats had made avant-garde discs in Berlin. So he flew to Berlin with $200 in his pocket. Berlin then was still a divided city. Baleli organized a group of German musicians and taught them two selichot – ‘Adon Haslichot’ and ‘El Nora Alilah,’ which is also a piyut from Yom Kippur.”

In addition, Vaknin contacted people from the academy, thinkers and authors, and they wrote short articles, each from their own perspective: “Then my eldest son said to me: ‘If you want this to interest the younger generation, you must include QR codes next to each piyut, so you can hear them sung.’

“I contacted the director of the Piyut Ensemble of Jerusalem, Yair Harel. We had actually studied in the same school some 37 years beforehand but hadn’t met since then. I explained my idea to him and asked him to be involved.

“We brought in his Ensemble, comprising 18 men, into a recording studio, where we recorded all the selichot for the High Holy Days. We put them together with Rabbi Haim Louk, who is known as the expert of selichot/piyut. They recorded the selichot in an authentic rendition with a chazan [cantor] and congregational response.”

But even there, Vaknin was looking for something extra:

“I said, ‘Let’s do something in addition to the bare selichot. Let us take a number of them and give them a modern look with musical instruments, unlike in the synagogue.’ So we added drums, guitars flutes, oud and so on. We recorded nine piyutim with Haim Louk, a popular woman singer Neta Elkayam, and a well-known Oriental singer Shaike Tsabarip; and thus we created two albums of music and also the book, Siyyur Selichot. (Selichot Journey).”

This book was recently launched in Jerusalem’s Gerard Behar Hall, attracting a full house not just of traditional Sefardim but also of Ashkenazim, and secular Jews.

“There is something in these piyutim that is very attractive to all kinds of people,” observes Vaknin, a 52-year-old economist and businessman from Rehovot. “They can be presented without reference to the synagogue, which is meant for a particular group or community. There are today more people that go to hear selichot than go to synagogue on Yom Kippur! On Yom Kippur you have your regular place, but for selichot you come as you are and experience them as part of your cultural tradition.”

Vaknin mentions that these selichot are available on Spotify. A CD, with almost 70 selichot, was produced and is on YouTube and can be downloaded. The second album, the contemporary version, was released in the middle of July (Rosh Chodesh Av), and on Rosh Chodesh Elul it will premiere on TV’s channel 12, coinciding with the first night of selichot for Sefardim.

“This is Mediterranean music,” Vaknin stresses. “It’s not Oriental. The territory of the Magreb, where many of these piyutim originate, is more to the west than most of Europe! The compositions are from the tradition. On the new disc there are arrangements, but all of them are based on traditional melodies and chants, some from a 1,000 years ago, and even earlier piyutim that are 1,400 years old. It is not just the words but the music, too, which has a special form of its own. One of the articles in the book, by Professor Shulamit Elitsur, analyses the evolution of the music. Piyutim create a bridge between all the communities in Israel, specifically in the Sephardi tradition. The Ashkenazim say them but don’t sing them. The Sephardi custom is to repeat them every day with almost the same texts. The Ashkenazim recite them each day using a different melody and saying far fewer. They say them for a week or so, whereas the Sephardim have a tradition of saying them for a whole month.”

Vaknin was very pleased with the audience at the launch. “You could see how secular Israelis from Tel Aviv enjoyed the performance no less than the traditional Jews from Jerusalem. It has become widely popular. Some groups even gather in football stadiums, with thousands of people in attendance. It’s like a social event where everyone meets everyone else. Coachloads come up to Jerusalem from workplaces to enjoy an evening of selichot. There are sessions at the Kotel that draw more people than Lag Ba’Omer at Meron. You can have a quarter of a million people singing the piyutim for four hours.

“The mega-star of the piyutim is Rabbi Haim Louk. He now lives in Beit Shemesh, but for many years he was in the US, where he served as rabbi in Beverly Hills. He returned to Israel about 20 years ago and since then has appeared in countless concerts. He is both a great paytanist and as a great teacher. The Jerusalem Ensemble are essentially his students. He is a charismatic figure and likes to share his knowledge with others. What we are trying to do is to canonize piyutim. The Ensemble has been going for 16 years and started as students of Louk. They appear in many places around the Jewish world. They are currently in Krakow in the biggest festival of Jewish music in the world in front of 15,000 people. Last October they were in Morocco, where they made a great impression with their depth of understanding of the music.”

The book Siyyur Selichot is thus the product of many years’ work and has been produced to appeal to a Hebrew-speaking audience (no translation at the moment) that knows of this old tradition and now has the possibility of holding in their hands the entire range of these sacred prayers and petitions. The music, accessible through QR codes, makes it possible to hear as well as to see these prayers, with accompanying photos of manuscripts from around the world, many of which come from the collection of Bill Gross. The essays that accompany the texts include delightful stories of how people remember hearing these chants in their childhood and youth, and how they recall, girls and boys alike, being taken to the synagogue in the middle of the night to experience this age-old tradition as an integral part of growing up.

Vaknin, who produced this book by himself, is not surprised at the positive reception it has received. “Many companies bought the book to give to their employees as presents before the High Holidays,” he observes. “They’ve ordered thousands of copies. Even though the book has been published only recently, it has already proven a major success. We’re onto the third printing.”

In a period where tensions among Israelis have become a daily phenomenon, it is refreshing to hear of one area of a shared tradition that is bringing people from a wide variety of backgrounds together in joyous harmony. ■

SELICHOT JOURNEY: An experiential journey through the selichot poems and the prayers of the Days of Awe Written and edited by Mishael Vaknin 280 pages; NIS 220