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Toward Shabbat: Vayehi

I was fortunate to be able to travel to Israel a month ago, after almost two years, to visit family and friends and to attend the Jerusalem International Oud Festival. I have attended the 10-day festival every November since 2011 (save in 2019 when my mother died, and last year, naturally, because of Covid).

The festival provides a wonderful encounter with a variety of musical traditions from the Middle East, North Africa, and other parts of the Mediterranean. Several of the concerts explore the influence of ancient Hebrew poetry on contemporary musical creation and, this year the festival highlighted pioneering women artists, singing in Hebrew, Arabic, and Ladino.

Many of you know that I have been a dedicated student of the oud and of Middle Eastern music for the past 20 years, and I have been immersed in the world of piyut (sacred Hebrew poetry and song from around the world). So the Oud Festival is one of the highlights of my year, a total reveling in the music and cultures that I love. It was a real treat to be in Jerusalem and at the festival this year, and I thoroughly enjoyed the beauty and diversity of the music as well the creativity and passion of the artists.

But there were a few minutes within one of the concerts—a strange work based on mystical texts set to a combination of Persian music with rock, pop, and electronic rap—that touched me in a particularly deep way. One of the performers, Eyal Said Mani, a master of the Persian stringed instrument called the tar and a Haredi Jew, sang alone for some seven or eight minutes and offered the purest and truest prayer I had heard in a long time. Everyone around me was enraptured. It wasn’t about the words: he sang in Persian and hardly anyone there understood the language. It wasn’t about the voice either: he has a pleasant voice, but not an extraordinary one. The prayer was certainly emanating from his soul, but there was something else, an additional dimension…

I didn’t know much about Eyal Mani, so later that night I read about his life’s journey and I learned where that deep prayer really came from and why his music is so powerful.

Eyal Mani was born in Tehran in 1961 into a Muslim Sufi family and learned music from his father, a master of traditional Persian music. In 1977 (two years before the Iranian Revolution), at age 16, Mani was accepted to study at a conservatory in Vienna. Before he went, his mother invited him to travel with her to Israel, where she was seeking cancer treatment. On the flight, she told him that she was Jewish. Mani was shocked. A month later, his mother went back to Iran but he decided to stay in Israel by himself. He didn’t go to study in Vienna and he never returned to Iran. For the next decade he pieced together a living as a musician and sought to maintain his Muslim faith. Twelve years later, at age 28, he walked into a synagogue for the first time in his life. He soon became an observant Jew and eventually received rabbinic ordination. In fact, he dove so deeply into Judaism over the ensuing years that he barely played any music at all. Finally, when he was 48, Mani’s rabbi encouraged him to ease up a bit on the Torah and get back into music.

Today, Mani divides his time between music and Torah study. He considers music to be vital to connection: “I believe that music, which is a universal language, has the power to connect souls together, between the people of Israel and between Israel and other nations.” In an article about him, he takes this message even further: “Most of the world’s politicians and media want to show that there is a real separation in the world between humans. It doesn’t really exist. There is unity, there is love, and this is our mission to show it, that it does exist.”

I witnessed that night at the Oud Festival how a person can hold together at one time their entire journey, their struggles and longings, their search for purpose, and their love for God and for humanity, and turn them into the most genuine and beautiful prayer.