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Ageless music

At 80, rabbi rocks liturgical socks off

Moroccan-born Chaim Louk celebrates his 80th with singer Amir Benayoun and rocker Berry Sakharov

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Rabbi Haim Louk, a famed singer of liturgical poems, who will perform with Israeli singers Amir Benayoun and Berry Sakharov for his 80th birthday celebrations in October and December 2021. (courtesy, Shmulik Balmas)
Rabbi Haim Louk, a famed singer of liturgical poems, who will perform with Israeli singers Amir Benayoun and Berry Sakharov for his 80th birthday celebrations in October and December 2021. (courtesy, Shmulik Balmas)

Not every octogenarian rabbi gets to perform with singer Amir Benayoun or rocker Berry Sakharov on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

But that’s exactly what Rabbi Chaim Louk will be doing to celebrate, performing on October 19 with Amir Benayoun, accompanied by musician Elad Levi and his band, and again on December 15 — with Sakharov and Levi — at Zappa Jerusalem, initiated and produced by the city’s Confederation House, home of the upcoming, annual Oud Festival.

Levi, who works closely with Louk, said that the rabbi is no average religious functionary. Known as a paytan, a singer of liturgical poems, Louk has become well known in recent years for his performances, and his ability to bring the ancient musical tradition to younger audiences.

“That’s what’s so amazing about him,” said Levi. “He’s really open. You don’t have to try too hard to convince him to try something that he’s never done. What’s important to him, and I love this about him, is the text.”

Jewish liturgical poems, originally composed to be sung and recited during services, have been written since the ancient times of the biblical Temples, usually in Hebrew or Aramaic.

They have experienced a resurgence in the last decade, put to new music, sung by a host of popular Israeli singers, and brought to the attention of the wider public.

Elad Levi, a musician who works closely with Rabbi Haim Louk, a famed singer of liturgical poems, and will perform with Louk and Israeli singers Amir Benayoun and Berry Sakharov for Louk’s 80th birthday celebrations in October and December 2021 (Courtesy Giti Silver)

“The piyyut isn’t just about tradition and religion, but about this whole wave of ethnic music that’s caught on in the last 10 years,” said Levi. “You look out at the audience and it’s this mix of secular Israelis, hipsters, religious types — really everyone.”

Louk, who was born in Morocco, and learned from Rabbi David Buzaglo, considered one of the greatest liturgical singers, came to Israel in 1964 and brought his paytan skills with him.

It is a background that Levi can identify with, though he is decades younger and was born in Israel. His own Moroccan family regularly played and sang religious liturgical music as well, both at home and in the local synagogue.

The two met a dozen years ago and hit it off immediately, said Levi.

“Chaim Louk is very excited about the idea of a younger generation listening to piyyut,” he said. “It’s surprising to him that young people are interested because it’s such an ancient kind of music.”

Their collaborative work showed Levi that Louk wanted to make this ancient music more accessible to younger people, with modern compositions, influences, and combinations.

“If an Israeli singer writes a song and Chaim Louk likes the words, he’ll sing it because it interests him,” said Levi.

Louk has performed with Benayoun and Sakharov before, making singing with both an obvious choice for the rabbi’s 80th birthday celebrations.

“The older he gets, the more curious he is,” said Levi. “He loves the stage. The minute he sees the stage, he loses 40 years.”

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