I gave this D'var Torah on Saturday morning, January 23, on the Shabbat before Debbie Friedman's 10th yahrzeit.
On a Sunday night in early January 25 years ago, Laurie and I were living in Queens and there was a big Nor’easter brewing. Some of you may remember, it came all the way up here – it shut down New York City for several days. We had tickets to a concert at Carnegie Hall and decided to go anyway. This was before we had kids, but even so we wouldn’t usually go out late on a night before a work day. We got to our seats way up in who knows which balcony, and the performer came out on stage and said, “Welcome to Beth Carnegie!” And for the next couple of hours Debbie Friedman turned Carnegie Hall into a shul, into camp, into a Jewish revival. Debbie, zichronah liv’racha, is the composer and singer who gave us Misheberach, L'chi Lach, the ya-la-la-la-s of Havdalah, I Am a Latke – just for some examples. This coming week we will remember Debbie’s 10th yahrzeit.
At Beth Carnegie in 1996 Debbie had on stage her sign language interpreter EJ Cohen, who lives in New Hampshire and who I met years later up here. Were any of you there by chance? After it was over, Laurie and I went to the backstage door. The snow was already really coming down but we wanted to say hi to Debbie before she left, the way you’d go out to try to get an autograph from a Broadway star.
We wanted to talk to her because the Savetts have a connection to Debbie Friedman’s family that may be unique, as surely we are the only two Jewish families who have settled in both Utica, New York and St. Paul, Minnesota. Debbie was an alum of my alma mater, Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul -- Debbie and Jack Morris, major league pitcher (they would have just missed each other there).
Growing up, Debbie was involved in the youth program at Mt. Zion, the large Reform congregation in St. Paul whose legacy includes Rabbi Gunther Plaut, editor of the Reform movement chumash. In the mid-1960s Mt. Zion started encouraging kids to go to Jewish summer camp at Olin Sang Ruby in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and before twelfth grade Debbie went back to New York State in the summer to the NFTY Song and Dance Leaders Institute at Kutz Camp. The next year, right out of high school, Debbie was in Israel on Kibbutz; she was leading music for Mt. Zion’s youth group and religious school; she was regional and national songleader for NFTY; and she was back at Kutz on the staff of the Song Leader Institute.
Cantor Jeff Klepper, composer of our Shalom Rav melody, met Debbie that summer of ’69. He was 15 and remembers a charismatic musician, age 19 and about the same size as her 12-string Martin guitar. He says that Debbie was already a celebrity at camp that summer and the best song leader on the staff, the most effective teacher.
This was the time in her life when Debbie was beginning to compose. She didn’t formally study music; she never learned to read music, but she was a sponge for all kinds of songs, particularly folk music both American and Israeli. You can hear Peter, Paul and Mary in a lot of Debbie’s early music, and later Peter Yarrow himself got to know her and said that Debbie was like Mary.
The Savetts always got Debbie’s early vinyl hot off the press, and her records became part of our Friday night ritual at home. We would eat our Shabbat dinner, and sing out the songbooks we pilfered from Herzl Camp, where Dad was the doctor for a week during the summer and we’d get to eat with camp and absorb songs and ruach. I was just in elementary school when these traditions began. After dinner we’d go into the den and put on a Debbie album. The first one, Sing Unto God, was basically a whole Friday night service. She recorded it with the high school chorus from our alma mater as her backup singers. They helped her debut the songs in a presentation at Mt. Zion. That album contained among pieces her quickly-famous Sh’ma.
I don’t remember really meeting Debbie as a young kid that much. She was more than 15 years older than me and I knew she was a big deal. I remember stopping by the Friedman home from time to time with my parents, and seeing her parents Frieda and Gabe and her sister Cheryl. When I would go to camp and we would sing Debbie's first Mi Chamocha or Im Tirtzu, I always felt a little less homesick.
Debbie did something within her first few years of creating that no one else had done before. She bridged camp and Temple. She made the same music the music of both. She wasn’t the first to set traditional Jewish words in a pop or folk style. This was just a few years after Tom Lehrer had already made fun of the 1960s attempts to make worship hip and young in his song “The Vatican Rag.”
But Debbie was the first to make that music work on the bimah. I remember going to Mt. Zion from time to time and hearing there the melodies I knew from our living room, and the music worked even in a Sanctuary that was cavernous, with the very formal cantor and the robes and the bimah up high and the organ. I’m sure being a home-town talent made a difference, but it wasn’t just in Minnesota that her music was catching on. And remember that Debbie started doing this as a woman at a time when the Hebrew Union College had still not ordained a female rabbi or cantor.
I think there are a few reasons Debbie was the one to pave the way of synthesis between camp and Temple, between stand-alone creativity and conventional prayer services. First of all, Debbie was like Mozart. She was a young prodigy, so soulful and so creative but in a tight frame that people could come to recognize and assimilate, that stretched them just the right amount. There’s something familiar across her many generative years. You can hear certain kinds of intervals over and over -- Oseh Shalom, the tears may fall but we’ll hear them call,v’im lo achshav, and the women dancing with their timbrels. Or the same thing in a slightly different mode -- While we’re here in Hebrew School, samekh ayin pay fay…. Oseh shalom – hear it? Those are bits of different kinds of songs from over a twenty year span, but there’s something threading through. She had a few patterns like that she reworked over and over. Each new Debbie album was like getting together with an old friend to catch up and then settling in to hear about her latest adventure in some new part of the world.
You don’t hear anything quite like Debbie’s signature vocal motifs in anyone else’s music, but still anyone can sing or lead a Debbie song. She doesn’t make you go up high to notes you can’t reach, or throw in a bridge that only one person in the group can do. Debbie had plenty of range in her voice, but she mostly sang to us in our range. And when she herself was in front of a group Debbie never did what a James Taylor or a Peter Yarrow does from time to time, vary up a familiar song to make this performance different from another. It was different because the moment was different and she was in the moment with your particular group. Maybe this time she’d sing faster or slower, maybe change the instrumentation, but she never made herself superior to you when she was singing to you or leading you. Not in a concert at a synagogue, or at a Reform movement convention or at CAJE, and not even at Carnegie Hall. Debbie’s songs and their experience were something she was giving to you, so they would belong to you. Her music sounds great if a great cantor sings it, if a choir sings it -- if you sing it.
Debbie packed a lot of Hebrew words into her music. This is the opposite of the niggun approach of repeating a few words, and it was a bit of a counterculture to the art of English in the New Union Prayerbook. She figured out how to make you want to know the Hebrew rather than be scared off by it. Her music was the spoonful of sugar; not sugary (or very occasionally) but more like honey with fragrances that get around the barriers your conscious brain might put up. She did plenty in English too, liturgical and educational – but she came to want to study the original texts and she would return again and again to certain words, like the Song of Songs or Mi Chamocha.
Debbie didn’t create new theological language, but she translated the new metaphors others were teaching and brilliantly made them hearable. While we rabbis began struggling with how to say “God of our forefathers and our foremothers” or “God of our ancestors”, Debbie came up with “Who blessed the ones before us.” She started out using the language of the traditional Reform prayerbook in all its gender-not-neutral formal English – “And Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart” – and eventually she went back and revised some of her own early songs in English. Her Renewal of Spirit album of healing prayers included many that address God very directly and traditionally as “You.” Don’t hide your face from me, I’m asking for your help. Instead of theology, just the real moment of prayer.
Debbie never made herself a celebrity or even a personality outside of her music. In public she taught and narrated through her concerts, and she loved the teaching process up close with musicians and students and in big groups, but she didn’t ask you to listen to a story of her personal experience as the price of connecting. I think it was only much later in her life that people outside her circle knew of the physical ailments she was struggling with. Laurie and I heard her in Atlanta about ten years after Carnegie Hall, in a synagogue just a few years before she died, and it was obvious she wasn’t herself but she didn’t talk about that. Debbie helped give voice to Jewish feminism and some of the spiritual revival from the 1990s onward, but she wasn’t an activist outside of the music itself. The most activist thing was the women’s Seder that her music has become so central to.
For the Jews of North America, Debbie Friedman stands where only Naomi Shemer, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, and Ehud Manor stand.
For me the most important Debbie music is from her third album called Ani Ma’amin, put out in 1976. She created it as she was working with a group just out of high school at Camp Olin Sang Ruby, and the cover has a picture of Debbie sitting on rocks by a lake looking out. The Savett home probably listened to this one the most of all on Shabbat evenings through my junior and senior high years.
Debbie wrote on the jacket about the meaning of “I believe in the coming of the Messiah”, the gaps between dreams and visions and reality, but the music sounds like all the dreams are real and the visions have come to pass. We all mostly know Ani Ma’amin as a somber Shoah melody, but Debbie’s was the first melody I ever knew for this, and it’s entirely different.
That album’s interpretation of Shabbat is that the rest we need isn’t an escape, a break from a world too broken, but a transport to a world where everything true is just real, without effort. That’s what the album sounds like. A world where God’s Torah and love are just there on any given day and it’s no question they will always be – V’ahavatcha al tasir mimenu l’olamim, Baruch Atah Adonai, Ohev Amo Yisrael. And Your love will never move from us, not ever – Blessed are You, Adonai, Who loves Your people Israel.
As we mark ten years without Debbie Friedman’s live voice, may we take to heart what she gave us to say every week: Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing. Debbie’s voice in our minds and on our recordings, and our voices singing what Debbie gave us -- may they always be a blessing.