Remembering Debbie Friedman

I’ve been thinking this week about when the founding rabbi of my synagogue first approached me many years ago about being the Music Director of this new congregation he was starting.

Surely such an offer was the last thing on my mind, and I was blunt with him in saying that I really knew far more about pop and soul music than things Judaic.

Nevertheless, I agreed to give it a try.

I realize now it was one of the pivotal moments in my life, and truthfully I had some small instinct that something profound was happening. But immediately afterward, I still thought to myself, “What the hell have I gotten into?”

Other than a few perfunctory holiday and celebratory songs, I knew nothing of contemporary Jewish music. I’d been to Jewish day camps at the Westside Jewish Community Center in L.A. as a kid, but never had any experiences of sitting-around-the-campfire singing eclectic Jewish songs

“What’s required musically in a Sabbath service?” I wondered. “What are the prayers – and more importantly, what are the melodies? I don’t speak Hebrew – how am I going to do this?”

A few weeks later the rabbi came to my home accompanied by a lay song leader familiar with the liturgy. I asked him to play and sing everything we’d need for a service – I’d record it all on my Radio Shack cassette recorder and then set about learning it.

And then I braced myself for the worst. “What if I hate this stuff? How am I gonna relate musically? Jeez, what if I fail at this?” I considered the possibility that there might be a special spot in hell for Ignorant Jewish Studio Musicians Who Let God Down.

But then the song leader started singing a version of the “V’ahavta” prayer – which commands that “… we shall love the Lord Thy God with all our hearts”. Amazingly, along with the obligatory Hebrew, the musical setting also had English words too!

And the melody was accessible – a little more Peter, Paul and Mary-ish than I cared for, but nevertheless, I knew right away I could get it. I looked at my kids’ mother – who eventually became the synagogue’s first cantorial soloist – and we knew it. And as more and more of the prayers and songs came forward, the vision of what I was going to do musically with this synagogue began to reveal itself.

I’m writing of this because so much of the music we heard that night was written by composer/performer Debbie Friedman, who passed away on January 9th.

I’m sad that I never made the effort to meet Debbie. I’ve read as many obituaries as I could get my hands on, and I spoke with one of her Music Directors. He gave me some insight into who the woman was behind the music, and I’m grateful. But the phrase he used which I most remember is “… that when she began to sing, she became transformed. She became the music and the music became her.”

Turns out both Debbie and I were children of kosher butchers. Turns out that she sometimes used annoyance and frustration as motivators for some of her best work – a method with which I’m also familiar.

Apparently it all started for her when she attended a synagogue in St. Paul and found the services, in her words, “boring. I realized the rabbi was talking, the choir was singing, but nobody was doing anything. There was no participation.”

So she did something about it. She began setting prayers to original contemporary folksy musical settings, and she began incorporating English translations into the lyrics. And in the process, she changed the face of modern Judaism.

Much of my life I’d often felt like a “less-than Jew”. I’d stand in services surrounded by Hebraically-schooled congregants chanting prayers at machine-gun pace, feeling like I had no right to be there. I became convinced that if the mezuzah around my neck could talk, it probably would’ve said it was ashamed to be seen with me.

I also had a real case of resentment and envy with contemporary Christian music. How come they could write in English? How come they could rock people’s socks off in worship? How come they could use all kinds of instruments and create arrangements and music that felt motivating and contemporary and relevant?

And Debbie got that.  I think she had some of the same feelings.

All these years later, much of that’s subsided. Envy has no place in a House of God and worship needn’t be a passive experience – for anyone. I realize that, along with honoring and cherishing the language and traditions and music of our forefathers, every one of us has the right to pray – and the right to know what we’re saying while we’re saying it.

Every one of us has the right to talk to God and question God and thank God and sing to God with our own clarity and our own truths.

As my choir and band and I performed Debbie’s “Sh’ma V’ahavta” and “Mi Shebeirach” and “L’chi Lach” and “Oseh Shalom” at services last Friday, I began to recognize how this single woman has affected the Judaic experience of thousands and thousands of people all over the world.

Had it not been for Debbie and her melodies and translations and compositions, I really don’t know if I’d have moved forward into what has become some of my life’s most important work. Elaborating the arrangements on her simple, elegant words and melodies encouraged me to write my own Jewish music and has helped enrich my personal artistic and spiritual panoramas.

At the end of the service, as the entire congregation stood arm-in-arm together singing Debbie’s “T’fillat Haderech” – like thousands of other congregations – I considered the impact that one daughter of a kosher butcher, a Joan Baez-looking troubador with an admittedly average voice – but with an annoyed genius tenacity – has made on our world.

Rest in peace, Debbie.

I owe you big time, and I pray that I continue doing my best to pay it forward.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.