This aria of mine will wind its music around you, like the fond arms of love.
This song of mine will touch your forehead like a kiss of blessing.
When you are alone, it will sit by your side and whisper in your ear.
When you are in the crowd, it will give you security.
My song will be like a pair of wings to your dreams.
It will be like the faithful star overhead when the dark night is over your road.
My song will sit in the pupils of your eyes, and will carry your sight into the heart of things.
And when my voice is silent in death, my song will speak in your living heart.
- R. Tagore
The old masters asked, “What is life like?” “Life,” said they, “is like a musical instrument. God plays upon the instrument. The time may come when the instrument that had felt the touch of the hand of God and had responded to its caressing, may crumble and fall into dust. But they who have heard the melody will have its notes ring in their ears to the last day.”
Debbie Friedman (1951 - 2011) was a musical instrument in the hands of God. With creativity and singularity of purpose, she answered with the melody of her life to the touch of God’s hands. We all feel terribly bereft to say farewell to the voice of a Jewish generation but greater than our grief is our gratitude because we have heard the melody.
In my opinion, Debbie was the most influential composer of Jewish music of the last fifty years.
Her contribution to the Jewish liturgical arts, as you will surely read elsewhere this week, came not without controversy. Critics of her music, chief among them the stalwart defenders of the heritage of European Cantorial tradition, or of the particular genius that the giants of 19th- and 20th-century composition brought from their classical training to Jewish choral settings and liturgical art-songs, or of the under-explored tonalities and melodies that ethno-musicologically inclined composers were beginning to rediscover in music from the Sephardic world and elsewhere, all worried that Debbie's populist folk ditties would debase what they considered more "elevated" forms of Jewish musical expression.
Her critics were not totally off-base in their concerns. In my experience, the music heard in Reform temples today can fall into two broad categories: "pre-Debbie" and "post-Debbie." Pre-Debbie music variously conveys majesty, sublimity, Old-World "tradition," reaching hearts and minds in ways that Debbie Friedman's music does not and cannot.
But Debbie's music has the advantage of accessibility. It is eminently singable. It is uniquely American-sounding. Much post-Debbie music bears her stylistic imprimatur (and though there are many imitators, few reach the heights of her gift).
I wonder here if "pre-Debbie" music may be a dying breed, as I observe that Friedman's output has already eclipsed, in terms of its popular appeal and impact, the work of other supremely talented composers of Jewish liturgical music like Bonia Shur, Ben Steinberg, Stephen Richards, Michael Isaacson, all of whom, though living, are as much as a full generation older than Debbie was when she died this Sunday, too young, at age 59.
The "pre-Debbie"/"post-Debbie" dichotomy acknowledges that her contributions to Jewish music came with so many contrasts to every kind of cantorial music that preceded her, quite thoroughly upending how one prays in a Reform synagogue:
- Her musical template was American folk-pop music of the 1960's, sharing DNA with Joan Baez, early (pre-"Blue") Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul, & Mary, Simon & Garfunkel.... Most of it is set in bright major keys, alien territory for much "traditional" Jewish music. Outside the Sephardic world, the cantorial tradition relies heavily on modal and minor tonalities.
- She wanted her music to be singable, and so democratized the experience of synagogue music.
- She brought the guitar into the Reform synagogue where once the organ held sway. I will never forget the stunned look on some of our congregants' faces when Debbie emerged on the bimah of our synagogue, Westchester Reform Temple, offering only her voice and her fingerpicked acoustic guitar (with electric amplification),
on the eve of Rosh Ha-Shanah no less. Some saw it as sacrilege. Others, a breath of fresh air.
- She brought a strong feminist voice to Judaism, and a distinctively female outlook permeates her music and her lyrics: Lechi Lach, for instance, is the feminized Hebrew inversion of the Bible's Lech Lecha ("go forth").
- She brought Healing to the forefront of Jewish spirituality. Where once a "Mi Shebeirach" for people in need of healing was a kind of "discretionary prayer," an offering that the service leader might incorporate if so moved, Debbie's Mi Shebeirach has, in many Reform (and Conservative, Reconstructionist and even some Modern Orthodox) settings, taken on the status of statutory liturgy, something essential, not dispensable, as it responds to an essential human need.
- She was equally gifted in the idiom of children's music and thus contributed immeasurably to the field of Jewish education. Hers is the definitive setting of the alef bet, the Hebrew alphabet, assisting countless Hebrew School students in memorizing the building blocks of language and Jewish identity.
Not all of her music was equally inspired. She was prolific, and like many musicians who are prolific, the truly great often ended up on wax alongside the average. But I have been listening to Debbie a lot this week, giving me a chance to appraise again what made her gift so special. At her best, Debbie was a supremely gifted melodist with an ear for interesting chord changes. She understood (perhaps intuitively, or perhaps with much thoughtfulness) that for people to sing along in synagogue, the dense cadences of Rabbinic Hebrew would have to be condensed into catchy choruses, and so English was her lingua franca, dressed up by a Hebrew refrain, a memorable catchphrase: "Bless those in need of healing with refuah shleimah." "You shall be a blessing, Lechi Lach."
Now I want to speak more personally, because amid the printed and spoken encomia and superlatives that I have encountered this week, too many have presented an idealized image rather than a special human being. Debbie Friedman was a colorful character with a fiendish sense of humor--totally uncensored and often uproarious. She was silly: I once asked if she would sing an anthem after a sermon and she asked, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame?" True, she wrote Tefillat Ha-Derech, that blessing for the journey; but she also wrote "I Am A Latke," a narrative in the first-person voice of a fried potato pancake.
She was a cherished friend, and a spiritual mentor to me. I feel blessed to have worked closely with her for a year (2007-2008) and to have sustained a friendship until her death.
I love my memories of my time with Debbie Friedman. We inaugurated our partnership in preparation for a tribute service to Rabbi Jacobs who was being honored at WRT for 25 years in the rabbinate. We enlisted Debbie to compose an entire service of original music for Rick, and she helped to direct a volunteer choir of congregants who surprised our rabbi with this musical tribute. Let me tell you: she knocked it out of the park -- and the "Lecha Dodi" she wrote just for him--just for WRT--is now part of our regular Friday night repertoire.
When our cantor of blessed memory, Stephen H. Merkel, died after long illness in February 2007, Rabbi Rick Jacobs of our temple approached Debbie to consider joining our clergy staff the next fall as a yearlong artist-in-residence to ease the pain of Cantor Merkel's death and to see our congregation safely through the Valley of the Shadow.
Debbie leapt with her heart before leading with her head, and her emotional radar was often acutely empathic. When Cantor Merkel finally died, she sent me an e-mail that said, in part:
Debbie had just moved to New York to join the faculty of the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, the training ground for Reform Rabbis, Cantors, Educators, and Jewish Professionals, and was close with Rabbi Jacobs, so the shiddach, the partnership, was natural, although she had never before undertaken a sustained residency like the one she did at WRT (and never would again).
Debbie, who could draw crowds of thousands at gatherings of the Reform Movement, or at regular weekend "gigs" in synagogues across the world, would be on our bimah every other Friday night, from the High Holidays through Shavuot! Thus did I befriend a person I had admired since childhood.
After all, Debbie was not only the voice of a generation; she was the voice of my generation. My first memory of music class in Mrs. Ziontz's first-grade religious school class at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Allentown, PA is of learning Im Tirtzu, Debbie's setting of Herzl's immortal words, the rallying cry of Zionism: "If you will it, it is no dream." I played nonchalant when I learned that I'd be sharing a bimah with Debbie twice a month. But inside I felt excited. And a bit nervous. I am a singer and I didn't know if Debbie would like singing with me.
Most of the time, she did. She even once told me. In writing -- and I will always hold on to that message.
But one time, she thought I was harmonizing a bit too... aggressively. Too loudly. After services, she confronted me and did not mince words. I was taken aback.
But, you know what? That's how Debbie was. She would blurt out exactly what was on her mind, usually with no filter. I came to embrace this quality in my friend as an endearing one--once we had the chance to clear the air and share a hug of reconciliation.
When I told Debbie I wanted to poke fun at her artistry for Purim, she bested me and wrote her own lyrics for my proposed parody of "Lechi Lach." I gave her the title and she ran with it. Like so:
She could be totally spontaneous, totally in touch with the energy in the room. While leading services, she would change on a dime if she felt a certain selection in the cue list didn't fit the feeling she wanted to capture. About these spur-of-the-moment decisions she was almost always right. Unfortunately for those singing with her, leading the service with her, accompanying her at the piano, her sudden hairpin turns in the course of service leading could prove maddening. Too infrequently did she inform our accompanist in what key she'd like to play, and some interesting experiments in tonal clusters surely emerged from such misfires in communication. She just wanted to do it all by feel. And so she did.
I have a piece of paper from Debbie in which she edited a cue sheet we had prepared for a service. It is part of our keva, our fixed custom of praying, to introduce the Friday night candle lighting with Debbie's song, "Light These Lights." As often happens, our way of singing it has taken on its own idiosyncrasies over the years. In a marginal note next to "Light These Lights" she wrote:
I don't know what else to tell you here that you can't read in one of the other, more thoroughly researched, more comprehensively fact-checked obituaries and biographies that are already flooding the newspapers and the blogosphere. She loved off-color jokes and we shared more than a few. She loved her dog Farfel and even took out a personal e-mail address paying tribute to her faithful companion. She was clever and smart and liked puns. In an e-mail that still makes me laugh, she called herself a "wondering menstrual." I will miss her.
I know that somewhere Einstein is echoing one of his favorite phrases: "Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous." What else could account for Debbie's death coming in poetic symmetry with the weekly Torah portion, Beshallach, the Song at the Sea, sung the Jewish world over this Shabbat, which is named Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song?