Monday, August 24, 2015

The Late, Great Yosi Piamenta

He was often called the "Hassidic Hendrix," but Yosi Pimenta, z"l was a brilliant guitarist long before he decided to drop everything, move to Brooklyn and join Chabad. Drop everything, that is, except his Fender Stratocaster, on which he could play rings around anyone, and did, for nearly four more decades, until the illness that took his life yesterday at 63.

When he played and recorded with the late Stan Getz during the jazz legend's first visit to Israel in 1976 (a remarkable story, recounted on the DVD Stan Getz: A Musical Odyssey), Yosi was starting to make a name for himself, fronting the Piamenta Band, playing Sephardic-rock with his brother Avi and assorted family members. Avi's flute playing recalled Ian Anderson, but jazzier, while Yosi's driving lead guitar work featured tempo changes reminiscent of Frank  Zappa, with the long phrases and quarter-tones of Arabic modes.

Piamenta was, in some ways, a band out of its time — too late for the psychedelic 60s, too early for the jam-band 80s. Based in Tel Aviv, the Piamentas were coming up just as Poogy (the "Israeli Beatles") was winding down, but where Poogy was polished, Piamenta was a little rough around the edges, and proudly so. They cared less about entertainment and more about the music. Which is probably why, when Stan Getz sat in with them in 1976, something clicked. They gigged in Israel and the U.S, and recorded an album of Yosi's songs, creating some of the most transcendent music I have ever heard, in any language.

I met Yosi just one time. He was in New York, mixing the Stan Getz album, and a mutual friend brought him to our house in Brooklyn. Yosi was humble and sincere, and we shmoozed a little about acoustic guitar pickups. Then he played a rough mix for my roommates and me, and we were blown away. Getz had always said he hated rock music, but then Piamenta was no ordinary rock band. Perhaps it was the experience of playing with Israeli musicians in Israel that inspired him to express, for the first time, a "Jewish sound" with his saxophone. (Getz later said, "You know, when I'm playing, I think of myself in front of the Wailing Wall with a saxophone in my hands, and I'm davening, I'm really telling it to the Wall.") Somehow, I don't remember how exactly, I was able to get a copy of that tape, and I've been listening to it for nearly four decades. Like all great music, it gets better and better with age.

For reasons that were never clear to me, the album, which was to have been called "Mosaic Dreams," was never released.  It could have been due to any number of things. There are stories on the Internet claiming that Yosi and Avi, after seeing what the music business was really like, just walked away, settled in Crown Heights, and never looked back.  If that's true, kol hakavod to Yosi and Avi, who prayed and played and played, leaving an indelible imprint on Hassidic music.

But Yosi never forgot about those heavenly jams with Stan Getz in 1976. When he moved back to Israel in 2005, a story about him in Ha'aretz noted, "The album he made with Getz, with his brother and sisters accompanying, was never released. Getz died in 1991, but Piamenta still has the masters. About 10 months ago he had the unfinished mix transferred to a computer. "I intend to go back to the studio and finish the album when I have about $20,000, so that it will have the proper quality, as I dreamed back then.""

How sad it is that Yosi's dream remained unfulfilled in his lifetime.

Zichrono livracha. His memory, and his music, is a blessing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Cantor Lawrence Avery in Concert

The 1970s seems so long ago. Jimmy Carter was President, my one-bedroom on W. 69th rented for $450, and the Upper West Side was horrified when Häagen Dazs opened on Columbus Ave, charging one dollar (!) for a cone. 

FM radio was still something you could listen to for long stretches, and Sony's new Walkman made it possible to enjoy Paul Simon's latest as you walked past his co-op near Central Park. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion was (then) only a block away from Paul Simon's digs, but half-a-century removed in time. It was another world. And, like the brownstones on W. 68th, HUC-JIR had a charm of its own (as you can see, above.)

One of the jewels in HUC's crown was Cantor Lawrence Avery, z'l. After his recent passing (read my memorial tribute) I combed through my cassette tape collection and found a treasure trove of audio memorabilia. No, much more than memorabilia: amazing, incredible music that sounds as vital today as it did four decades ago.

HUC-JIR had a Sunday afternoon concert series featuring students and faculty in song. Here are Cantor Avery's performances from two of those concerts during the 70s. I recorded them myself, using simple equipment that I no longer own. Complete track info can be found on Soundcloud. While Avery's "Israel" set is particularly beautiful, the "Kwartin Memorial" pieces are especially touching. Cantor Paul Kwartin had long been a fixture on the New York scene, and he sang together with Cantors Avery and Ramon Gilbert in a traveling concert series called Cantica Hebraica. In tribute to their friend, Avery and Gilbert sang their arrangement of "V'af Al Pi Chein" with Paul's voice part missing. Near the end of the set is this gem, a rarely heard piece by Dmitri Shostakovich (Opus 79 No. 2), all the rarer because it was written for soprano and alto!

Israel in Song, April 13, 1975
Cantor Lawrence Avery, accompanied by David Schiff

The Cantor Paul Kwartin Memorial Concert, May 13, 1979
Cantor Lawrence Avery, accompanied by Joyce Rosenzweig, with guest Cantors Sarah Sager and Ramon Gilbert

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

In Memoriam: Cantor Lawrence Avery, z"l

In Jewish life, teachers are among those upon whom we bestow great honor. Many of our teachers are remembered with affection for the time they spent with us. But how many of them had a truly lasting impact on our lives?

Cantor Lawrence Avery, z"l, died last week at the age of 88. From 1974 to 1980 Cantor Avery was my teacher and my mentor at HUC-JIR (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) in New York City. But he was so much more than that — a spiritual advisor, vocal coach, role model, confidant, and friend.

More than any of my teachers he was the one who made me into a cantor. That was no sure thing in 1974, when I began my cantorial studies after two bumpy years at Clark University. I had no serious musical training up to then. I played guitar by ear, and never had a voice lesson. Though I was a well-regarded Jewish camp song-leader and had written some Hebrew songs (including "Shalom Rav"), the school was taking a gamble in accepting me.

From our very first class with him, I could see that Cantor Avery was someone who drew you in, with eyes that sparkled and the sweetest voice that God ever created. It wasn't just that he had so much to teach and I had so much to learn.  He was like a master magician with a secret knowledge to impart.  And only by paying close attention could you hope to learn it. 

Predicting that our relationship would blossom was hardly a sure thing. In some ways we were opposites. While he was a generation older, short, and impeccably dressed, I was twenty-ish, tall and scruffy. Musically, and Jewishly, we lived in different worlds. Me, the musical world of Bob Dylan and the Beatles; him, the world of great cantors and opera singers. He grew up Orthodox in Brooklyn and was the cantor of a large conservative synagogue in New Rochelle, NY while I, on the other hand, was still (at the time) eating pasta with clam sauce, and sausage pizza, with no desire to live a strictly observant Jewish life.

In spite of those differences each of us saw something intriguing in the other. I saw him as a cantor's cantor, a teacher with an incredible wealth of knowledge.  And that voice of his… Because his tenor voice was light and lyrical rather than powerful, he had to rely on his brains - his phrasing and interpretation - to dazzle you, which he did, always. He was a consummate vocal artist, driven to excellence. Having developed his vocal gifts to their fullest potential, he could communicate like no other cantor I have known.

Perhaps he saw in me the capacity to grow and learn under his tutelage. I think he admired my skill as a song-leader and my ability to inspire young people with music. I know he valued my songwriting - for he was himself a writer of lovely melodies in the style of Israeli composers like Naomi Shemer (songs he played beautifully on the piano!) - and he always encouraged my creative output. On one occasion he praised a blessing I had composed, and created a piano arrangement for it. He would make tapes to help me learn the "nusach," the chanted phrases that constitute the musical DNA of the cantor's art.  And he brought me into his most beloved musical world by patiently nurturing in me a love of opera.

In his late forties, Avery (his birth name was Avery Cohen, a name he changed because Lawrence Avery "sounded more like a tenor") was one of the younger cantors teaching at the school. Most of the others were "old-school" and had no interest in guitars, rock services, or liturgical experimentation. As chair of the faculty a few years later, he would lead the discussion following our weekly Practicum (a mock service that each student had to perform). By discussion I mean "critique," and sometimes the comments could be quite vicious. Only the very best students emerged unscathed, and even the best-of-the-best sometimes had to have their bubbles burst and "brought back down to earth." I was never in such lofty company. On two such occasions, after I was attacked by certain members of the faculty, Cantor Avery rose to my defense, for which I will always be profoundly grateful.

When I saw him several years after graduation, I told him that, during the first year in my first job, not a working day went by when I didn't draw upon the wellspring of knowledge he gave me.  His voice will continue to resonate in my ears for many, many years to come. 

Listen to the voice of Cantor Lawrence Avery:

Read more about Cantor Lawrence Avery:
Here is an article from 1992 in the NY Times by Ari Goldman

PHOTOS: Top photo: thanks to Adina Avery-Grossman. Lower photo: teaching at HUC-JIR on West 68 St, (c. 1974) from Keeping Posted magazine Vol XXXIV No. 3 (from the left, the students pictured are Donald Croll and Elias Roochvarg). Recordings are from live concert LPs originally produced by the American Conference of Cantors.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Birthday of the World (For Rosh Hashanah 5775...and beyond)

With appreciation to Theodor Geisel, and his Jewish doppelganger Uncle Eli...

The Birthday of the World  ֻ•  הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם 
(by Jeff Klepper)

Today is the birthday, the day of the birth
Of the globe in the sky that we call Planet Earth.

Today is the day when the heavens were born,
When the sun and the moon and the planets were formed.

When the forces of nature were shaken and shifted,
With this beautiful world we were lovingly gifted.

From out of the silence there came a big bang,
The stars did a dance and the angels all sang.

Now, I've tried to explain without being specific,
(After all, it's a story, it's not scientific!)

We look to the Torah for the truth it can teach us,
But we need to be open for the message to reach us.

Our planet is fragile, every one has a share of it,
We are the ones who must tend and take care of it.

From The Congo to Cuba, Cameroon to Cape Cod,
We're one human family, in the image of God.

And no one can claim that their race is the better,
Their faith is more holy, their blood is more redder.

So on these Awesome Days, when we sing out "Ha-yom,"
Say "Thank you" to God for this place we call home!

© 2013 Jeff Klepper
May be copied (with attribution) for educational or liturgical use.
Thanks to the anonymous photographer.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Poems for a Tu Bishvat Seder

Our friends came over for an impromptu Tu Bishvat Seder last night. They brought the fruit (thanks Barbara and Brian!) And I brought my offering in words (isn't that how we Jews do it?)

I always forget which fruits you eat when, and how much white or red wine to drink, so I dashed off a poem about the Four Worlds of Creation that you can use for next year's seder. Chag same'ach!

Poems for a Tu Bishvat Seder
by Jeff Klepper © 2012

In Asiya where we begin
Our fruit must have protective skin
That you'll remove and toss away
The rest is yours to eat, ok?

Included here are nuts as well
Like almonds, with an outer shell
Or nuts like coco and brazil
Crack them open, eat your fill

The wine (juice) we drink is only white, cool and crisp, like winter's light.

For Yetzirah we now provide
Fruits that have a pit inside
So take a bite, the taste is sweet
The pit, of course, you'd never eat

On plums and peaches, olives too
That nature formed for me and you
On mangos, apricots and dates
We say "borei p'ri ha'eitz"

Add a drop of red and sing, as winter slowly turns to spring.

Beriyah is level three
So pick an apple from the tree
Creation gives us all we need
These fruits have tiny little seeds...

Grapes and berries, when they're tasted
Are complete, so nothing's wasted
Also kiwis, figs and pears,
Pass around the plate and share!

The wine (juice) we drink is white and red, a taste of summer in your head.

The highest level, Atzilut
Is spiritual, we need no fruit
And after drinking wine (juice) that's red
We smell a fragrant spice instead.

So take a walk, enjoy the breeze
Say, "Happy Birthday" to the trees.
Thanking God for all we've got
Is (in a nutshell) Tu Bishvat!

The tree picture at the top is uncredited - if it's yours let me know so I can thank you.
The sunset photo was taken by me from the balcony of the Samuels' home in Ein Hod in 2008.
(You can see the single hardy tree that made it through a forest fire.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Debbie Friedman: Under the Stars & Over the Rainbow (1991)

On July 13, 1991 Debbie headlined an outdoor concert at camp to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, WI. A limited edition VHS tape of concert highlights is the source of these performances, posted here with the camp’s permission.
As Debbie sang, she was distracted by the buzzing and biting of “dive bomber” mosquitoes, and also by a small plane that flew overhead with a banner bearing a humorous message for camp Director Jerry Kaye. Hundreds of campers, staff, alumni and fans welcomed Debbie as a celebrity and sang her songs enthusiastically, yet at times she seemed ill at ease, even as she launched into bits of silliness. Beginning the chords of “Kumi Lach” she seemed to be overcome with emotion, perhaps having to do with returning to the place where she had written that song, and so many others, some twenty years earlier.
She was, of course, still learning to cope with the physical limitations of her illness and may not have been feeling great that day. But I wonder, as she looked out at the crowd, if she was being moved by the power of that place, and the realization that more than a few of those singing her songs were the children of her contemporaries, a new generation. I hope she knew how much this new generation, raised on her "Aleph Bet Song" loved and looked up to her.
That night Debbie sang as sweetly as I have ever heard her, offering stunning renditions of “Shelter of Peace," and “The Rainbow Blessing,” and making a point to introduce her Bubbe as she began a very spirited "Miriam's Song." She ended with all the musicians who had played during the evening (yours truly among them) joining her to sing a new song, “The Angels’ Blessing."
Kumi Lach

Rainbow Blessing

Miriam's Song

Shelter of Peace (Hashkiveinu)

The Angels' Blessing

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Shabbat Shirah with Debbie Friedman (& Me) - Part 2

Here is the second group of songs from Shabbat Shirah, 1988.
(Check back tomorrow for the final batch.)

Shabbat Shirah with Debbie Friedman (& Me)

Twenty-four years ago, when I was cantor of Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston, IL, Debbie Friedman came to sing at my shul one Friday night. It was Shabbat Shirah, January 29, 1988. Debbie had concerts in the area on Saturday and Sunday, and somehow I had learned that she was free on Friday. (It was just Debbie - those were the days before "the band.") So I called her a couple of weeks before and invited her to sing with me on the bima—very simple, low-key and haimish. She accepted. There were no ads or emails or phone blasts - with two weeks notice we barely had time to spread the word that Debbie was coming.

I picked her up at the hotel at 6 p.m. I was excited and happy, not just to be spending time with Debbie and singing with her, but to have her be the guest at my congregation on Shabbat Shirah. Little did I know how important a night this would be. For one thing, Debbie had recently written "Miriam's Song". I heard it for the first time an hour before the service, when we sat in my study making a list of songs for the service. Debbie wanted to teach "Miriam's Song," and her new "Mi Chamocha" (the la-la one) and "Kaddish D'rabanan," and "Bruchot Haba'ot," and a song she had premiered the previous summer at CAJE called "L'chi Lach." She sang them all that evening, and I sang and played guitar alongside her, noodling and learning the new songs as she sang them. They would all be recorded (along with "Mi Shebeirach," "T'filat Haderech" and other future classics) for Debbie's first CD release, And You Shall Be a Blessing, an album that would, at the very least, change the direction of synagogue liturgy and perhaps the course of Jewish life.

There was no rehearsal, just enough time to go through her new pieces and for me to show her the chords for "Yism'chu" and "Oseh Shalom." She asked if she could lead "Shalom Rav" and wanted me to follow her. That may have been the first time I heard her unique interpretation of Danny's and my 14 year-old song. When Debbie sang "Shalom Rav" she would pause for a long time after each verse, before the chorus. That's the way you often hear it sung at camp and in youth groups. The long rests Debbie added to "Shalom Rav" (what musicians call "the spaces between the notes") are the musical equivalent of what Kabbalists call "white fire" — spaces of nothingness between the letters of a Torah scroll, which hold all the secrets of the universe. They are very spiritual moments, and a reminder to all of us that it's not what you sing but how you sing that makes the difference.

After the service Deeana and I (we had been married for four months) brought Debbie to our apartment to eat something (all she wanted was chicken breast and cucumber) and schmooze for awhile. Then it was getting late, so I drove Debbie to her hotel, and of course saw her at the other gigs that weekend. It was a momentous Shabbat, but only in hindsight do I appreciate just how important it was. Within a month or so, as Debbie relates in the liner notes to And You Shall Be a Blessing, "after lying down with a headache, I awoke incapable of walking. A week later no part of me would move." From that point on Debbie struggled with a neurological condition that changed the course of her life.

By some fortunate miracle, not only was the service recorded (in mono) on our taping system, but the sound is actually pretty good. You will hear everything that happened that night, except for the spoken readings and the Torah service (which included the welcoming of a Jew-by-choice named Joyce, for whom Debbie sings "Bruchot Haba'aot.") We began, at my request, with "Shir Hama'alot." You will hear the spontaneous harmonies, my half-baked guitar riffs, and Rabbi Peter Knobel singing along or tapping the podium when he stands near the mic. You'll hear me introduce "Miriam's Song" by mistake (instead of "Mi Chamocha") and you'll hear Debbie scold me for making up some banter about staying up late at night during CAJE conferences. You'll hear Debbie and me saying how wonderful the other is, and Rabbi Knobel saying how wonderful we both are, and you'll hear the most beautiful version of "Shalom Rav" ever sung, with a break of several seconds in the middle from the cassette changing direction.

What you won't hear is the closing song, "L'chi Lach." The tape ran out just before Debbie was about to sing it. When you hear the last words I say as the tape cuts off, you'll shudder, just as I did hearing it for the first time a few months ago. Yes...the tape had been lost for 23 years, sitting among hundreds of old cassettes in a cardboard box, until Debbie died, and I went searching through every box of tapes in my house to find it. For a 24 year-old recording on a cheap cassette, I do think it sounds pretty darn good, maybe even great. See what you think. I'll post the songs in bunches over the next couple of days.

Shabbat Shirah 1988 - Part 1
Debbie Friedman and Jeff Klepper
© 1988 Beth Emet Synagogue, Evanston, IL

Photo taken at Hava Nashira 2008 by Angela Gold

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Debbie Friedman: The Early Years

Anyone wishing to see what I looked like at age 15 or 16 (pre-Jewfro) need merely click on my Slideshow (top right). But, sadly, photos of Debbie from early in her musical career are rare. To paraphrase the famous quote attributed to Leonard Bernstein's father, "Who knew she was going to turn out to be Debbie Friedman?"

Elsewhere on this blog are photos I took of Debbie in the summer of 1970 at Kutz Camp. But I recently came across two photos that help us visualize an earlier chapter of Debbie's life. While attending high school in St. Paul, MN she was a Jewish music song-leader for NoFTY (Northern Federation of Temple Youth), where she led song sessions at youth group events.

The black and white photo, from 1968 (Debbie was 17) is courtesy of Debbie's sister Cheryl, and may have been taken at the Olin Sang Ruby camp in Wisconsin. Is she talking to a group? Teaching a song? It looks as if she is adjusting the fingerpicks on her right hand. She always played with picks and got an enormous sound from her Martin 12-string. That's the guitar she was using when I met her at Kutz Camp in 1969 and that she played for many years.

The color photo, taken in the Spring of 1969 at a synagogue in the Twin Cities by Jonathan Kane (and posted with his kind permission) shows a more confident song-leader (the same Beatle haircut but without glasses) singing and strumming a visually stunning sunburst guitar (looks like an Italian made Eko 12-string, but I don't know if it was hers.) Spring comes late to the North Country, so she's wearing a sweater, frayed at the elbow, a reminder of her modest beginnings.

Debbie Friedman sings Shir HaShirim

The year is officially 1 A.D. (After Debbie) — today was her first yahrtzeit. I'm going to attempt to post something about Debbie each day this week, culminating in Shabbat Shirah, when thousands of people will remember her and sing her beautiful melody for "Shalom Aleichem" in synagogues across the country.

At this point I will let Debbie do the singing...and joking. We gave a little concert together at the very first Hava Nashira in Oconomowoc, WI on June 11, 1992. It was the last night and we were, to say the least, exhausted. There was no rehearsal, and maybe five minutes of sound-check. But it was a night to remember, professionally recorded by Benj Kanters, and to this day remains un-released (except for a couple of tracks on my Live In Concert CD.)

We began with a set of melodies from Shir HaShirim. Here they are.

Clicking on each title should automatically download the mp3 file to your computer. (Check your download folder or do a search for "Dodi"...) Then listen and enjoy, but that's all - these songs are protected by © copyright.

with Debbie at CAJE (c. late 70s).

Friday, January 27, 2012

Debbie Friedman "נְעִימַה זְמִרוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל"

This Shabbat is the first Yahrtzeit of Debbie's passing according to the Hebrew calendar. I wrote the following to introduce a service of her music at my synagogue, Temple Sinai in Sharon, Massachusetts:

Like Miriam, whose spirit is felt so keenly in next week’s Torah Portion (Shabbat Shirah), Debbie Friedman brought the Jewish people together with song and dance. As Rabbi Dan Freelander has observed: “Debbie Friedman died the week of B’shalach, which contains the first Torah verses of a woman as explicit leader, musician and prophetess. Debbie was the inheritor of Miriam’s timbrel, but her timbrel was a guitar. Her voice led us out of a barren enslavement, and her spirit is eternal.”

On this Shabbat we mark the first anniversary of her passing on January 9, 2011. We celebrate Debbie’s lasting contributions to Jewish life in the best way, the only way we can — by singing her songs. Debbie's music touched the Jewish people in so many ways. Her prayers filled the empty places in our souls. Her melodies did not so much topple the walls that divide us, as they floated above them. The more people sang and took her songs to heart, the more Debbie's music permeated the borders of ethnicity and observance, gender and generation.

Tonight we celebrate three wonderful gifts Debbie gave us in song...

First, we remember her as the consummate song-teacher and song-leader, a collector of Jewish folk songs and forgotten musical gems. She always said the best songs were the “golden oldies,” not the songs she wrote. Three of these will be included tonight, the opening (Nigun by M. Twerski) and closing (Yigdal, from Greece) songs, and a majestic melody for Psalm 98 from Argentina.

Second, Debbie established herself at first by composing melodies for the familiar Shabbat prayers. Her tunes, which could be rhythmic or flowing, playful or serious, spoke initially to her generation. In time, her songs captured peoples’ ears, and everyone began to hear the ancient words in a new way.

Third, Debbie dreamed of a world where Tradition spoke to everyone. Her English interpretations of Torah, Midrash and blessings made them accessible and relevant to all. The astonishingly widespread acceptance of Mi Shebeirach is a testament to the way Debbie reached out and embraced the Jewish people with her spirit.

It is an embrace we feel whenever we sing her songs.

זכְרוֹנַה לִבְרָכָה, נְעִימַה זְמִרוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל
Sweet singer of Israel, her memory is a blessing.

The photograph is by Gay Block.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Jack Gottlieb (z'l) talks about his music on WQXR (1980)

With the recent passing of Jack Gottlieb, the Jewish music world has lost a giant. A brilliant and gifted composer, Jack's music was just as captivating and effective in the synagogue as it was on the concert stage (and vice versa.)

In October 1980, Jack celebrated his 50th birthday with an extraordinary concert of his music that I was privileged to attend. (More on that very soon.)

Several days before that concert Jack was interviewed on WQXR radio, and several of his songs were beautifully performed by Julia Lovett, Alberto Mizrahi, and Jay Willoughby. Click on this link to download a 30-minute portion of that program. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Debbie Friedman - Chanukah 5762

On December 9, 2001, I put together a Chanukah concert for the final day of the URJ Biennial in Boston to benefit the Rashi School. More than a thousand attendees filled the Hynes Convention Center to see Doug Cotler, Julie Silver, Peri Smilow, David Paskin, Yom Hadash, myself, and of course, Debbie Friedman, who pushed her tired voice and gave as rousing a performance as I have ever seen. A couple of hundred religious school children and dozens of cantors and song-leaders led Chanukah songs from the stage - you can see their delight in singing The Latke Song with Debbie. Thanks to the production crew's efforts - working overtime - to preserve the concert on video, we are able to enjoy Debbie's music and witness the magical way she connected with an audience. Watch Debbie's complete performance HERE.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Debbie Friedman's Cantor Controversy, 1980

In my JUF News article on the passing of Debbie Friedman, z"l, I quoted from her letter to Reform Judaism magazine (above) in reaction to a November 1980 piece by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin (below) on the paradigm shift toward more musical participation that was beginning to take hold in Reform synagogues in the late 1970s.

I don't believe that cantors were opposed to participation, per se. But they were very concerned about the movement away from a more sophisticated composed liturgical-music style toward the burgeoning (if admittedly simpler) folk/pop style. The trend had begun with songs such as Oseh Shalom from the Israeli Chassidic Music Festival beginning in 1968, but found its American voice in the music of Debbie Friedman.

Being a cantorial student at Hebrew Union College at the time, I tried to stay on the sidelines of this debate. As a camp song-leader and creator of some "new trend" music of my own, it may have been obvious which side I was on, but it was also important for me to graduate, and that meant being sympathetic to both sides of the argument (which I was, by the way; I knew that I was young and still had a lot to learn.) So, I'm not suggesting that all cantors were allied against what Debbie represented. And the title of this post is not to make light of what happened. But I do believe that the musical and liturgical issues raised during the 1980s forced cantors and rabbis (and their congregations) to reassess their worship and music, and to ask difficult questions about the nature of communal and individual prayer in liberal synagogues.

Let's not forget that cantors have been at the center of heated debate regarding the music of worship for hundreds of years. Debbie's letter, along with the two others that accompanied it, represented the first salvos of a new chapter in a very old embroglio. (The original article that inspired her reaction appears below.)

Obviously there is much more to say on this topic, and I hope to do just that before too long.

Click (or double-click) on each page to enlarge it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Debbie Friedman: Her music, her life

The JUF News in Chicago has published my very personal reminiscences of Debbie, going back to our first meeting in the Summer of 1969. The article is here.

I took these photographs of Debbie song-leading in the dining room at the NFTY Kutz Camp in 1969 or 1970 and they have never been seen before. (For good reason - I'm pretty confident that I will not be remembered as a photographer.)

Remembering Debbie

My dear friend (Rabbi) David Paskin has established a website called Thanks to his organizing skill (and powers of persuasion!), and thanks to the generosity of Boston's Temple Israel, there will be a memorial concert for Debbie Friedman on Sunday, January 30 at 4 p.m., free and open to the public. Lots of wonderful people will be singing and reminiscing. Click on the above links for more information. See you there.

Monday, January 10, 2011

In Memory of Debbie Friedman (1951-2011)

Dearest Debbie,
You gave us your heart and soul,
and a gift of prayer and song that will always be with us.
Rest in peace, Sweet Singer.....

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Having fun at NewCAJE!!!!

Hey everybody....I'm here at NewCaje, leading a music seminar with Ellen and Peter Allard, David Paskin and oodles of cool Jewish people! We are learning "Blogging for Musicians." Doesn't that sound like fun? This is me having fun. Tonight will be a rockin concert with Julie Silver, Yom Hadash and Kol B'seder (hm...never heard of them)... If you are anywhere near Boston look us up and drop by for one of our evening concerts!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Guitar Workshop for Cantors

When I came to the School of Sacred Music (of Hebrew Union College) in 1974 and began to conduct services as a student-cantor I used a guitar to accompany myself. How else was I going to do it? Since joining NFTY in 1968 I had led dozens, maybe even hundreds of services, always with guitar. It was like a part of my body - I knew no other way. Thanks to my wonderful teachers, in a very short time I received the training I would need to be able to daven with or without an instrument, and over the years I have become comfortable in a wide variety of synagogue settings. But, given, a choice, I would rather accompany myself on guitar than sing a cappella or with a keyboard accompanist. It just feels right. What's not to like about setting your own key, tempo, rhythm, and dynamics, and being able to change it on the fly!!?? I can sing a prayer over-and-over, build the ruach to a crescendo, or I can pull back to a whisper, and the guitar follows wherever I go every time. (I can also segue from one melody to another without having to make faces or wave my arms to catch the eye of an accompanist.)

How many synagogues in 1974 had guitar accompaniment every Shabbat? Probably very few. But today, "Do you play guitar?" is one of the first questions asked of applicants in cantorial searches. As with any instrument, having the ability to play is one thing, but playing with style and sensitivity is another. At Hebrew College in Newton, MA, I work with cantorial and rabbinic students on repertoire for guitar, helping them develop a technique that will be spiritual, engaging, and tasteful. On June 15 & 16, 2010 the School of Jewish Music at Hebrew College will sponsor the first Guitar Workshop dedicated to music for synagogue worship and celebration, special occasions and sacred moments such as hospital visits and healing rituals. Cantors, rabbis, educators, music leaders and students are invited to take part. We will play, pray, sing, listen, play some more, share, learn...and eat. All the information you need is here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Like A Rolling Cohen!

Mazal Tov to journalist/author/critic/blogger and friend, Seth Rogovy, on his eye popping new Bob Dylan Torathon, Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet.

I'll wait until I finish the book before offering any critiques, but here's a tip of the shtreimel to Seth, by-way-of the first internet video release of one of my Jewish Dylan parodies. All told, I've done a dozen or so - several made it onto my Live in Concert CD (Cantillation Row, Just Like a Chazn, High Holy Day Blues...and my personal favorite, Stuck Inside of Monsey with the Brooklyn Blues Again). The present vid comes from a recent concert at "my old shul" - Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston, IL. As you'll see, the gig had a party atmosphere, which was sort of the point... anyway, more video highlights coming soon!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Evanston Here I Come!

On Sunday November 1, at 12 noon, I'll be visiting my old stomping grounds (1982-2000), Evanston, IL, to sing a family concert at Beth Emet Synagogue in honor of my (former) rabbi, Peter Knobel on the occasion of his impending retirement. Joining me will be long time musical buddies Stuart Rosenberg (violin/mandolin) and Mike Heimlich (bass). Beth Emet's new cantor, Arik Luck, will join me on vocals, and a splendid time is guaranteed for all! Tickets at the door; details here.

Here is the dynamic duo from 1983...

and 1992...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Where's Jeff?

Jeff Klepper's Blog has been on extended hiatus - more on that later - but will return to the Blogosphere soon!

Monday, December 1, 2008

PBS does Chanukah (Hanukkah?) right

There's music for every taste and more on PBS's new Chanukah concert special, "Lights", now airing nationwide (check your local listings). Produced by (and starring) Craig Taubman, the live concert features Alberto Mizrahi, The Klezmatics, and Joshua Nelson (the Prince of Kosher Gospel), with guest appearances by (among others) jazz saxophonist Dave Koz, actress Mare Winningham, and two young singer-songwriters ready to breakout, Josh Nelson and Michelle Citrin. (Did I mention dancers, a children's choir, and Rabbi David Wolpe?)

Klezmatics frontman Lorin Sklamberg and the band have an ability to dominate any stage they set foot on. They get the joint jumping with a folk-flavored Chanukah song set to lyrics by Woody Guthrie.  Frank London spins wave after wave of wild trumpet riffs, and I've never heard Lorin's vocals sound so good. 

Cantor Mizrahi gets a chance to do a little of everything, from blessings to Sephardic & Ladino songs, along with Hebraic scat singing, and even a little Greek dancing. Joshua Nelson and his singers have fun with a Gospel flavored "Dreidle Song", and Craig Taubman holds it all together with new takes on old songs and touching ballads like "Holy Ground."

Chanukah's coming soon. Check your TV listings. See the show, make a pledge, give what you can. It's Public Television - it's a good cause.

Pictured below: Joshua Nelson and Kosher Gospel; 
Michelle Citrin: Josh Nelson and kids

Monday, November 10, 2008

From The Archives..."We Will Be Free" (1997)

Back a few years ago my good buddy, Chicago folk music legend Stuart Rosenberg, and I, spent a lovely afternoon writing a song to sing on MLK Day. We called it, "We Will Be Free." Today - having just witnessed the election of (soon to be) President Barack Obama - seems like the right time to bring it back.

Since we're old enough to remember when "Blowin' in the Wind" was still "in the wind", our little song was inspired by the great freedom songs out there we wish we had written. But it's all right, ma...we like it just fine, and hope you do too.

Here are the lyrics. You can hear Stuart and me play it together here.

The video clip is from the 1997 UAHC (URJ) Biennial in Dallas, TX. The concert was a benefit for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. You can order the live concert CD right here.

From The Archives...Kol B'seder (1979)

Here's a blast from the past.  Kol B'seder from 1979.  Somehow Dan and I were recruited to add our happy-slappy campy kid songs to a couple of episodes of one of the original New York City Jewish cable TV shows, Shalom Corner.  I recently found the almost 30 year old Betamax video in a box of old tapes, then I scoured Ebay for a used (cheap) Betamax.  Bought a nice old one for 65 bucks plus shipping (they're heavy, let me tell you), which was not a bad price... 

While terribly dated, the shows are kinda cute, and here's a sample: Kol B'seder singing Richard Silverman's classic, 'It is a Tree of Life,' complete with the requisite puppets, kids, and Shalom Corner host, Carol Sterling. By the way, anybody want to buy an old Betamax?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Times They Are A Changin' (!)

"Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call..." Ok, I admit, the title is a cheesy way to steer a little Dylan traffic here.  But now that we know Barack Obama will be our 44th President - and I can finally get back to blogging again - I want to begin with one of the more interesting cultural sidebars of the campaign: yes, the Dylan-Obama connection.

In June of 2008 Dylan told the Times of London:

“Well, you know right now America is in a state of upheaval. Poverty is demoralizing. You can't expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor. But we've got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up...Barack Obama. He's redefining what a politician is, so we'll have to see how things play out. Am I hopeful? Yes, I'm hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to.”

On November 4, 2008, Dylan's second song at his election eve concert at the University of Minnesota (where he studied - briefly - nearly a half century earlier) was 'The Times They Are a Changin'.  He introduced his last encore, 'Blowin' in the Wind', with these words:

"I was born in 1941. That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I've been living in darkness ever since. It looks like things are going to change now."

Oh, yeah...Dylan's son Jesse directed the incredible "Yes We Can" video by And several months ago he won an Emmy Award for it.

Mazal tov, Jesse.

Monday, August 4, 2008

London calling....

8/3 Sunday - It had been about 10 years since I was in England, when Kol B'seder sang here for the "Festival of Reform Judaism" in the late '90s. In '95 I was invited to teach and perform at Limmud, which then was just a British phenomenon but is now world famous. Over the years, through Caje, Limmud, and Hava Nashira, many strong friendships have developed among music leaders from the American and British Jewish communities. Personally, it is very gratifying to be welcomed so warmly, and to find that so many of my songs (along with those of Debbie Friedman and others) have been embraced by the Jewish community here. There is also special meaning in being able to sing my own music - so much of it inspired by the Beatles - in the land of Sgt. Pepper.

EJ Cohen is known to many for her sign language interpretations at Caje and other Jewish events. Having just signed on as Education Director for Finchley Progressive Synagogue, she took the bull by the horns and, along with Rabbi Neil James, organized a Sunday morning brunch/concert for me at which over 100 people came. This all took place the day after my flight and some 12 hours after landing at Heathrow. The concert was splendid, with lots of singing, a great deal of laughter, and a real feeling of spirit in the room. To top it off, nearly 300 pounds was raised to support the Israel Reform movement (in dire financial straights at the moment due to the sick dollar) and that amount will be doubled by the British Liberal and Progressive synagogues.

Tomorrow I'll be visiting Camp Kadima in Sussex to sing with a very large group of kids!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Greetings from Israel!

Yaffo in the morning
Sunset at Ein Hod

What a wonderful time to be in Israel. The country is bustling and growing, the shekel is strong against the dollar (ok, not so great for Americans), and Barack Obama was just in Jerusalem today assuring Israelis that he is on our side.

Here's a brief travelog so far.

7/20 Sunday - Arrival 5 a.m. Stayed 'overnight' in Yaffo at the new, lovely (and inexpensive) Mishkenot Ruth Daniel. Took the train to Haifa and stayed at Ein Hod with Rabbi Bob and Annette Samuels. Bob is the former director of the Leo Baeck Education Center. He brought me to Haifa for a year in 1981, and encouraged me to compose music for the Leo Baeck Synagogue, 'Ohel Avraham'. On Sunday night I sang for some friends in their living room.

Ohel Avraham 1982
Ohel Avraham 2008

7/21 Monday - This was a day of walking around Ein Hod, formerly an Arab village, abandonded in 1948 and turned into an Artists Colony in 1956. Some of the worlds' most illustrious artists and musicians live there. I met an incredible gentleman named Nisan Cohen, who owns the world's largest collection of vintage music boxes. He repairs and demonstrates them in a lttle museum he set up. I'm not talking about little things, these are huge tabletop instruments. They were all the rage for about half a century, until Edison's phonograph put them out of business, instantly and permanently. They sound amazing. He also has player pianos and organs, and vintage wind-up phonographs. He played me a 1918 recording by Cantor David Roitman, who sounded like he was standing in front of me.

7/22 Tuesday - I visited the Or Chadash Congregation in Haifa, and met with their rabbi, Edgar Nof. He took me downstairs to the bomb shelter, which was the only place in Haifa where services could be held during the Hezbolla bombing during the summer of 2006. I sang for 150 of the cutest kids I've ever seen, at their day camp in the synagogue. We sang songs they knew and I taught them a few new ones. I hope they understood my pidgeon Hebrew. Afterwards they all came up to hug me... That evening, cantorial soloist and folksinger Orit Perlman had 25 people at her house for a party in her backyard. We sang for over 2 hours.

Singing at Or Chadash in Haifa

7/23 Wednesday - Jerusalem seems to be coping with Obama's visit. I'm at HUC now, but they say you have to walk completely around the King David Hotel, where he is staying, just down the block. I'm using my cell phone to call old friends, making connections and meeting plans.

7/24 Thursday - I spent the day with the class of entering cantorial, education and rabbinic students beginning their year of study in Jerusalem. I piggy-backed on their walking tour of Jerusalem - in the morning to Talpiyot and the "Tayelet", and in the evening to the Old City. In the late afternoon I talked to the class of first-year cantorial students, one of whom looked very familiar. She was one of my bat mitzvah students from about ten years ago.

7/25 Friday - Barack Obama has left the building. All that remains is his photo on just about every magazine and newspaper here. The bustle of the work-week is replaced by the bustle of preparing for Shabbat. Tonight I will lead services at Kehilat Mevaseret Tzion, just outside of Jerusalem, and Shabbat morning at HUC.
7/26 Saturday - Spent a delightful Shabbat morning at HUC services and sang with Cantor Tamar Havilio. Lunch with Michael and Sally Klein-Katz at their flat in Abu Tor. Had a rowdy and totally fun song session with the Bronfman Fellows, high school seniors, at the Goldshtein Youth Villiage.

7/27 Sunday - Just arrived at Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava for a community concert and "shira b'tzibur" (singalong)...some friends from Kibbutz Yahel will be there too. BOY IS IT HOT! Shabbat in Jerusalem was heavenly. More on that when I have more computer time.

7/30 Wednesday - Arrived in Tel Aviv for my last leg in Israel. Kabbalat Shabbat at Beit Daniel Friday. I'll fill in the blanks when I can. More photos coming.

...Next week it's on to LONDON!

The website is safe!

Recently hackers got into my website and hacked the index page. But everything has been fixed and the danger is over. A couple of folks told me that their anti-virus programs screamed bloody murder when they tried to access The files have been cleaned and the passwords changed. I truly hope nobody's computer was messed up. It's a good reminder to get the best anti-virus program you can and keep it up to date!

Friday, July 11, 2008

See you in Israel...

My last visit to Israel was five years ago. I can stay away no longer! So, I recently cleared some time on my calendar and traded in my last batch of United miles for a ticket. I'm bringing my guitar and some clothes. My hope is to sing in as many places as possible, and to stay in homes wherever I travel. I want to reconnect, see old friends and make new ones. I am not charging a fee for my singing. Any earnings that happen to come my way will be used for tzedakah in Israel. With a few things already scheduled, I'll be leading t'filot, doing workshops, singing at house parties, summer camps, maybe tour groups, at cafes, I'll see what opportunities come up. Here's my travel schedule, subject to change.  I'll post specifics when I can. If you're nearby please come and say hi. To contact me, just click here.

July 20 - 23, Haifa area

July 23 - 26, Jerusalem area
• Kabbalat Shabbat July 25 at:

July 27 - 28, Kibbutz Lotan (Arava)

July 29 - August 1, Tel Aviv area
• Kabbalat Shabbat August 1 at:
Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv

Yes, that's Elvis. I have no idea where this photo is from.  Did I take it myself?  Does anyone recognize this restaurant? Stay tuned...see you in Israel!