Sunday, August 7, 2016

Eisner Camp and the Power of Place

It's not hard to fall in love with a place.

If I remember correctly, one of my professors, Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, taught me that a place becomes truly meaningful 1) because of its innate physical beauty, or 2) because something really important happened there.  Or both.

In the case of the URJ Joseph Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA, it's both. I was a camper there in 1968, and returned at least once each year through the next decade.

Eisner was a place of so many firsts: overnight camp, experiencing Shabbat, becoming a song-leader, writing Jewish songs, making life-long friends. (At some point along the way was a first - or maybe second - kiss.)

And beauty? If you've been there, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, photographs can only suggest the divine beauty and serenity of the place.

William Hall Walker, an inventor of one of the early compact cameras, added to the God-given beauty of the place called Brookside Manor in the early 20th century.  He hired Italian craftsmen to design ornate gardens and greenhouses, and had builders recreate the feel of a little European village, with a town square surrounded by charming  buildings and a big red barn.

I went to Eisner for a brief visit yesterday, and was surprised at how deeply meaningful it felt to be there. In addition to seeing the wonderful people, friends, colleagues, students, I was struck by the confluence of beauty and history.

I want to mention two specific places in camp.

There is a small lake, still used for swimming, on which Mr. Walker built a large marble boat landing around 1912. It was torn apart some years ago, but it was still there when I was a camper in 1968 (that's my Dad and younger brother with me — nice love beads, don't you think?).

These period photos show how stunning it was. One is from the Library of Congress.  On Flickr can be found a couple of photos taken there of a woman named Mary Virginia Dyer in 1917.

Not far from the lake is Manor House, full of Old World, turn-of-the-century charm.  Its library features a balcony, marble fireplace, frescos, and a pipe organ (no longer operational) that cost $20,000 to build.

I found a stunning wedding photo taken recently by Laraine Weschler looking out from the library window. (See more here.)

It reminded me of one (of me) taken in the exact same place, teaching songs to kids on a retreat in the late '70s.

What an amazing place!

(Note: on this and a previous visit I took some photos when the camp was quiet. They give you a feeling for the beauty of the place. You can see them here.)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Happy 75th Birthday Bob Dylan!

About 15 years ago, I wrote this piece for a now-defunct web site. That was long before critic Josh Kun waxed more-or-less definitively on the topic in the wonderful documentary Hava Nagila (The Movie). For further insights, I also recommend David Kaufman’s take on Dylan's Jewish identity in Jewhooing the Sixties.

Bob Dylan’s Jewish Blues: “Talkin’ Hava Nageilah”

The audience chuckled as Bob Dylan began strumming the guitar for his next song. The year was 1961. Dylan was quickly earning a reputation in the Greenwich Village folk clubs (the so-called ‘basket houses,’ since performers got to keep whatever the audience put into the basket after each set) as a solid blues and folk interpreter, with somewhat of a deadpan (some called it Chaplinesque) comic shtick. He would pretend to fall off his stool as he tuned his guitar, fool around with his harmonica, play with the thrift-shop Huck Finn hat he liked to wear on top of his uncombed hair.

Bob Dylan had been in New York maybe eight, nine months. No one knew where Dylan was from - he was constantly inventing strange tales of running away from home, somewhere in the Midwest (New Mexico? North Dakota?) and running away to join the circus. The New York Greenwich Village audiences laughed at his antics and listened raptly to his traditional song/stories of cowboys and farmers. To them he looked and sounded like a hick kid who seemed somehow to channel the souls of the bluesmen and hard-luck characters he had met on the road.

When he hit New York in January 1961, Dylan never mentioned the fact that he had been born in Hibbing, MN as Robert Allen Zimmerman (his Hebrew name: Shabtai Zissle Ben Avrahom v’Rochel-Riva) and raised in a fairly typical upper middle class Midwestern Jewish home. (It would be almost another year before he would go to a courthouse and legally adopt the soon-to-be-famous name he had chosen when he was still in Minnesota attending college.)

Standing on the tiny stage, Dylan’s rhythmic guitar strumming sounded like any one of the Woody Guthrie ballads he often played. But now there was a comic glint in his eye and a smirk on his face. To punctuate the effect he tilted his head to touch his lips to the ever-present harmonica squeezed into a wire brace around his neck and blew a couple of quick chords. There was a sarcastic tone in his voice when he said “Here’s a foreign song I learned in Utah.” Then without missing a beat he sang: “Hah (guitar strumming) vah, Hah-vah (guitar strumming) nah, Hah-vah-nah (guitar strumming) GEE! Hah-vah-nah-gee (strumming) LAH! Hah-vah-nah-gee-lah!” And he ended the one minute song with a piercing yodel followed by a harmonica flourish which had the largely Jewish audience of college students, drop outs, aging beatniks and uptown liberals whooping in surprise and delight.

I can see the scene in my mind’s eye and I can hear it in my ear, though no video or film exists of Dylan in 1961. If it didn’t happen the way I just described, I’ll bet it was pretty close. But the song in question, “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues” is very real indeed. Dismissed by most Dylan critics as a novelty item, it remains the only recorded example of Dylan singing in Hebrew. (In 1989 he performed a spirited rendition of the actual “Hava Nagilah” with Peter Himmelman and Harry Dean Stanton on a Chabad Telethon, but, alas, he only played the recorder while the others sang.)

It’s a minor miracle we have the song on CD at all. He recorded it in one quick take in April 1962 for his 2nd album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, (the one with “Blowin’ in the Wind”) but the song, along with several other gems, was cut in favor of his more recent songs of social conscience and biting political commentary that Dylan began churning out at a dizzying pace towards the end of that year. It remained in the vaults, unreleased, until 1991, when it appeared on the official Columbia CD box-set, The Bootleg Series (Volume 1).

What was he trying to do in this song? Is it a parody? A shtick? An innocent spoof? “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah” is certainly unique — no other song in Dylan’s repertoire at the time had even the hint of Jewish ethnicity. Indeed, many of Dylan’s early 1960s songs exhibit Christian imagery and themes, as he borrowed heavily from the gospel tradition of the American South, a practice that would continue throughout his career. In that context, “Hava Nagilah” would have stood out as just plain weird if Dylan hadn’t introduced it as “a foreign song I learned in Utah,” setting up the song as a guessing game. A friend of mine who has written two books on Dylan takes that idea a step further, suggesting that the song plays subtly on the similar sounds of “Ha-va Na” and Havana (as in Cuba), since Fidel Castro, following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, was a constant thorn in President John F. Kennedy’s side. It’s an interesting thought, but not a road I can walk down.

Looking through the volumes of Bob Dylan commentary in my library, two throw-away quotes from one of his most respected biographers, the late Robert Shelton (in No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan) are the only comments on the song to be found. Shelton, then folk music critic for the New York Times, wrote the now legendary review of Dylan’s performance at Gerde’s Folk City on September 26, 1961, in which he predicted success for the then unknown (outside of The Village) singer. Recounting the songs Bob sang that night, Shelton said of the song in question, “[it] burlesques the folk-music craze and the singer himself.”

In the late 1950s, at the start of the “folk-music craze” led by Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Theodore Bikel and others, singing folksongs of different ethnic cultures became de rigor for any aspiring folk singer. (This was before the folkies wrote much of their own material — for that we have Dylan to thank.) On any given night, in any cellar along Bleeker and MacDougal large enough to hold a stage and an espresso machine, the mingled sounds (and mangled lyrics) of Russian, Irish, Yiddish, French and Hebrew folk songs could be heard. (The Village’s only Jewish/Israeli coffee house, Cafe Feenjon, was one of Dylan’s hang-outs in those early days.)

Dylan in Jerusalem
In his biography, published 25 years later, Shelton was more specific. He wrote, “Then he did...“Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues,” his little jape of international song stylists like Harry Belafonte and Theo Bikel.” So it appears that “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah” was a dig at some of Dylan’s fellow folksingers. Why Shelton fingers Belafonte and Bikel we don’t know, but it’s interesting that both men were well known actors who had considerably broadened their popularity by giving concerts and recording albums of folk-style music, Belafonte bringing Jamaican calypso music to a large audience, and Bikel doing the same with Yiddish and Israeli songs.

Coincidentally, both men were to have important roles in Dylan’s early career. Belafonte hired him to play harmonica on a recording date in late ’61, Dylan’s first professional recording session. Though the session, with its endless retakes, turned out to be a less-than-pleasant experience for Dylan, Belafonte’s version of the bluesy “Midnight Special” will always hold a  special place in Dylan-lore as his first ever appearance on vinyl.

As for Theodore Bikel [who died in 2015 at 91], in addition to having two brilliant careers, as an actor and folksinger, he was a prominent social activist. He admired Dylan’s talent from the start, and was one of those who expanded Dylan’s political contacts by bringing him into the orbit of the Civil Rights movement in 1963. Bikel also served on the board of the Newport Folk Festival, an important venue for Dylan from 1963-1965.

We may not know exactly who Dylan was spoofing in “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah,” but he must have known the original “Hava Nagilah” — if not from his own Bar Mitzvah in 1954 or other family simchas, then from the summers of his youth spent at Camp Herzl in nearby Wisconsin. Perhaps he had heard Belafonte's 1957 recording of “Hava Nagilah,” which would later serve as the inspiration for Allen Sherman’s hilarious parody, “Harvey and Sheila.”

In November 1961, a few weeks after the Belafonte session, Dylan recorded his first album for Columbia records. Consisting primarily of traditional country-blues songs but with only two originals (“Song to Woody” and the Guthrie inspired “Talkin’ New York”), it appears that Dylan selected a set meant to solidify his image as a scuffling, wayfaring kid making his way in the big city, while playing down the Midwest middle-class Jewish family part.

When a Columbia publicist interviewed him for his official bio, Dylan spun a web of made-up stories about his background, meant to amuse and confuse his public. Dylan was constructing a new identity for himself, and the 20 year-old did it as easily as switching Zimmerman for Dylan. During one interview he stated, “[I] have no religion. Tried a bunch of different religions. Churches are divided. Can’t make up their minds, neither can I. Never saw a God; can’t say till I see one...”

Like the master magician he is, he had us all looking at one hand while he did sleight of hand with the other. In the short run it worked — in less that a year the folk music world had a new American icon. In the long run, however, Dylan’s Jewish identity would chase him down like a hound dog chasing a hare. He could outrun it for a time, even hide for awhile, but in the end it would catch up with him. In 1961, maybe “Hava Nagilah” was “a foreign song,” but it wouldn’t be for long.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Rabbi Robert Samuels, z"l

From the moment I picked up the phone, I always knew when Bob Samuels was calling. "Hello?" "SHALOM, JEFF," he would say, and it sounded like he was standing next to you. "BOB SAMUELS. MAH NISHMA?"

Bob's big Texas personality came through on the phone and everywhere he went. He spoke the same way to a Druze villager or a cabinet minister. He treated every person with dignity and respect.

Bob was my mentor and teacher. He brought me to Haifa in 1981 to work at the school he headed, the Leo Baeck Education Center. My actual position was advisor to North American exchange students, but when I arrived he made me cantor of the synagogue on campus, Ohel Avraham. Along with his invitation to work at Leo Baeck came a different kind of invitation — to compose new music for the synagogue and the young Israeli Reform movement. His relentless encouragement led to my writing a passel of new songs, including "Oseh Shalom," "Haporeis Sukkat Shalom," and "Yeish Kochavim."

Bob's life revolved around his family as much as it did around his work. He loved music and art, books and big ideas, the Land of Israel, and playing softball. Most of all he loved people, but he hated hypocrisy and insincerity. He could smell it a mile away and had no patience for it. He held himself and others to a high standard, a mantle he took upon himself as a Reform rabbi (and a student of Rabbi Abraham Cronbach) to emulate the prophets of Israel, to speak the truth, and to champion the cause of the powerless, a message he taught to thousands of students over the decades.

Bob made inclusion his mission. He made special efforts to bring the Druze community, living in villages near Haifa, into the school's orbit. He made regular trips to the villages to meet the families of his Druze students. He also reached out to Haifa's Arab community.

When Israel liberated the Jews of Ethiopia in the early '90s, Bob sought to acculturate the new immigrants into Israeli society. He and his students welcomed them with flowers, and, knowing that many of them were living nearby in poverty, Bob converted the school's bomb shelter into a free "grocery store" stocked with donated food, supplies and clothing.

Bob's struggles with Israel's governmental bureaucracy and entrenched religious institutions were never easy, but he never lost hope. He was always asking questions, always searching for a better way. His impact on Israel and Progressive Judaism was profound, but it was the sparkle in his eye, the way he loved you with that big Texas heart, that gave you strength and hope for the future.

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.