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.

1 comment:

Sue Gordon said...

You, Jeff and Debbie were all prophetic as it turns out. Today Debbie's music is sung across the Jewish spectrum, regardless of purpose. Her neshamah has infused many a service. May it remain so and if not in actuality, in the spirit of the evolution of Jewish music to meet each age. And next Shabbat my husband and I will still sing her Shir Hamaalot because the "old" one (which is not terribly old since it has meter) feels too "blah."