Tuesday, January 31, 2012

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


Anonymous said...

Jeff, this is so wonderful. Thank you for sharing your memories and music with allof us. We actually have some old movies of Debbie and others at the URJ summer kallot - you are inspiring us to find them in the basement and have them transferred to better format for viewing. stay tuned!
Barbara Shuman

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing these wonderful musical memories, Jeff.

Adrian Durlester said...

Can't wait for the rest of the cuts. Thanks for sharing these Jeff.

Adam Kahan said...

Jeff, one of my closest friends is completing her conversion to Judaism this upcoming Friday, at Beth Emet. It brought me so much joy to share, with her, your beautiful article. You and Debbie have done so much to leave people empowered by their Judaism, and to have someone formally take on that distinction on the anniversary of this historic evening gives me chills. Thank you for recreating this amazing evening, and sharing the music for us to experience.

Debbie Harris said...

Oh, Jeff - this is wonderful. What memories. Thank you so much for sharing these with us.