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.
Anyone wishing to see whatI 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.
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.
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.