‘Just Debbie and her guitar — it was magical’

‘Just Debbie and her guitar — it was magical’

Local clergy recall how famed singer touched their lives

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Debbie Friedman, who died over the weekend, singing and playing guitar at the 2005 installation ceremony for Rabbi Francine Roston at Congregation Beth El in South Orange.
Debbie Friedman, who died over the weekend, singing and playing guitar at the 2005 installation ceremony for Rabbi Francine Roston at Congregation Beth El in South Orange.

The death of folk singer and liturgist Debbie Friedman over the weekend has sent shock waves through local synagogues, where rabbis, cantors, and lay people remembered a musician who transformed the modern synagogue liturgy. Her folksy settings of common prayers are so deeply enmeshed in many services that people who have never heard of her may nonetheless hum her familiar melodies.

But many local clergy also recalled their personal relationships with Friedman and shared their reflections, mostly through e-mail. They described her as intensely spiritual, as a person who took every opportunity to continue learning, and as someone who knew how to appeal to a new generation of Jews.

Cantor Amy Daniels of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield was registered to attend the “Music as Midrash” seminar that Friedman was scheduled to teach this week at Hebrew Union College in New York, before the singer fell ill with the pneumonia that would take her life Jan. 9 at age 59.

Daniels first met Friedman in the 1970s as a student at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

“Her melodies and passion gave us children of the ’60s a sense of ownership of the stodgy text from the Union Prayer Book,” she wrote this week.

Cantor Janet Roth of the Summit Jewish Community Center first met the singer around 1971 when Friedman served as youth director at Temple Emanuel in Chicago, the Reform synagogue where Roth grew up.

“She was such a change from our ‘traditional’ Reform service accompanied by the organ,” wrote Roth, “and for us ‘youth,’ she was very inspirational. She spoke the musical language of the youth and brought the words of the prayer book closer to us.”

Roth was impressed that many years later, at a recent North American Jewish Choral Festival, Friedman remembered not only Roth but her sister as well.

Friedman, said Roth, “gave me her e-mail address and said, ‘Tell your sister to write me!’ I think she liked connecting with people from such a long time ago in her career.”

Many local clergy met Friedman through their participation in national conferences like the annual convention of what would become CAJE: Center for Advancement of Jewish Education, where her performances were often the highlight.

One credited Friedman, at least in part, with her decision to apply to rabbinical school. Rabbi Amy Small of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit said that happened after the 1981 CAJE conference, where Friedman headlined.

“I recall sitting in a basement common room in a dorm at Oberlin College at that CAJE conference, with Debbie leading a kumsitz,” a sing-along, said Small. “We sang for hours and hours. We didn’t need fancy bands or techno-accompaniment. Just Debbie and her guitar — it was magical.

“So many of us were young 20-somethings just like her,” she said.

Few have benefited in quite the way that Rabbi Steven Bayar did from a CAJE conference he attended with his children, now grown. He allowed them to stay up for the Debbie Friedman concert.

“They were in awe of her,” he wrote. When he saw her subsequently, he went over to ask her to say hello to his girls.

“She made her way to our table, plopped into my lap, gave me a big kiss, turned to the girls, and said, ‘Isn’t he the cutest?’ Then, with a big wink — she walked away,” recalled Bayar, religious leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn. “I was the idol of my children through the rest of the conference.”

‘Everyone got it’

Friedman’s influence did not always sit well with traditionalists. Cantor Kathy Barr of Temple Shalom in Succasunna remembered a conference in the early 1990s when Friedman changed the minds of some traditional cantors who had dismissed her approach as “happy-clappy.”

Friedman “spoke about reaching the [then] 77 percent of unaffiliated Jews through music that spoke to them,” said Barr. “Some of the hazanim in the group groaned and snickered. She then sang her ‘V’Shamru.’ When she finished, you could hear a pin drop in the room. Everyone in the room got it — if she could reach even those hazanim, steeped in traditional music, she and her music could work wonders for congregants of any synagogue.”

Rabbi Francine Roston of Congregation Beth El in South Orange met Friedman through the Jewish healing movement, which created new rituals and liturgies for the ill. Roston was a student working as a chaplain, attending conferences where Friedman’s music and teaching provided “the spiritual glue that held us all together,” she said.

Roston recalls Friedman teaching her “Mi Shebeirach,” a prayer for healing, and then asking the group to be quiet so that she could bless them.

“We had a very difficult time being quiet and not participating,” Roston wrote. She recalled Friedman standing before them, “demanding that we quiet ourselves and learn how to accept blessings.” Friedman sang at Roston’s installation ceremony at Beth El in 2005.

Some younger clergy described what it was like to be her student. Cantor Galit Dadoun Cohen from Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, who calls Friedman’s setting of “Mi Shebeirach” “the national anthem of all the Jewish people,” took three classes with Friedman at HUC.

She recalled how Friedman was always learning, sitting in on classes. She also described the way Friedman jumped in to aid her students. “When I bought my first guitar, she called her ‘guitar guy’ in Chicago and ordered it herself,” wrote Cohen. “When it finally arrived, she restrung it for me. She did that as easily as anyone brushes their teeth.”

Cantor Meredith Greenberg of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield had a similar experience when she met Friedman at the East Hampton Jewish Center several summers ago. Greenberg was in her last year of cantorial school at the Academy of Jewish Religion, and Friedman spent Shabbat with her.

“She was a big star and I a lowly seminary student, yet she was so encouraging and kind to me,” Greenberg wrote, “talking and sharing professional and personal dreams and aspirations.”

Even those who only met her in passing felt her impact.

Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield met her at a conference where, he said, he “had the opportunity to be infused with her spiritual aura. Her music was only an aspect of that aura, her beautiful neshama was what shone so bright.”

Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair had the opportunity to work and socialize with her a few times. “She was always seeking ways to increase the light and the joy of life,” wrote Greenstein in an e-mail. “She has become an integral part of the texture of our lives. She wrote a refrain in her song ‘L’Chi Lach,’ ‘And you shall be a blessing’ — and she was.”

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