In 1996, my wife and I were planning to move the family to Israel for a few years and started priming our kids by playing Hebrew-language videos. One afternoon I was up in bed with a migraine, but could hear the soundtrack of one of the videos through the floorboards. It was a Hebrew alphabet song — infectious, repetitious, and about as soothing to a migraineur as a dentist’s drill.
But I’ll tell you this: I learned the Hebrew alphabet. I’d been taking Hebrew lessons for a few years at that point but never bothered to memorize the alef-bet. Even today, I have to start singing if I want to know what comes after mem.
It was only this week that I learned the song was written by Debbie Friedman, the seminal Jewish folk singer and liturgist who died Sunday at age 59. The story is typical of my relationship with her music and the trends she embodied: Even though I have resisted and sometimes ignored them, they’ve managed to transform me along with the rest of the Jewish world.
I’m the opposite of “happy-clappy,” which is how some of Friedman’s detractors described her folksy, sometimes New Agey music and spirituality. I enjoy synagogue, but the fewer emotional demands it puts on me the better. When I belonged to a havura, I made a beeline for the exit whenever it looked like the congregation was about to hold hands. My Judaism is cerebral, sober, and analytical. If I wanted to cry, I’d go see Toy Story 3 again.
Friedman led a revolution against my brand of synagogue-going. Like Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, another Jewish cultural force, she brought the sounds and sensibilities of the 1960s to the staid American synagogue service. Her generation of baby boomers launched the havura movement, published The Jewish Catalogue, transformed Jewish studies. The unifying theory was that the only way to preserve a tradition was to reinvent it, lest it become stale and irrelevant.
(By the way, I’m younger than those folks. My crabbiness is genetic, not generational.)
Friedman caught two other major waves of the 1960s and ’70s: feminism and healing. As the non-Orthodox movements fully embraced egalitarianism (and even Modern Orthodox women were pushing boundaries), Friedman wrote the soundtrack for the new Jewish feminism. Her “Miriam’s Song” (“And the women dancing with their timbrels / Followed Miriam as she sang her song”) reinstated the biblical heroine as a women’s role model. It has become a standard around seder tables and women’s Rosh Hodesh celebrations.
But look closely at the lyrics: There isn’t a word or idea that can’t be found in classic Jewish text. Friedman’s music found a place in the synagogue because it was part of the tradition, not an assault on it.
And in her work on healing, she added some new traditions. Prayers for healing are always said in synagogue, but there is a difference between saying a prayer and setting it to a melody that fires the neurons that trigger an emotional response. Her setting for the Mi Shebeirach prayer unleashes the power of the original Hebrew, the way a startling recipe enhances the original ingredients.
And that’s me, Mr. Warmth, saying that. Whenever I am in a synagogue where the song is sung, I see what it does to worshipers, especially those who are praying for a loved one or are ill themselves. Such reactions offered me new possibilities for what a synagogue service can, and should, offer.
I’ve seen new possibilities in other settings as well, even when I started out resistant. I sing in a Jewish a cappella choir, and we do a few Debbie Friedman songs. On first hearing, some of these songs strike me as corny and overly literal, in the way of cloying Christian pop music. But context is everything. Her song “L’chi Lach,” a gender-bending version of God’s original charge to Abraham, includes the lyric “And you shall be a blessing” repeated over and over. Try singing that at your daughter’s bat mitzva without choking up, and you’ll understand Friedman’s gift.
I also saw Friedman unleash this power on a roomful of possibly the least spiritually inclined Jews in the world. This was at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish federation movement, in Boston, in 1995. Back then, “happy-clappy” wasn’t exactly how you described your typical “lay leader.” But Friedman’s session at the GA, where she sang “Mi Shebeirach” just days after the Rabin assassination, was a watershed. Teary-eyed fund-raisers were reminded that talk of “income streams” and “capacity-building” is empty if it is not drawing from wells of emotion that motivate Jews to connect to one another and their traditions.
This is hardly a new idea. Ivdu et Hashem b’simha, reads Psalm 100, Bo’u l’fanav birnana: Serve God with happiness, come before God with joy. Friedman took her place in the long line of people who knew this. She was an essential link between the cantors who inspired past generations and the accountants and cardiologists who are called up to lead prayers because they have the kinds of voices that can get folks like — well, like me — to put down their books, snap out of their daydreams, and really listen.