I am sure that many of you have heard about the death of Jewish songwriter/performer Debbie Friedman, whose music permeates not only our services but worship all over the world.
I know that some of you have had the chance to see Debbie in concert and perhaps, even, to meet her and get to know her.
Here are a some of my recollections about Debbie.
The first of Debbie’s songs I heard was “Thou Shalt Love,” which our Missouri Valley Federation of Temple Youth songleader had brought back to our regional institute in August of 1971 from the Kutz Camp in Warwick, New York, Two years later, my brother, Steve, brought home Debbie’s album, “Sing Unto God,” after his summer working with Debbie at the Chalutzim/Pioneer Hebrew-based program at Olin Sang Ruby Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I was excited to hear this new music on the American Jewish scene on that album and on Debbie’s second album, “Not By Might, Not by Power.” Our Hillel Choir at the University of Illinois was already singing her music by in the spring of 1974 through Debbie’s many Chicago connections. She visited the campus of the University of Illinois for a weekend in the spring of 1975, songleading at the weekly Shabbat dinner I attended at a dorm across campus, participating in a Friday night service and working with our choir (she taught us her new song “Laugh at All My Dreams”). I also remember that, during her Saturday night Bet Café, Debbie encouraged me to sing an original song I had shared earlier that day.
I enjoy many opportunities to see Debbie in concert in my home community of Kansas City, at the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE), conferences of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and at Reform Judaism’s biennial conventions. It wasn’t until the fall of 1989 that I realized Debbie had me on her wide-ranging map of personal connections. After a meeting of the Commission on Synagogue Music, I went up to Debbie to introduce myself and she responded quickly, “Larry, you don’t have to introduce yourself to me!” She had a way of remembering people that made each person feel special, an important part of her world. At the biennial convention in San Francisco in 1993, during Debbie’s concert on the last night, I remember standing with my mom, singing the Mi Shebeirach, soon after my mom had been diagnosed with cancer. The place, but, especially, Debbie and the song, made that moment memorable (and my mom did end up going to several more biennials).
There were special moments at CAJE conventions – singing in the CAJE Chorale was especially enjoyable. Debbie kept us laughing at rehearsals while taking a large group to a point of being performance-ready. At CAJE in 1990 in Columbus, Ohio, Peter Yarrow made a special appearance not only at a major evening program, but also at a kumsitz/sing-along late one night. I was among many people standing in the dorm lounge, enjoying every minute of this songfest. The next morning, Debbie saw me and said, “Larry, I really enjoyed watching you last night during the kumsitz – you were so enthralled!”
A number of years later, Rhonda and I went to a healing service in Kansas City in which Debbie participated. Our son, Adam (now a Berklee College of Music trained R&B singer working at the Union for Reform Judaism) didn’t believe that we knew Debbie personally. Rhonda and I greeted Debbie after the service and told her what Adam had said. On the back of the service booklet, Debbie wrote, “Dear Adam: Not only do I know your ABBA (Dad) but I also know your DOD (Uncle)!”
Hava Nashira, the songleading workshop at Olin-Sang-Ruby camp, has brought together and sustained a community of creative and spirited people who share and have been inspired by Debbie’ guidance and leadership. Her presentation of music included her usual humor that had us laughing almost uncontrollably at times, as well as her special touch of singing her Mi Shebeirach for us before we would sing it together. There are two personal moments that come to mind to me from Hava Nashira. In 2004, just after my mom had died, I was still wearing my k’riah ribbon. I attended the event because, I thought, my mom would have wanted me to go. In a songwriting workshop (with teaching shared by Debbie, Craig Taubman and Jeff Klepper), Debbie sent us out of the room to come up with an idea for a song. Before I left, she pointed to my ribbon and said, “Larry, you need to write about that.” I thought, “Thank you, Debbie, how am I going to do that?” Debbie had, of course, set me on the right path. I wrote a list of words that characterized my mom’s life and set to music the Hebrew of the line from Psalm 118, “This is the day that the Eternal has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The chorus/refrain was done; the rest of the song came six weeks later. The next year, I took part in leading a Hava Nashira song session with members of my “homeroom” group, during which I chose to teach a new original song. According to our advisor and mentor, Craig Taubman, our songleading session did not go well at all. Still, as I stood by the beverage station at dinner, Debbie came up to me and said, “Larry, did you write that song you sang today in the song session at lunch?” I said, “Yes, I did.” She said, “Well, I really liked it!” I know many of my colleagues who had the chance to enjoy moments like that as well! Several people have mentioned the time during the Shabbat Morning service at Hava Nashira in 1999 when the lights and power came back on after being out overnight as we were singing Debbie’s “Yotzeir Or” (the One who creates light). Oh, the power of song!
I have been asked which of Debbie’s songs is my favorite. I have many, but there is one that has always captivated me. I first heard “Shelter of Peace,” from Debbie’s “World of Your Dreams” album, at the CAJE convention in 1992. I was overwhelmed by the song, not just because it was a very touching lullaby, but because it was God’s lullaby to us. I realized that it was probably linked to the Hashkiveinu evening prayer and wanted to sing it immediately upon my return home to Topeka. I called Sounds Write Productions, and spoke with Randee Friedman. She told me that the song was, in fact, based on the Hashkiveinu prayer, and that she was willing to fax me the sheet music. I have been singing it ever since, and that is the song that I added to our January 7 service at a time when many people were praying for Debbie’s health.
Debbie didn’t just have a way with words…and music. I was always impressed how she interpreted prayers and biblical and rabbinic texts into a singable and poignant English lyric, with Hebrew included or even interwoven into the words of the song. And there were songs that were only one language that were also very, very powerful. “This is the Day” was the opening song for Adam’s Bar Mitzvah. We also sang Debbie’s “Modim” that day, a setting that Adam and I have sung together during worship several times over the years. I was glad that Adam had the opportunity to join me in singing in Debbie’s CAJE Chorale in 2000, to experience everything that I had seen – her creativity, her humor, her ability to lead us to create a unified sound and get the best harmonies out of our many voices, while saying, almost without fail, “I wish you could all be up here to you sing!”
I was writing a song based on Psalms 111, 112, and 113 for our local Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday commemoration as I heard the news about Debbie’s hospitalization. The song is complete and will soon be posted on my reverbnation site (www.reverbnation.com/larrykarol). I realize that some of the lyrics reflect many of Debbie’s songs taken from Psalms and other text. “A Light is Shining” is a tribute to Debbie’s light that she shared with us: to sing, to create and to bring our faith and spirit to life in lyrics, melody, and personal enthusiasm and presence. May her memory be for blessing, and may her many songs continue to inspire us in the years to come.