A 10th yahrzeit memory for a very special person

By Cantor Don Croll

Parashat B’shalach

This week’s Torah portion is B’shalach. It’s from Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus. The narrative is one of the most memorable in the story of the Jewish people. Pharaoh’s army is pursuing the freed Hebrew slaves. They come to a body of water referred to as the Red Sea in English but yam suf in Hebrew is better translated as the Sea of Reed. Regardless, we all know what happens next: God commands Moses to raise his staff over the water and lo, the waters part allowing all the men, women and children to get to the other side. When they turn to look back, they see Pharaoh’s army, horses and chariots get stuck in the mud as the water returns to its original form. 

The Hebrews were so happy that they began to dance and sing, praising God as the Master of Miracles.

The words to the song they sang are embedded in the morning and evening prayers: Mi chamochah ba-eilim Adoshem! Mi kamochah neh-dar ba-kodesh, norah t’hilot ohseh feleh: Who is like You among the gods that are worshiped? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders? (Exodus 15:11)

Because of this famous song, the Sabbath when B’shalach is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.

Music and chanting have always been an integral part of Jewish worship. According to the Mishna, the Temple in Jerusalem had an orchestra consisting of 12 instruments, and a choir of 12 male singers. Psalm 150 lists seven of those 12 musical instruments used to praise God: with harp and lyre, with timbrel, lute and pipe, and with loud crashing cymbals.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, when Jewish music would move in a new direction. For some, especially young people, the cantorial style of chanting was difficult to relate to. They were listening to songs sung in the style of Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Judy Collins; and others of that genre. 

In the early ‘70s, a young female songleader at a Reform Jewish camp in California was experiencing the same disconnect from the music sung in her Conservative synagogue. She wrote, “I started writing because I felt left out. I felt so alone when I was sitting in services; the very place that should have cradled me and given me comfort and warmth. How would I ever find a place to belong when I didn’t share a common language with my fellow daveners? We were all strangers to one another, but we didn’t have to be.”

Having heard that young composers at Reform camps back east were composing contemporary music for camp Shabbat services, she decided to try her hand at it. Her first attempt was based on Psalms 96, 98 and 149. It was in English: “Sing unto God, sing a new song, O sing praises to God. Give thanks to God with a song, O sing praises unto the One above. Let us rejoice all ye righteous and cry out to our God with joy Sing out from your hearts, O sing praises to God…” The rhythms were fresh and contemporary. The melody was simple and catchy. She taught it to the campers at the beginning of the week and by the end of the week, they were singing it at Shabbat song sessions.

So began the incredible synagogue-songwriting career of one of the most beloved and prolific composers of contemporary Jewish synagogue music. Her name was Debbie Friedman. I say “was” because of her untimely death 10 years ago this month. What a sad coincidence that this icon of spiritual song passed away the month when Shabbat Shira is read.

In 1970, Debbie also wrote an English version of the V’ahavta. She taught it to those attending the regional youth convention of NFTY, The North American Federation of (Reform) Temple Youth. 

She said, “I was stunned when they suddenly put their arms around each other and there were tears rolling down their faces. The kids were reclaiming this prayer, and it was in a musical language they were able to understand.”

Another camp favorite was (and still is) her “Not By Might and Not By Power” based on a text from Zechariah 4:6. And so she composed more — hundreds more in Hebrew and English.

Her compositions were written for lifecycle events, holidays, observances marking the Jewish calendar and world events, like the destruction of the Twin Towers and the death of Yitzchak Rabin.

Her songs for young children are simple and fun but are infused with the message that we must not forget the needs of the poor, the sick, the lonely and the hungry among us. For instance, in her Hanukkah song “I Am a Latke,” the last verse goes, “It’s important that I have an understanding, of what it is that I’m supposed to do. You see, there are many who are homeless, with no jobs, no clothes and very little food. It’s so important that we all remember, that while we have most of the things we need, we must remember those who have so little, we must help them, we must be the ones to feed… I am a latke…” And speaking about songs for youngsters, she wrote two musicals for kids: “Miracles Aren’t Just Magic” for Hanukkah, and “A Purim Fiasco” for Purim. She wrote an “Alef-Bet” song, a song for Tu B’Shevat and a song called “This Is What We Need to Build a Sukkah” with directions on how to build one!

Probably her most memorable composition, “Mi Shebeirach,” introduced a traditional custom that up to that point wasn’t practiced in most Reform synagogues: asking God to grant those who are sick for a r’fuah sh’lei-mah, a complete healing. By the way, I recently learned that Mark Zuckerberg, the Jewish CEO of Facebook, sings the first verse of “Mi Shebeirach” to get his daughters, Maxima and August, to sleep: “May the source of strength, who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage, to make our lives a blessing, and let us say, Amen.”

Debbie also introduced the Kaddish d’Rabanan, the Rabbis’ Kaddish, to Reform worship: “For our teachers and their students, And the students of the students. We ask for peace and lovingkindness. And for those who study Torah here and everywhere, may they be blessed with all they need, and let us say Amen.”

She wrote a version of the traditional prayer for travelers, T’filat HaDerech, and based the English on the original text: “May we be blessed as we go on our way, May we be guided in peace. May we be blessed with health and joy, May this be our blessing Amen. May we be sheltered by the wings of peace, May we be kept in safety and in love, may grace and compassion find their way to every soul, May this be our blessing, Amen.”

Although Debbie’s music is primarily heard in Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal liturgy, Blu Greenberg, the Orthodox feminist leader, was quoted in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, on Jan. 14, 2011, as saying, “Debbie had a large impact in modern Orthodox shuls, women’s tefillah and the Orthodox feminist circles… She was a religious bard and angel of the entire community.”

As Debra Nussbaum Cohen wrote in the bio on Friedman’s official website, “Debbie used music to express her Judaism. She translated and transformed prayers, Torah, Talmud and other scholarly texts, ancient and contemporary. She brought words of heretofore lesser-known liturgical pieces, Torah portions, psalms, the prophets and philosophers, into our everyday vernacular. Debbie’s music weaves the message of one’s obligation to the community and its individuals — finding the parallel between the texts and the world as she experienced it.”

Because of this, in December 2011, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion announced its School of Sacred Music would be renamed the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music to honor her contributions to religious worship, spiritual renewal and the Jewish people.

Truly, Debbie Lynn Friedman’s memory lives on as a blessing with the legacy of music she has given to us.

To learn more about Debbie Friedman, go to her official website: www.DebbieFriedman.com.

Cantor Don Alan Croll is a chaplain of Pathway Hospice, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El Binah and cantor emeritus of Temple Shalom.  He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas and the American Conference of Cantors

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