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Shabbos not so much Frivolity: Debbie Friedman z"l

Your Humble Blogger has been wanting to write a note about Debbie Friedman, who died last week. The difficulty I am having is that I want to express my respect and admiration for her, without dwelling too much on my personal taste for her music. Which, not so much.

In fact, if you want to know about Debbie Friedman, there are plenty of places to go, and if you have any interest in contemporary Jewish music of any kind, you should already know a lot about her, and should learn more. I should learn more myself. She was a remarkable woman, and it is perhaps a measure of her remarkable stature that even someone like me, someone who owns none of her albums or songbooks, and who really wishes we didn’t do her settings of Elohai N’Shamah and her Thou Shalt Love and her Lechi Lach in our services at Temple Beth Bolshoi—even someone like me is saddened to hear of her death. And I have been grappling with that for almost a week, now.

I grew up in a Conservative shul; my traditions are the traditions of the American Conservative movement. Even at that, we were in some ways a conservative congregation within the Conservatives, at Temple Beth Boyhood: none of this egalitarianism, English readings kept to a minimum, and certainly no acoustic guitars accompanying new settings for the prayers. No instruments at services at all, actually, but it would never have occurred to anybody to have a pipe organ, a string quartet, a piano. But it was the seventies, even in Arizona, and we were at least dimly aware that the dreaded acoustic guitar accompaniment was Being Done in Other Places.

I’m not saying we distrusted instruments. I remember my own childhood cantor, Bobby Taff, now Rabbi Reuven Taff, with an enormous accordion, highly decorated and polished and lovely, teaching us both new(ish) songs and traditional prayers. It was understood, though, that the accordion was for learning; actual praying was done a capella. And, in fact, the zimriya music festival at summer camp (where he was music director) was done without instruments as well, at least as far as I can remember.

I think Rabbi Taff may have been a bigger influence on me than I realized at the time. I mean, I liked the fellow and all, within the bounds of a kid liking the cantor at his shul. I loved singing along with the songs, particularly at camp, where of course singing was a big part of things. I remember, now that I am thinking about it, that in my last year at the camp, when I was twelve, it became uncool to enjoy singing along, to participate with visible enjoyment and energy. I was mocked for it, by other nerdy twelve-year-old Jewish kids who presumably got over it, eventually. But I loved the songs: if I dug up the sheets with the words, I could probably sing a few dozen of those songs. My memory of the camp is the singing, now, more even than the ga-ga and the woods and the classes and the morning prayers and sneaking out of the tent at night.

Of course, I would need to dig up the lyrics to those songs. I don’t remember them. I never have had enough Hebrew to memorize very many Hebrew songs other than the prayers, and my memory was too good for me to work very hard at learning them, which meant they didn’t stick in my brain all that long. And once camp was over, when would I have sung them? Well, a few, maybe that Rabbi Taff brought back to Hebrew School, but not a lot.

I think my daughter is growing up with a bit of a different idea about music, prayer and Judaism. If she is, the credit of course goes to our own Cantor and to Congregation Beth Bolshoi’s other music director, who is very strong in the acoustic guitar and Debbie Friedman field. Which is to say, to Debbie Friedman.

The truth is, while I don’t care for her stuff as a matter of my own personal taste, I am strongly moved by the idea of her stuff. And by the idea of her, as well. Her personal story, her success doing what she did—could anyone have imagined that? Can my daughter imagine becoming a Leah Abrams, a Julie Silver, a Shira Kline, without that? Not, you understand, that she will go into music, or that I want her to—but I want her to imagine that she could. And I want her to stand in the congregation and sing, knowing that Debbie Friedman set this or that prayer to music, knowing that it isn’t all traditional music from her grandfathers’ grandfathers in Eastern Europe.

Even if that old stuff is what her old man likes best. But sure, and isn’t that the point of generations, to hate each other’s music?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


What he said.

I did not care for her music myself, but I was exposed to her at the height of my adolescent cynicism. I found her spirited, contemporary outpouring embarassing. I preferred Carlebach. Nevertheless, King David and Miriam both danced and sang spontaneously with joy before G-d, and in that spirit I respected what she was doing. Like countless others before her, she brought new life and energy into a tradition in danger of ossifying and losing relevance for her generation. Even if her music didn't touch me personally, I saw that it engaged many others.

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