In 1995, I was living in Nashville, Tennessee, and belonged to a small Conservative congregation. One day, I saw a flier on the wall advertising a concert for some woman named Debbie Friedman. I had no idea who she was, and I imagined that whatever this “Jewish music” of hers was, it was probably cheesy. But, I bought a ticket anyway. When you live in a Jewish desert like Nashville, you are so desperate to hang out with other Members of the Tribe, you are pretty much willing to attend anything!
That night, I packed into the tiny sanctuary, which was filled way beyond capacity. I was wedged in some tiny little nook where I could barely see a thing. Fire code? What fire code. And, when I walked away a few hours later, I remember thinking one of those rare thoughts you have in life: “Wow. That was really something.”
Her show was so transformative, I went home and ordered all of her CDs and proceeded to share them with my friend Kathy, who hadn’t been there. I don’t remember doing this, but when Debbie Friedman died on January 9 this year, Kathy sent me an email from Nashville. “Hey Nator,” she said, invoking my nickname. “Remember when you came back from Debbie’s concert, and lent me all her CDs, and I spent the next 5 years playing them in my car? Well, I know every song we sing in my synagogue now, because of those CDs!” Debbie’s concert had been so transformative, it shaped the future Jewish life of someone who hadn’t even see it.
Just what is so powerful about Debbie’s music? Well, for one thing, it’s beautiful. She takes simple, memorable melodies and blends them with ancient words from Torah or liturgy. Her songs have depth, and that rare sense of openness and vulnerability. If you listen to Debbie’s music, it’s just a matter of time before something she says will ignite a tear.
What makes her music even more powerful though, is to think about how she single-handedly transformed Jewish ritual life in the 20th century. Music has always been at the heart of Judaism — the Torah tells us that Moses and the children ofIsraelsang after crossing theSeaofReeds. But the cantorial tradition as we know it didn’t really begin until the 14th century, in Germany, when R. Jacob Molin codified the high holy day melodies. This became the foundation of a whole new cantorial tradition, carried on by other composers like Louis Lewandowsky, of fixed songs and melodies shared across congregations and countries.
The cantorial tradition, like the rabbinic tradition, was not just an exclusively male enterprise — it was also a familial enterprise, much like the history of medicine. To become a doctor, or a cantor or a rabbi — you pretty much had to be the son of one. These were prized family trades that you didn’t just give away to the Am HaAretz, the poor of the people. And you definitely didn’t give them away to women.
There’s another reason women’s voices have been literally silent when it comes to the composition and performance of Jewish music — and that is a rabbinic concept called Kol Isha.
Kol Isha literally means “Voice of a Woman,” and it means that a man is not allowed to hear a woman sing, lest he have lascivious thoughts. This idea that men might think improper things — and that the solution to this problem is to shut the women up — dates clear back to the Talmud, to the year 500.
It’s laughable to me that in this day and age, anyone could argue that a woman‘s voice might spark an improper thought in a man — but it doesn’t work the other way around. Obviously, these rabbinic authorities have never been to a Neil Diamond concert, where there are literally thousands of screaming women screaming thousands of improper thoughts.
It’s funny — but it’s also sad — because there has been a very real consequence to this idea. As far as I could find, a woman never performed a cantorial role in the Jewish world until the early 1950s in theUnited States. Even then, they were not technically cantors. The first woman wasn’t invested as a cantor until 1975.
This was the world Debbie Friedman grew up in. Debbie had no women role models in the Jewish musical world. In fact, she had no musical role models at all. Incredibly, the woman who has done more to innovate Jewish music had NO formal musical training, and NO formal Jewish education.
Debbie was born in 1951 inUtica,NY. At the age of 16, when working at a summer camp, she picked up a guitar and tried playing the songs the kids were singing. A few months later, she went to a Reform retreat; the group needed a song leader, and she was, as she said, “elected by default.”
At the age of 21, in 1970, she wrote her first original piece, “V’ahavta.” When she taught it to the kids at a Reform retreat, the teens stood up, crying, and wrapped their arms around one another. “I realized,” she said, “that something important was happening.”
Over the next 41 years, Debbie would release 23 albums, containing songs that are now ubiquitous in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations worldwide.
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Debbie was not always embraced by Jewish leaders. As rabbi Daniel Freelander explained, “During the late ’70s to mid ’80s, Debbie was really demonized by the Jewish musical establishment. She was seen as someone ruining synagogue music. She was hurt by it, but also courageous. It was probably the most creative period in her life. In the middle of this difficult time when people were devaluing her, she created a whole new genre, a new idiom.”
By the last decade of her life, Debbie was officially embraced by the Reform movement. The American Conference of Cantors made her an honorary member, andHebrewUnionCollegehired her to train cantorial students.
Debbie died at the young age of 59. When I met her, over 20 years ago, she was just beginning to suffer the effects of a degenerative neurological disorder called dyskinesia, which sporadically paralyzed her legs. She also suffered from seizures and adrenal problems. The struggles of her physical life powerfully infused her music with a depth and a humanity that can often only be borne from human suffering.
As the Forward explained, in her obituary: “Friedman’s gift was her ability to make Jewish prayer accessible … Her English lyrics frequently dealt with the empowerment of women and other disenfranchised groups. Her spirituality was rooted in her own feelings of being on the margins.”
Women feeling like they are on the margins of Jewish leadership is the whole reason associations like the Women of Reform Judaism were founded. Groups of women first began banding together under the name “Sisterhood” in the 1800s. It was a way to socialize and do charitable work, but it was also a way to have a voice in organized Jewish life, generations before women could officially take such a mantel.
It is amazing that in only a century, our synagogues have undergone a complete transformation. We now have women rabbis, cantors, and lay leaders galore. Our challenge has gone from empowering women, to making sure our men continue to be inspired and involved.
Debbie knew she probably would not live into old age. When asked about the legacy she hoped to leave behind, for a 2007 book called Jewish Sages of Today: Profiles of Extraordinary People, she had this to say. It is one of my favorite Debbie Friedman wisdoms:
“When I finally do leave this world, I want people to understand that they are the essential element in the universe, and that without them, the universe wouldn’t be the same. They are the essential element not in a narcissistic way, but because they have a heart and soul and the capacity to do good … and that the person (sitting) next to them, is the same.”
Amen to that.
One of my favorite Friedman songs: All silly and no serious!