Posts Tagged ‘Jewish prayer’

Debbie Friedman

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!

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We’ve all been there when it worked – in that mysterious, ineffable way that is so impossible to describe but unforgettable to experience. And we’ve all been there when it hasn’t – one of those interminable religious services where thoughts of a Chinese torture chamber become genuinely appealing.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. But only a little.

What is it that separates the first kind of experience from the second? What are the qualities, traits or techniques that make a prayer experience really impact the people involved?

I have recently returned from the fourth and final week of a program called the Davennen Leadership Training Institute – or DLTI – which is all about those questions. For one week, four times, over two years, a group of 50+ adventurous souls gathered on the shores of a picturesque lake in western Connecticut, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. We ate delicious mostly vegetarian food; percolated in the hot tub under crisp, starry skies; and in the rhythm of our most ancient Jewish traditions, came together to daven (pray) three times a day in cycle with the sun.

The members of the group came from all over: The Southwest, New York, Maryland, Alaska, two even schlepped over from Germany. Several of us welcomed babies over those two years – and three of those babies joined the holy chevra at one retreat or another. Several others experienced the loss of a parent, surgeries, separations from loved ones. It became, in short, the kind of kahal (community) one typically finds in a synagogue family – only our family would be, we knew at the outset, only a temporary one.

People join DLTI for different reasons. Quite a few of the participants are enrolled in rabbinical or cantorial studies programs. But there were several members who were already ordained clergy working in congregations, and who simply wanted to improve their service-leading abilities. Still others had no plans to pursue Judaism as a profession, but hoped to help grow and nurture the prayer experiences in their home communities.

We were not, by any means, all “uber-Jews” or “prayer freaks” whose lives revolve around three-times-a-day davenning. In fact, for most of us, it was an intensity and experience of prayer that we had never experienced before, and which was alternately enriching and exhausting, uplifting and maddening. How I felt at any given moment at any given retreat pretty much spanned the spectrum, which in the end, I think, is a good indication of just how authentic and deep the DLTI experience really becomes.

So, enough of the abstracts! What exactly do we do at DLTI?

Well, in the weeks before each retreat, we would receive a series of reading and study assignments about a particular aspect of Jewish prayer (for example, the Amidah and Kabbalat Shabbat were the focus of one week; learning the nusach and prayers for the weekday Shacharit service was the focus of another). We were also given service-leading assignments with anywhere from one to three other students, for either a Shacharit, Mincha or Maariv service.

Each day was built around those thrice-daily davenning experiences, and in between them, we would have “class” in the beit midrash (synagogue) overlooking the lake. Some classes were from the teachers on prayer-related topics (often based on a text rooted in Jewish mysticism); some were nusach (melody) labs with Hazzan Jack; and others were interactive exercises designed to get us to think about issues like transitions and role-sharing during service-leading.

One major component of each day was what they called a “lab” – usually on the morning’s Shacharit service. It is here that the teachers would call up the service leaders to do instant replays of small, specific parts of the service, and then, with the most-gentlest of suggestions, tweak it and make it better.

It’s hard to describe what this process was like – both to experience it and to witness it – but it was something akin to watching a flower open its petals. It was breathtaking to see what were, to my novice eyes, perfectly wonderful prayer pieces, and watch them ascend to a level I hadn’t even conceived of.

Not infrequently, it made people cry. A lot. And these were the good, transcendant kind of tears.

DLTI-5 is a community only on the Internet now; we will continue to communicate through Yahoo Groups and Facebook and small get-togethers when we can manage them. DLTI-6 is a community just now beginning to form, with their first session planned for August 2010.

The word on the street is that enrollment for DLTI-6 is already half-filled. My advice? Run, don’t walk, to the registration line. For more information, visit Isabella Freedman’s website here.

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