Sunday, January 9, 2011

"By Spirit Alone..."

Debbie Friedman, zichronah livrachah
An appreciation and reminiscence
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD – January 9, 2011

I should be watching a football game right now. Or getting information out to my congregation, or finishing those recommendations that have to get into the mail tomorrow. But at this moment I can do none of those things. Instead, I am remembering one of the towering Jewish personalities of my own lifetime, Debbie Friedman.

If you are reading this, you know me well enough to know the powerful place that Jewish summer camping had in my youth, and continues to have in my life still today as a 50 year old Rabbi. I think it is very safe to say that Debbie was among the most, if not THE most, significant influences on me in that environment.

It was my very first summer at Camp Harlam. Late June and July of 1971. I was a little shy of my 11th birthday, having just completed 5th grade, still an only child, in a new place. My family had joined the white flight from Queens, NY to Long Island. My Jewish education from my very secularized parents at the time of our move consisted of a year of Workman’s Circle Sunday school at the local YM-YWHA learning Yiddish and Jewish culture, and whatever little bit I had picked up from my great-grandfather, mostly at Passover seders that were a mystery to me. Despite this, I was thrust into the religious school of the Conservative congregation in our new home town, because membership in the Reform congregation had been capped. I had learned a lot, even enjoyed that learning, but, honestly, it was all theoretical. There was little grounding in the reality of my parents’ home. We attended services only on the High Holy Days, and there was ambivalence about my participation with them on those days.

It was from that environment and experience that I drew as I tried to adjust to this amazing new world of Jewish summer camp. In the dining hall the very first evening, we were all introduced to the diminutive young woman with the guitar who would be our songleader. She may have been short in stature -- but we quickly learned that what she lacked in altitude, she more than made up for with ru'ach -- with spirit! She led us that first night in a few songs, mostly from the Zionist classics (I know now!), so a couple were actually familiar.

But it was at Shabbat evening services, themselves a new phenomenon for me, that I was to get my first taste of what the rest of my life would be. For it was there and then that Debbie Friedman was free to be her real self. We sang several of her melodies to the prayers, which themselves were only mildly familiar. But there was English! So I could understand what was being said, unlike at home. And guitar! And melodies that were upbeat, and welcoming. Little did I realize that I was far from the only one experiencing this phenomenon for the first time. But it mattered not – even though it was foreign, and new, I was hooked!

I, and we, soon came to learn that Debbie herself had written several of these melodies. She had even recorded an album. This knowledge made her a rock star – literally – in our young eyes. But, far from separating herself from us, Debbie was an integral part of our camp experience. When, during the second week of camp, she came into our bunk at bedtime to sing some songs with us and help put us to bed, we saw the person up close. She was real, and even though not much older than us, clearly someone to be admired and looked up to.

When I returned home, it was as much Debbie and the music that came with me, energizing my stories, as anything else I experienced. That was also the year that we switched over, finally, to the Reform congregation, and I began to be prepared for my Bar Mitzvah celebration. It was a perfect storm. And at the eye of that storm, the heart of our youth programs through the following years, the center of my own Jewish soul as it developed, was the music, nurtured literally by EVERY major name of that amazing first generation, between my involvements at Harlam and then Eisner, as well as NFTY in the New York of the 70’s. But it all began for me, as it did for so many others, with Debbie Friedman – her music, her spirit, her example.

As I look back, I marvel to remember that our Cantor, like so many others in the 70s, would not allow Debbie’s music into the sanctuary for far too many years. It seems inconceivable now, but it was true. We had to fight to be allowed to use our own guitars and choose on own music, even for youth group services! Thankfully, that turf-driven myopia passed long ago, if far after it should have!

I remember my daughter Emily’s first experience of Debbie – in a concert at Carnegie Hall. By then I was a guitar-playing Rabbi, Debbie’s music was already familiar to my young daughter. I remember seeing Peter Yarrow – Peter Yarrow! – sitting in the third row, center aisle, through most of the concert, until he got up and walked through a side door, only to reappear onstage with Debbie. And I remember how her music even influenced my parents, and was one of the avenues that they followed to comfortable involvement in congregational life themselves!

Despite the slights of the professional Cantorate early on, despite the incredible delay in welcoming her to the faculty of the Cantorial school at HUC-JIR only in relatively recent years, I will remember what a role model Debbie was to an entire generation of woman Cantors, and how she supported their efforts and encouraged them as both performers and spiritual leaders. Those who have enjoyed and been spiritually moved by a female Cantor in the last 20 years, probably owe a similar debt of gratitude directly to Debbie Friedman.

She gave Miriam the voice at the moment of our salvation at the Sea that the text tradition seems to have limited. She taught us at Chanukkah to respect the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might, and not by power, but by (God’s) spirit – shall we all live in peace.” She even taught us to think of the batter of the latkes sitting in a blender, and learn from it to care more about those in need around us!

She taught us how to pray, and how to work, to bring healing to ourselves and to others. Sadly, now, we must come to grips with the fact that our singing her words and her melodies in her hour of need were not enough to bring her back to us in health. Apparently, God has need for a singer and songwriter and mentor and teacher and role model in the afterlife – and God has made the best choice possible.

I end, with thanks to my colleague and friend, Don Rossoff – she DID teach us all to “Sing a new song, sing a new song unto God.” And to Rabbi Rob Nosanchuk, whose use of these words got up on facebook before I could post, the words Debbie adapted from the tradition and set to music as The Travelers’ Prayer (adapted only slightly to fit this moment):

May you be blessed as you go on your way.
May you be guided in peace.
May (your) strength and compassion find their way to every soul.
This (is) your blessing (-- and your legacy). Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully said. A voice silenced but lives on in the music we sing.

    Submitted by Michael Fenster,a camp eisner camper and camp kutz I uattended for lifty functions