I first met Debbie Friedman in the summer of 1969 at the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. I was a 15 year-old high school sophomore, sent by my synagogue to the NFTY Song and Dance Leaders Institute and Debbie was one of my teachers. She had just graduated high school in St Paul, and song-leading at the camp was her first national gig.
A year earlier she had attended the same program, and now was helping to lead it, assisting Jim Schulman, one of the great NFTY song-leaders of that era. Jim's mentoring came at a crucial time for Debbie and she never forgot it. Last summer when Debbie and I were going to be honored by NFTY at the Kutz Camp Reunion she told me she wished Jim had been honored as well. That was how Debbie was. She cared about people.
Meeting Debbie and taking this two-week song-leading course in 1969 was a turning point for me. It opened a door into a new world of Jewish music, and led to my becoming a cantor.
That summer and the next, she was my idol. I couldn't believe how dynamic, charismatic and powerful this 19-year old woman was. She was not much taller than five feet; her Martin 12-string guitar was almost bigger than her. She would take 300 people and in five minutes have us singing incredible harmonies, creating a sense of spirituality none of us had experienced before.
To Debbie I was just another kid at camp, a budding song-leader. But I gravitated towards her, sat at her feet, and we got to know each other. If Debbie broke a string (which happened frequently) I would run to my guitar case and bring her a new one.
At camp Debbie was a celebrity, but she was socially awkward. She wasn't all that easy to talk to and didn't say much. She would end a conversation by saying something silly, making a face and leaning in to bite you on the shoulder. That was how you knew she liked you. But when she picked up her guitar to lead a service or song session, she was the boss. No one taught a song better or faster, or led camp singing with more confidence and passion.
Wherever she went she picked up songs. She learned everything by ear and absorbed musical influences from everywhere. She was a repository of Jewish "roots" music, especially songs from Israel. In later years she observed that many of the great old songs were falling into disuse. One of the reasons we started Hava Nashira (a song-leader training institute at the Olin Sang Ruby Institute Camp in Wisconsin) in 1992 was to revive as much of the classic Jewish folk repertoire as we could. As far as she was concerned the newer songs, no matter who wrote them, could never match the golden oldies—folk and pop songs of every imaginable style—that she would sing late into the night at retreats and conferences wherever she went.
She was the first of the NFTY song-leaders to successfully compose original songs. Michael Isaacson and others had begun to set Hebrew prayers in a rock style, but Debbie's music was different. It had a freshness that emanated as much from her creativity as it did from late 60s folk music (especially Peter Paul and Mary) that was her touchstone.
She wrote her first song, “Thou Shalt Love” in April of 1971 and recorded her first LP, Sing Unto God in the fall of that year. (Since she took her words directly from the old fashioned Union Prayer Book, which was replaced in 1974, future scholars of liturgy will have to explain the irony of Woodstock era Jews singing their revolutionary anthems in the King's English.)
After Sing Unto God the floodgates were opened. Everyone, including me, wanted to sing and write songs like Debbie. But Debbie's calling was unique. She spent most of the 70s traveling the country; teaching her songs at camps, temples, retreats, JCCs and day schools; paying her dues; and planting seeds that would blossom years later. It was hardly a glamorous lifestyle.
As Debbie's music began to make inroads into synagogue services, she took a great deal of heat from the older generation of cantors. Singing camp songs for the youth group was one thing, but cantors protested that her songs, increasingly championed by congregants and rabbis, were destroying the liturgical fabric of services. A sacred tradition of artfully composed choral music was slowly being replaced, they argued, by guitars, hand clapping, and pop tunes more suited to a campfire than a synagogue service.
Debbie wasn’t the only creator of this new musical style but she was the most visible, and for that she became a lightning rod for criticism. In 1981, when a controversy broke out in the pages of Reform Judaism magazine about what was being called “new trend music,” she spoke out in a letter to the editor. “Though camp was a place in which we experimented with the music, in no way was the music created for any particular age group. We do ourselves an injustice when labeling this mode of spiritual expression as ‘camp music.’ We who composed knew full well that children who sang and prayed together....would take it home to share with their families and friends,” she wrote.
The dust up over her music taught Debbie an important lesson. She began to take her work more seriously, studying Hebrew sacred text and liturgy, Jewish music and nusach, reading, thinking, praying and struggling to master her craft, to take her songwriting to a new level.
Debbie churned out songs. She was always creating, always looking for new texts to interpret and trying new musical styles. Many of her early songs, like “Dodi Li,” “Im Tirtsu,” and “Not By Might,” were simple and catchy but not terribly sophisticated.
Beginning in the 1980s, her study and artistic maturation resulted in soaring prayer melodies like “Mi Shebeirach” and “T’filat Haderech,” as well as feminist interpretations of Torah such as “L’chi Lach,” and “Miriam’s Song.” In these and many other pieces she created music for the ages—perfect songs for this or any time. Her interpretation of Reb Nachman’s Prayer (“You Are the One”) is as transcendent as any piece of music I can think of.
She wrote dozens of wonderful songs for children, full of wit and wordplay, which teach important Jewish values. I can’t imagine Chanukah without singing “I Am a Latke”. Her simple “Alef Bet” is used teach the Hebrew letters, and one of my all time favorites is “Six Hundred and Thirteen Commandments”, a magical song about receiving the Torah.
Debbie’s extraordinary body of work is but one of her legacies. She had a spirit and a life force that could not be contained, always moving, always creating, always giving. She lived to teach, whether to one student or one thousand. She was always travelling because she wanted to reach and touch every Jewish soul she could.
The backdrop of her career, sadly, is that she lived with a great deal of physical and emotional pain. She was not always upbeat and happy. But that didn't prevent her from doing her work. Her greatest joy was bringing joy to other people, and in that sense she transcended all her limitations. That is what made her a larger than life figure, and ultimately a tragic one. In our culture, when great artists die before their time (as we have seen too often in the world of music), an inevitable mystique and mythologizing becomes part of their legacy. We may see this happen with Debbie, just as it did some years ago with the passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Debbie lived to taste the fruits of her labors and to see how much she accomplished. Her name became synonymous with a certain kind of Jewish musical expression. That connection will grow stronger as her music continues to enrich Jewish life for generations to come.
Cantor Jeff Klepper is a key figure in American Jewish music. He served as cantor of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston from 1982 to 2000, and is a past president of the Chicago-Milwaukee Association of Cantors. In 1992 he joined Debbie Friedman to create Hava Nashira, the annual song-leader training workshop in Oconomowoc, Wis. Jeff and his family live in Boston, where he serves as cantor of Temple Sinai in Sharon, Massachusetts, and teaches in the Jewish Music Institute of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. Visit his website at www.jeffklepper.com