Friday, January 14, 2011

Debbie Friedman's Musical Plea for Peace

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Friday evening, January 14, 2011.)

This was a tragic week in the Jewish world, not only because of the near-fatal shooting of the first Jewish representative to Congress from Arizona, Gabrielle Giffords, but also because of the death of the best-known modern composer of Jewish music, Debbie Friedman.

On this Shabbat Shirah, when we chant the oldest song in the book, Shirat HaYam, the song sung by the Israelites upon crossing the Sea of Reeds, it is all the more fitting to honor Debbie Friedman's contribution to the tower of Jewish song of which Shirat HaYam is the foundation stone.

Certainly, you know her work:

Mi Sheberakh - a prayer for healing
Not by Might - Zechariah 4:6; Haftarat Behaalotekha
Im Ein Ani Li - from Pirqei Avot
Havdalah melody
Aleph Bet

And many others.

When I was in cantorial school, we were not taught to love Debbie Friedman's work. She wrote synagogue music that was a break with tradition - she did not use the correct nusah (prayer chant melody), and stated firmly for the record (I was there when she said this at a panel discussion at the Jewish Theological Seminary) that she wrote music that spoke to people today, and that was far more important than the tradition of nusah.

That may or may not be true. To quote the very musical Reb Tevye of Broadway, "Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof." But without a doubt, Ms. Friedman's music touched two generations of modern Jews in a way that no set of traditional motifs ever will.

I'd like us to take a moment to sing one of her most touching pieces, a song from the liturgy that many of you know, not only as a tribute to Debbie Friedman, but also a plea for peace in the wake of the shooting in Tucson. May the One who makes peace up in the heavens please make peace for all of us down here. All of us.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya-aseh shalom aleinu ve-al kol Yisrael ve-imru amen.

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