October 20, 2018

1,500 raise voices in song to remember Debbie Friedman

As the piano struck the first notes of Debbie Friedman’s “Elohai N’Shama,” Cantor Linda Kates paused before the approximately 1,500 people gathered in the sanctuary at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) and recalled a story about how the late singer-songwriter energized a crowd of Jewish students while teaching them the song.

“We all have a ‘Debbie story,’ ” Kates said, as the audience laughed along with her.

More than a dozen Jewish musicians, rabbis and cantors told their “Debbie stories” and performed some of Friedman’s most popular tunes as part of a free, public memorial concert VBS hosted Feb. 13 to honor the composer’s legacy. Titled “Lechi Lach” after one of Friedman’s early hits, the evening marked the end of the traditional 30-day period of mourning following her death Jan. 9.

The mood was upbeat and joyous as performers including Craig Taubman, Julie Silver and Sam Glaser performed Friedman’s crowd-pleasers, frequently inviting the audience to stand, clap and sing along. Community members and clergy came from across Los Angeles to celebrate the way Friedman reinvigorated Jewish communal worship during her career and touched the lives of those who knew her as a friend.

“How do you say ‘thank you’ for all the gifts she gave over her lifetime? How do you say ‘thank you’ for all the songs we sing that came from her?” wondered Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of VBS, who organized the memorial. “To gather together and sing … that’s the highest form of grieving, the deepest form of remembering, the most powerful form of resurrection.”

The power of Friedman’s music to unite Jewish people was evident as audience members young and old belted out familiar lyrics with gusto, relishing tunes many had grown up with at Hebrew school and summer camp.

Spanning Friedman’s nearly 40-year recording career, starting with her 1972 debut album, “Sing Unto God,” the program featured more esoteric compositions alongside melodies that long ago entered the canon of contemporary Jewish liturgical music. Songs included Friedman’s original arrangements of “Oseh Shalom” and “Mi Shebeirach,” now staples of Reform synagogue services, and her folk-rock anthems “Turn the World Around,” “And the Youth Shall See Visions” and “Not By Might.”

Glaser sang Friedman’s iconic “Tefilat HaDerech” and a medley of her children’s songs, including “The Latke Song” and her ubiquitous tune for the Alef-Bet. After the concert, he praised the way the event brought together Jews of all denominations beneath one roof.

“When you suffer a loss like this, it erases boundaries,” said Glaser, who described Friedman’s music as “a gift from God.”

Cantor and performer Kenny Ellis of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita reminded attendees of Friedman’s humorous side when he showed off a pair of oversize red clown shoes Friedman years ago had goaded a choir into wearing.

Singer-songwriter Silver took the stage in an energetic performance of Friedman’s “Devorah’s Song,” “You Are the One” and “Not By Might.” Silver said she credits her years of friendship with Friedman for inspiring her to become a performer of Jewish music.

“Debbie Friedman’s greatest gift to me was the gift of song. I was a student learning her songs, an educator transmitting her pieces, and finally a songwriter and performer as a result of the vision she shared with me,” Silver said. “She was a master teacher, composer, healer and song-leader, and anyone who was lucky enough to have stood in her light knows how important it is to the future of our people to carry the torch forward.”

Taubman, music producer and performer with Craig ’n Co., sang Friedman’s arrangement of “V’shamru” and “Sow in Tears, Reap in Joy,” stepping down off the bimah and exhorting the crowd to lead the songs themselves. Like others during and after the concert, Taubman said he found it difficult to memorialize Friedman’s legacy through words alone. But in celebrating her music, he said, “her spirit lives on.”

Other performers included Cantor Mike Stein of Temple Aliyah and his family band, the Rolling Steins, and music educator and performer Cindy Paley Aboody, who sang “Lechi Lach” (the feminine form of God’s commandment to Abraham and Sarah to “go forth”).

VBS put the concert together over a two-week period, with no budget. Performers and organizers volunteered their time out of love for Friedman, and even if the show in places seemed unrehearsed, it had all the spirit of an impromptu campfire sing-along.

During the finale, in which Silver led an ensemble performance of “Mourning Into Dancing” and “Miriam’s Song,” women across the audience leapt to their feet and danced around the sanctuary in a grapevine.

Friedman’s mother, Frieda, and sister, Cheryl, were in the audience, along with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Cheryl Friedman of Orange County said she was touched by the outpouring of respect and affection in her sister’s honor. “Even during the upbeat songs, we had tears in our eyes,” she said. “When people were dancing in the aisles, I looked at my mom and said, ‘Look what Debbie did.’ I just wish she could have been alive to see this.”