A Psalm for a Singer

It’s tenor time in the Borscht Belt next week. The cantors are coming to the Catskills, close to 400 of them, from Conservative synagogues across the country. With spouses and sundry fans in tow, they’ll be descending on Kutsher’s Country Club, one of the last of the region’s great Jewish watering holes, for three days of music and prayer. It’s the annual convention of the Cantors’ Assembly.

The big news at this year’s convention is not a tenor, though, but a soprano: folk singer Debbie Friedman, the temple troubadour, sweet songstress of the Jewish spirit. Along with seven other composers — all cantors except her — she’s been asked to help compose new musical settings for the Psalms of the Day.

For Friedman, 48, this is a vindication of sorts. She’s never won much respect from cantors before, despite her superstar status among their congregants. Over the last 30 years, she’s sold more than 200,000 albums of her Jewish devotional music. She plays regularly to packed houses from coast to coast. Her songs have become permanent parts of the liturgy in hundreds of synagogues. Yet cantors, the musical directors of the synagogue world, tend to treat her music like a campfire sing-along.

“She writes good music which is memorable, because it’s basically repetitive and very simple,” says Cantor Charles Davidson of Elkins Park, Pa., one of the deans of the Conservative cantorate. “But there are many of us who would prefer it if she would look to the traditional nusach as the source of inspiration.”

The nusach, the classic, minor-key prayer music handed down in synagogues over the centuries, is the nub of the cantors’ beef with Friedman. Tradition requires that prayers be sung to nusach, just so. There’s room for growth and evolution, Davidson says, but “a Jewish composer’s obligation is to find ways to bridge the gap between the past and the present.” Shlomo Carlebach did that, he says. “Debbie doesn’t.”

Friedman makes no apologies. Though she’s been studying traditional modes and uses them in some new songs, her goal is to get Jews singing. That means writing songs in melodies that are accessible, in the mode we’re used to hearing. That minor mode of the nusach is not only difficult; it’s foreign to our ears.

“I’d like to reach the point,” she says, “where everybody is comfortable enough with prayer, where they don’t feel like it’s something so untouchable because they don’t have the skills to embrace it.”

Not all cantors disapprove. Growing numbers — particularly her fellow baby boomers — think that Friedman is on to something. “She understands how the nonmusician responds to music and prayer,” says Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, professor of sacred music at Hebrew Union College in New York. “Her melodies are softer, written for the average voice. They come out of the 1960s. They resonate for the baby boomers. And she’s put her finger on some texts that people want to sing over and over.”

But many cantors, particularly older ones, “have a visceral negative reaction to her music because of what it represents to them,” says Rabbi Dan Freelander, program director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “She represents the victory of American musical idioms over traditional Jewish musical idioms.”

That conflict — cantorial versus popular music — isn’t new. The very first talking picture, the 1927 hit “The Jazz Singer,” told of a cantor’s son who broke his father’s heart by running off to become a pop crooner. The film’s star, Al Jolson, was himself the runaway son of a cantor. So were many pop artists of the Jazz Age.

Cantorial hostility toward popular culture ran deep. America’s first superstar cantor, the legendary Yossele Rosenblatt, actually turned down a 1918 offer to sing opera at $1,000 a night because he feared that it would demean his gift. Nine years later, bankrupt, he let himself be featured in “The Jazz Singer.” It cemented his renown, yet it mortified him. He died penniless and heartbroken a few years later.

For a while after Rosenblatt, American cantors actually became pop stars. Moishe Oysher and Sidor Belarsky toured the Borscht Belt regularly, singing sacred songs and Yiddish pop. Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce became full-time entertainers without losing their religious following.

All that ended two generations ago. With rising assimilation among the laity, most cantors today are hard pressed to build a popular following among their own congregants, much less the broader public.

Debbie Friedman brings the process full circle. In a way, she’s a pop singer who ran off to be a cantor.

She started leading song back in high school, in a Reform temple youth group in St. Paul, Minn. After graduating, she moved briefly to Israel, but returned and threw herself back into Reform youth work.

It was shortly after returning to St. Paul in 1969 that she first tried songwriting, putting new music to “Ve-ahavta,” the prayer that follows the “Sh’ma.” It was a time of spiritual turmoil, she recalls, when Jewish kids would sing James Taylor songs and substitute “Moses” for “Jesus.”

“I taught ‘Ve-ahavta’ to a group of kids on a weekend retreat in Pennsylvania,” she says, “and they put their arms around each other and sang it, and I cried. I realized something important was going on, that this was an important point of connection, that these are our words. And I decided I had to do this.”

She’s been doing it ever since, traveling relentlessly, singing before audiences of 20 or 2,000. She’s cut 17 albums in 27 years, most of them still in print. Five of them are among America’s top 10 best-selling Jewish-theme albums right now, according to the Web site JewishMusic.com. She performs about 60 times a year, largely in synagogues — mainly Reform but increasingly Conservative as well. Lately, she’s been moving to concert halls “because the synagogues aren’t big enough anymore,” says her booking agent, Moishe Rosenfeld.

Her success is finally forcing cantors to take notice, in the Conservative movement, if not in her own Reform movement. Two years ago, the Cantors Assembly invited her to its convention as a guest performer. This year, she’s been given a higher honor, invited to compose for the cantorate. “It would have been silly not to invite Debbie,” says assembly head Henry Rosenblum. “She’s part of the synagogue experience.”

Freelander of the UAHC thinks it’s inevitable, though. “The transition to an American nusach is fully underway,” he says. “In 100 years, American Jewish music will sound nothing like the traditional Jewish music of Eastern Europe.”

What it will sound like, probably, is Debbie Friedman.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.