Today Debbie Friedman died and I am deeply touched by this. Beyond a feeling of empathy of all that she went through in her life and the loss of her great talent, it makes me think of her impact on my own religious experience.
I was born at a wonderful time and place in Jewish and world history. I was too young to have personal knowledge of the holocaust and although it was visually presented to me years before I was at an age that it should have been, it still was something that happened to others and did not enter my being for many years. The State of Israel was declared when I was five, so although I really do not remember a world without it, I still grew up in an atmosphere infused with the amazement of that event.
I grew up in an America that ruled the world, where opportunities were expanding, and where I have broken some glass ceilings, but never had to cut myself in that process. I was taught about heroes – American heroes, Jewish heroes. We were the good guys – they were the bad guys. The Israeli army was always moral; the Arabs fled because they were greedy; the California Indians were given better lives by Father Serra and the missions; our presidents were honorable and moral men; and so on and so on.
I grew up in a world of opportunity where my parents told me that I could be anything I wanted to be. Well, maybe the presidency of the U.S. was closed to me because I was female and to my brother because he was Jewish … but maybe not in the future.
I felt safe and secure even in a world of “better red than dead” and the “duck and cover.” I was part of the baby boom (though later not officially so) and we were going to take over the world. We were loved; temples were built so that we could go to religious school. We were a precious possession of the Jewish people.
Camps were established to give us a positive Jewish experience – the Camps for Living Judaism was what the Reform movement called them. They were a place where we could truly live Judaism in a way that did not exist in the synagogues and religious schools or in our homes. And there we did just that. We prayed together with songs that we could sing. We sang before every meal and after every meal. We sang Zionist songs, praises to God, songs of Jewish peoplehood. We put our arms around each other and swayed, singing, feeling a togetherness that was warming and inclusive. We understood as we swayed that, for some reason, part of the circle would be moving to the left as the other part would be moving to the right and that this division would travel around the circle, drawing each of us in turn to change our direction so as to remain a part of the whole, surrounded and embraced in unity.
And then we came home. And we went to Friday night services with our parents or we were forced to attend in order to be confirmed. We went to bar mitzvahs (and sometimes a bat mitzvah) for a friend or relative or younger sibling of a friend. And there we sat. We listened to wonderful cantors, fine choirs, good sermons, and stilted prayers. But they did not touch us; they did not include us. We were the audience, the congregation, not participants except in choreographed responsive readings. And we longed to bring camp home to our synagogues and our clergy and our parents.
It took years, but slowly it slipped in. Our camp song leaders became youth directors and created junior congregations. They and we matured and some went to HUC and took over congregations or were hired as assistant rabbis to reach out to the youth and try to draw us in. New creative prayerbooks were written and congregations advertised creative services – better words, better music, more congregational participation. The gates had started to open and along came Debbie Friedman and Danny Friedlander and Jeff Klepper and “our” music started to infiltrate the services across the nation. And while Danny and Jeff certainly helped to mainstream our camp experiences, it was Debbie who pushed those gates wide open and let our spirit flow into the synagogue service. Her music and words were accessible and touched our hearts. It allowed us to sing with a passion that is inclusive of the whole congregation – whether one can sing or not, we all sing. It gave us a way to share and make a whole that is bigger than its individual parts. She gave us music for every holiday, every occasion. And it never gets old or boring.
I was truly born at a wonderful time. Those who are younger may enjoy our services today, but they do not cherish them in the same way that I do. For I know how long they took to come into being and how many people worked hard to create a wonderful worship atmosphere that I can be part of. On Friday night Danny Maseng reminded us that he and all other of our composers have been able to do what they do because they are starting on the platform that she built. She transformed the synagogue to make room for them and their wonderful, inclusive, touching, and relevant music. We have so much to be grateful for.
Geraldine Mund, congregant and former president of the Board of Trustees of Temple Israel of Hollywood.