Her songs and soul always felt timeless, often joyful, her contributions to the liturgy are everpresent, and yet the fact of Debbie Friedman’s passing one year ago, January, remains painful and mournful.
There may not have been another composer and singer whose folk and soul did more to influence the Reform and Conservative movements, let alone to influence the healing services that with her Mi Sheberach ascended to a place beyond denominations and background.
Though her unique style and populist approach confounded mainstream clergy for much of her career, she nevertheless and rightfully lived long enough to feel the communal embrace, being invited to join the faculty of the Reform movement’s cantorial school, now renamed the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.
Always imagining new songs and ways to approach Jewish spirituality, in the weeks before she died she spent considerable time on a new melody for Friday night’s Shalom Aleichem, a melody she’d been fine-tuning for more than a year.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen reported in the Forward that Friedman told her friend, Rabbi Joy Levitt, that this setting for Shalom Aleichem “is going to be my legacy. This is going to be bigger than Mi Sheberach,” with Rabbi Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, replying, “I’m going to make it my business that everyone knows this ‘Shalom Aleichem.’”
The tune has been shared, informally since then, but on Feb. 3 and 4, the Shabbat known as Shabbat Shira, the “Sabbath of Song” (because of the Torah portion’s song celebrating the crossing of the Red Sea, evocative as well of another Friedman classic, “Miriam Dancing with Her Timbrels”) her version of Shalom Aleichem will go national.
Rabbi Levitt and Cantor Angela Buchdahl, of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, have begun a campaign to have all Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist clergy sing Friedman’s Shalom Aleichem on that most fitting Shabbat.
As with the angels of Shalom Aleichem, may her “departure be to peace,” may her songs continue to be sung, and may she be especially remembered on this Shabbat Shira.