So, you know how there are tons of melodies for “Adon Olam?” You may not have ever thought about it before, but there are so many out there. Yes, each congregation may default to one or another, but the words to “Adon Olam” can be fit into many modern tunes. As rabbinical students in Jerusalem, we used to do a sing-down game where two teams would compete to see how many melodies to “Adon Olam” we could come up with (yes, this is what we did for fun). My favorite has always been “Rock Around the Clock.” Go ahead, take a moment and give it a try.
I love Jewish and liturgical music. I don’t mean any disrespect to my fellow rabbis out there, but the music has always served as a much more spiritual component of the service for me than the spoken word. The right melody – a favorite Janowski, Lewandowski, Richards, Isaacson, or Klepper – especially one that evokes a particular memory or moment, feels like it opens the heavens and communicates with the Divine in a deep, meaningful manner. It’s hard for me to stand still during some of my favorites – I just have to tap my foot, or clap my hands, or even do the special hand motions that I had learned at camp or in youth group. This is, naturally, a bit challenging when I’m in the role of “serious rabbi on the bimah,” but that’s just the nature of the job, I suppose.
One of my most treasured memories of camp was the weekly Shabbat Shirah – all of the camp’s song-leaders would gather in the center of the room, and campers of all ages would arrange themselves around the room’s perimeter. The song-leaders would start with peppy, upbeat songs that encouraged us to boogie a bit and sing along in harmonies and call-and-answer routines. Then, eventually, they would transition to slower songs, and the lights would magically begin to dim (I never did find out whose job it was to do that). Shechinah most certainly dwelled there with us, floating on the precious melodies that emanated from our lips. There was an ineffable magic to the songs, and we could all feel its power to transform. In those moments, I knew that I had to always have access to Jewish music in my life.
This week, we marked the one year yahrzeit of our beloved composer, Debbie Friedman. It is so difficult to believe that she has already been gone for a year. The recent URJ Biennial in Washington, D.C., contained a number of moments of reflection and memorial for her. Her music and her impact on the Reform movement, and indeed on all Jewish music, has left an indelible impression on generations to come.
Some of my most profound memories of worship, growing up, or at camp, or as a rabbi, involve Debbie Friedman and her compositions. The first time I had the honor of meeting her, at URJ’s Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute Camp at least 15 years ago, she was convinced that she had met me before. I assured her that, given her celebrity status, I certainly would have remembered meeting her. Though she tried hard to place me, she eventually said, “Well, I guess it must have just been at Sinai.” What a beautiful, thoughtful, and spiritual comment to make!
A few years later, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion that Debbie offered about Healing Services. As we all put our arms around each other at the conclusion of the session, she sang her beautiful version of “Mi Shebeirach,” and prayed with us and for our health. It was impossible not to feel connected, through her, to something holy and sacred.
I am grateful to all of our cantors, song-leaders, and musicians who help make Reform worship beautiful, transformative, and spiritual. I am likewise grateful to all composers of Reform liturgical and camp music (and the frequent overlap between the two) of past, present, and future – without them, we wouldn’t have the melodies to form the foundation of our blessed moments. Music takes us out of our own heads, encourages us to join our voices to those of our community, and allow the waves of song to ascend to God’s heavenly courts. I know that, thanks to Debbie and others like her, God celebrates these sacred melodies just as much as we do.