This past November our family was honored and privileged to share a Shabbat service with Debbie Friedman, as she led Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in prayer and song. At the time we felt that there were few things more powerful, spiritual and uplifting than singing the famed and beautiful “Friedman melody” of the “Mi Shebeirach,” (prayer for healing) with Debbie Friedman herself. It was indescribable and incredible beyond words. But now, as the Jewish community at large mourns her untimely death, I feel even more fortunate that we had this special opportunity, as it is something that we will remember for the rest of our lives. From here on, anytime we listen to her 20-plus albums or hear her melodies at synagogue, Jewish camp or other Jewish event or setting, we will think about her love of music and the inspirational and innovative way she taught us to embrace music and to pray. Her legacy will live on in our hearts and souls.
Paying tribute to Debbie on this day of her funeral leads me to really explore the huge role that music plays in our Jewish lives. This column, Kids Konnection, has always strived to explore ways that we, as parents, can connect with our children, and how we, as Jewish people, can connect with other Jews in our community, but mostly how we, as Jewish parents, can make sure our children connect Jewishly with their community and their Jewish lives. I cannot think of a greater way for us to connect in these ways than through music. Exposing our children to Jewish music at a young age and incorporating it into our daily lives is one of the best things we can do for them.
Learning the melodies of the prayers that are sung in synagogue on Shabbat makes participating in the services much more meaningful, which makes for a better experience overall. When people, kids in particular, know the tunes and melodies and are able to participate, they want to attend. A service filled with beautiful music that touches our hearts and transforms our souls encourages the participation of all, including our youth. One of our children expressed it best when he said “When I sing with the cantor, I can really feel the words inside me.”
Singing and chanting prayers in synagogue is only one way in which we can incorporate Jewish music in our lives. One of the main avenues for song is at Jewish camp. Traditional camp “song sessions” connect everyone and facilitate the strong bonding that is an integral part of the overnight camp experience. By that first evening of song around the campfire at any Jewish camp, the kids are singing, sharing, laughing and bonding. The power of song can help them adjust and adapt to the new experience of being away from home and make them feel comfortable and connect with their fellow campers. We have been to events where there are groups of teenagers who bond instantly when they begin singing camp songs that are familiar to everyone. Music is universal and brings people together in a unique and special way. Lively and often folksy camp songs are also catchy and fun to sing and foster an atmosphere of ruach, spirit. This contributes greatly to a positive experience at camp, which, in turn, helps to create a love for being Jewish and a desire to lead a Jewish life.
There are yet other ways to incorporate music into our lives. There is a plethora of Jewish music on CDs that we can listen to (and sing along with) – from renowned Jewish composers and song leaders such as Debbie Friedman, of course, but also Craig Taubman, Sam Glaser and many others. Attending a concert of a Jewish songleader or composer is quite a treat. Listening to these types of Jewish songs is another way in which we can provide our children with a strong Jewish identity. Kids learn through music and these types of songs, in addition to being fun to sing, provide countless learning opportunities for things ranging from how to count in Hebrew or learn the Hebrew aleph bet to developing an understanding of important mitzvot and values.
Songs and music are integral parts of every holiday and celebration. We all have our favorite Passover songs, our favorite Chanukah songs, our favorite Shabbat songs and the like. Starting our Shabbat by singing as we gather around our dining room tables is a perfect way to make the transition from the mundane of the work week to the special celebration of Shabbat. One of the most wonderful aspects of our Jewish holiday celebrations is the traditions that are involved — the prayers we recite, the foods we eat, the things we do together with our family, and, of utmost importance, the songs that we sing. As our children grow up and get married and have their own homes and families they will continue to follow the traditions that we have established and the familiar songs and other rituals will live on for generations to come, linking us together with our families and our communities.
There is one other whole genre of Jewish music that bears mentioning – Jewish rock and roll, which is certainly appealing to the teenage crowd. In an age where the lyrics of secular songs are largely inappropriate, we are happy to have our kids make the choice to listen to Jewish rock music, which generally still has the catchy beat but tends to have a deeper or better message or, at the very least, is much “cleaner” than its non-Jewish counterparts.
I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to incorporate more Jewish music into our lives. Whether it be at services, at camp, at a Jewish event, in religious school class or youth group, learning and participating in these familiar melodies and tunes will certainly lead to a stronger connection between parents and children and between both parents and children with the Jewish community as a whole, a more solid Jewish identity and a more soulful and spiritual experience. Many of us have already made music and song a large part of our spiritual lives. For those who haven’t, I encourage you to try.
May Debbie Friedman’s legacy be a blessing and inspire all of us to open up our hearts and souls to the power of music and song.