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Songs of Hope: The Work of Debbie Friedman

Songs of Hope: The Work of Debbie Friedman

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The Holocaust was the most traumatic event in Jewish history since the fall of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. Even today, almost eight decades since that cataclysmic event, the effects of the Holocaust reverberate in Jewish prose, poetry and music. The literature of this post-Holocaust world expressed the Jewish people’s need to survive, and despite the trauma, to thrive once again.

The Holocaust years’ literature had dark and gloomy undertones. Those were difficult years where mere survival was a challenge. Starting even before the outbreak of World War II, and well into the post-war period, news about Germany’s atrocities and its concentration camps filled newspapers, magazine articles and books. Although not all Germans were evil, for many, Germany came to symbolize hell on Earth, a land of torture and death, a place bereft of human dignity and filled with hate.

Reading that period’s literature and journals, we can understand that with the war’s end and the revelations about the full extent of the Holocaust, there was shock and mourning, sadness and anger. In the Jewish world, there was a need for rebirth and the seeking of ways to embrace life itself. For the Jewish people, the decade of the 1940s was an emotional roller coaster. The 1940s began with the horrors of the Holocaust and ended with the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty after almost two millennia of exile.

The prose, poetry and music of the post-Holocaust period reflects these changes. For many, both in the United States and in reborn Israel, the 1950s felt as if the Children of Israel had finally put the diaspora’s wandering behind them. It was a time when a new chapter of Jewish history was about to unfold.

Two decades after World War II, much had begun to change. For many, the United States was a land of both peace and prosperity. Although not everyone shared equally in the American dream, there was hope that the trauma of the war years might finally fade, and that the American people would assign its own curse of racial segregation to the dustpans of history.

The second half of the 20th century saw an explosion in America of Jewish literary creativity. Writers such as Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag and Neil Simon became U.S. literary icons and wrote best-selling books.

Jewish culture, however, was not assigned merely to books, academia and the theater. New and innovative institutions sprang forth from the Jewish soul. One such creation was the American Jewish summer camp experience. Jewish summer camps were not merely a place to have fun, they would become a foundation of Jewish post-Holocaust renaissance. Jewish summer camps not only created new post-Holocaust leadership but a whole new genre of Jewish music. These camps’ poetry set to music became a reflection not only of the American Jewish soul, but of hope and renewal after darkness of the crematoria’s ashes. It is into this world, rebuilt from the ashes of Europe’s crematoria and natured by American ideals of freedom, that Debbie Friedman (1951-2011) entered. Friedman represented a new form of artist. Despite the fact that Friedman had an almost rock star status within the Jewish world, her work remains until this day almost entirely unknown outside of it. Like Sholom Aleichem, she wrote and composed for the Jewish masses. Friedman “married” the American and Jewish poetic and musical traditions and from this artistic merger gave birth to the music of the Jewish camp. Listening to her music, we hear a mélange of American 1960’s folk music and classical Jewish texts.

Friedman was the first woman to adapt classical Jewish liturgical music to the American Jewish experience. Friedman was a musician and pioneer. Switching between both languages with ease, she combined Hebrew and English flawlessly. Her songs are a combination of classical liturgical poetry set to music and placed in a modern American context. Reflecting on her music a decade after her death we can hear how her music reflected the need to find post-Holocaust spirituality within an American context.

Friedman began writing at the time when women were first entering the American rabbinate. During the 1960s and 70s, American liberal Jews were more intellectual than spiritual. Friedman insisted that the two were not mutually exclusive. She argued that to be a complete person we need to blend the academic with the spiritual, the intellectual with intuitive feelings.

As is typical of American literature, Friedman’s music is both upbeat and positive. It is a call to move past the horrors of the Holocaust, and it reminds us of Ezekiel’s passage of the dry bones of the past coming together to create new life.

Friedman died in January 2011. A decade after her death we can hear her sense of hope and positivity. Even in her prayers for the sick, hope reigns. Friedman wrote her guitar-friendly music in a way that the musically uneducated could easily sing it. Her goal, in a highly questioning age, was to leave the politics of war behind and emphasize hopes, ideas and dreams. Reading the lyrics to her songs a decade after her death, we sense that she wrote “midrash” (Biblical commentaries) set to music. In the decades after the Holocaust and the torture of the Vietnam War, Friedman taught us that every day was a divine gift of survival. Her lyrics are poetry set to music seeking to bring people together for the sake not only of human connectivity but also of continuity.

Freidman’s music reminds us not only of the power of song but also the promise of America. Actualizing the words written by another Jewish poetess, Emma Lazarus, whose poem graces the base of the Statue of Liberty, Friedman’s music spoke to a generation of young Jews whose parents would suffer eternally from the trauma of the Holocaust. Like our fellow Americans, we Jews are not only the emotional and communal survivors of the World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, but also of the horrors of Europe. Almost eight decades after the Holocaust, that terrible trauma haunts even the survivors’ grandchildren. It is for us who suffer from the emotional fatigue and a sense of ennui caused by genocide and war that Friedman wrote. From the campfires of summer camps, Friedman set the stage for a 21st century Jewish renaissance. Her work reminds us that no matter what life’s challenges might bring, as long as there is life, there is also hope.

Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

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