About two weeks before she died, Debbie Friedman stood with Rabbi Joy Levitt at the piano in Levitt’s Manhattan apartment, and she shared with her friend a melody that the legendary singer and composer would never have the chance to record.
It was a new version of “Shalom Aleichem,” the hymn traditionally sung Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath angels.
Friedman, who was in New York en route to the Limmud Festival in England, had sung the very same tune the previous night to Levitt’s cousin, who was dying of breast cancer. “I think this is going to be my legacy. This is going to be bigger than Mi Sheberach,” Friedman told Levitt, referring to her melody of the prayer for healing, which is widely used as part of the liturgy in liberal synagogues.
A few days later, Levitt wrote Friedman an email saying, “You gave me such a huge gift and I’m going to make it my business that everyone knows this ‘Shalom Aleichem.’” Levitt, who is the executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, never received a response.
Sick with the flu that would end her life, Friedman returned from England to her home in Southern California, where she died in a hospital on January 9, 2011. She was 59.
Since then, her “Shalom Aleichem” has been shared from one person and small group to the next, in an informal effort to weave the melody into the American Jewish canon. It is becoming increasingly popular at Friday night dinners and at Havdalah services, which mark the Sabbath’s end.
In the coming days, Levitt and Cantor Angela Buchdahl, of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, are planning to reach out to every clergy member in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements — urging them to sing Friedman’s version of “Shalom Aleichem” on February 3 and 4, which are Shabbat Shira, or the Sabbath of Song.