Clergy Push Debbie Friedman Song

As First Yahrzeit Approaches, Her 'Shalom Aleichem' Enters the Canon

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published January 11, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

‘Bigger Than ‘Mishebeyrach’: Friedman told her friend Rabbi Joy Levitt that her version of “Shalom Aleichem” would be her legacy.
debbiefriedman.com
‘Bigger Than ‘Mishebeyrach’: Friedman told her friend Rabbi Joy Levitt that her version of “Shalom Aleichem” would be her legacy.

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.

LISTEN TO DEBBIE FRIEDMAN SING “SHALOM ALEICHEM”

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.

Buchdahl and musician Josh Nelson sang that very melody to a crowd of 700 people, who attended a memorial service for Friedman at Central Synagogue on January 27, 2011.

It was there that Vivian Lazar heard it for the first time. She brought it to HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, which she directs. Some 300 HaZamir members sang it at their annual festival concert at Lincoln Center in March. Those high school students, from 18 U.S. cities and Israel, then took it back to their communities, Lazar said.

Cherished Friend: Debbie Friedman (right) with Rabbi Joy Levitt.
Courtesy of Joy Levitt
Cherished Friend: Debbie Friedman (right) with Rabbi Joy Levitt.

“We are keeping Debbie’s ‘Shalom Aleichem’ in our repertoire,” Lazar said. “It’s a song the kids love, and it’s our attempt to distribute the song to a wider and newer audience.”

The spring before she died, Friedman herself taught the melody to several hundred people at Hava Nashira, the annual Reform movement song leaders’ gathering.

That summer, Friedman sang the song, which she was still tweaking, for a class she was leading at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Nonprofit Management in Los Angeles. Richard Siegel, the school’s director, asked Friedman what she was working on. As Friedman sang her “Shalom Aleichem,” a student recorded it on an iPhone.

Siegel has sung it every week since at his Shabbat table. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s quite haunting,” he said.

Most recently, Cantor Jennifer Frost sang it before 6,000 people who gatherd for the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial gathering, held in December. Attendees could also request a biennial CD, which included Friedman’s version of “Shalom Aleichem,” and about 650 people did, said URJ spokeswoman Annette Powers.

Though it is only now reaching a critical mass of synagogues and Shabbat tables, the melody was composed in 2009, according to Merri Lovinger Arian, who taught with her at HUC–JIR’s cantorial school. That school has been renamed the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

“She grabbed me and said she wanted me to listen to it, and she said, ‘Doesn’t it really sound like we were born with that melody, that it’s been around for a long time?’” Arian recalled. “She was right.”

LISTEN TO CANTOR JENNIFER FROST PERFORM FRIEDMAN’S “SHALOM ALEICHEM”

In addition to the Shabbat Shira effort, Friedman’s “Shalom Aleichem” will be performed February 1 at a Central Synagogue tribute to the late musician, which follows her first yartzheit.

“All of us were left with this piece we know she was so excited about, she really wanted to get it out there,” Arian said. “Since it wasn’t recorded there is a feeling that we have a responsibility to get this, of all melodies, out. We all feel a sense of urgency about it.”

Watch Debbie perform “Shalom Aleichem” at a 2010 birthday celebration:


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.