Cantor’s Column – January 2021

Miriam: Still Singing After All These Years

Cantor Ilan Davidson

Every year in the month of January, Cantors (and the more musical Rabbis) begin to get excited about a particular Shabbat. This Shabbat is  lovingly named Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song. This Shabbat was not just some randomly selected service to give us something else to do. No, this Shabbat is Shabbat B’shalah, the Shabbat where we chant the Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. This is when we celebrate the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and experience in the Torah the story of Miriam and the women dancing and singing Mi Hamohah — who is like you! We attribute this song, which we sing together at two services each day, to Moses’ sister Miriam as she led the women in celebration of their redemption from Egypt while the sea closed upon our enslavers and we began the journey of faith to the promised land.

Women have not always been recognized for their significant roles in the lives of the Jewish people, but those who have, become historical figures of considerable notoriety; Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Delilah, Debbie Friedman, etc. Yes, you read that right… Debbie Friedman! Following the example of her music icons, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, & Mary, and many other folk musicians of the 60’s, Debbie began writing modern melodies on Jewish and liturgical themes as a Songleader at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Wisconsin, in 1971.

At a time when the Rabbinate and Cantorate were still male dominated, Deborah Lynn Friedman raised her voice in song, singing out for justice and equality, leading a feminist movement that would grow throughout her lifetime, across the reform, conservative, and even modern orthodox Jewish communities. This modern-day Miriam took her guitar in her hand, and all the women followed her, creating a new plan for our Jewish future, and inspiring Jewish songwriting and interpretation in all with whom she was blessed to come in contact. I was one of the lucky ones, to call Debbie a friend in her lifetime, and to literally sit at the foot of the master, learning songs that would caress our souls. Men and women alike followed this modern day Miriam, transforming how we looked at hazanut and how we celebrated our holidays through music.

On January 9, 2011, Debbie Friedman was taken to sing with the God she so loved and celebrated throughout her life, and 10 years ago, on Shabbat Shirah, the Hebrew Union College memorialized her by renaming our movement’s Cantorial school after her. On this 10th yahrzeit, we will celebrate Shabbat Shirah, on January 29, with the music of Debbie Friedman, along with the annual chanting of Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. I hope you will all join us for this special and musical service, as we all join our hands virtually, and cross the sea of redemption into the promised land of hope in 2021.