Jewish musical muse Debbie Friedman dies

I got to interview Debbie Friedman in 2004 at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, just before she led a healing service with Rabbi Richard Jacobs.

It was one of those interviews you never forget.

I was asking her about her profound influence on the lives of many Jews. She had started writing Jewish music, often putting prayers to music, decades before. She wrote deeply moving compositions that stay with you. Many were aimed at helping people reconnect with their spirituality or to help people deal with suffering and pain.

When I asked her about the impact of her music on so many lives, she couldn’t find the words to describe her relationship with her fans. She seemed to still be trying to come to terms with it. She started to tell me — softly — about families that had placed tapes of her music in the caskets of children who had died from disease or accidents. But her voice began to crack and she momentarily broke down, overcome by her experiences.

I hardly knew what to say.

I’ve thought about this many times — as well as the healing service that she led afterward. One could see and hear the depth of her feeling come through in her music.

I thought about it again just before after reading that Friedman died yesterday. She had been suffering from multiple sclerosis and was fight pneumonia in a California hospital.

Friedman, although largely unknown outside the Jewish world, was the muse of Reform Judaism. But her compositions also became increasingly popular in the Conservative community. She was often compared to Joan Baez because she sounded a bit like her and even looked a bit like her.

She told me that she had decided long ago to adapt a healing prayer to music for a friend who was going through a difficult time. That composition, “Mi Shebeirach (The One Who Blessed),” has remained her most famous work.

“When I saw the way people responded to this prayer, I knew there was this need for people to deal with illness or whatever crisis is going on in their lives,” she told me. “It’s taken on a life of its own since then.”

Rabbi Jacobs told me then that everyone knew Friedman had a gift when she started singing at Jewish summer camps in California.

“All these kids from the San Fernando Valley were able to discover things within themselves that they didn’t know were there,” he said.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, said this in a statement: “Debbie Friedman was an extraordinary treasure of our movement and an individual of great influence. Twenty-five years ago, North American Jews had forgotten how to sing. Debbie reminded us how to sing, she taught us how to sing. She gave us the vehicles that enabled us to sing. Then she impacted our youth and our camps and, ultimately, from there she impacted our synagogues. What happens in the synagogues of Reform Judaism today — the voices of song — are in large measure due to the insight, brilliance and influence of Debbie Friedman.”

Many congregations will mourn Friedman this week, no doubt, as if she was one of their own.

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Rabbi Bruce Cohen dead at 65

I wrote recently about the declining health of Rabbi Bruce Cohen, a longtime White Plains resident who founded and ran the peace group Interns for Peace.

He died this morning at his home.

Cohen was a unique guy. I first wrote about him in 2000, when I learned a bit about Interns for Peace.

He was something of a dreamer, a guy who believed that peace between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis could be achieved with a little work.

Emphasis on a little work.

His thing was to skip all the talking and get together to do something. The “interns” trained by his group were taught to bring people together to work on simple (or not so simple) projects: road safety, community gardens, etc.

If people could stand and work side by side, they could learn to talk, he said.

He told me in 2000: “Jews and Arabs disagree and probably will until the end of time. ‘ We do not teach people that we are all the same and think the same and have the same political platforms. We say that even though we are different culturally – and we might not like aspects of each other – we can still coexist and respect one another.”

I visited the home of Bruce and his wife, Karen, a few weeks ago. The leaders of Interns for Peace had come to their White Plains home to plan for the future of the group and even to expand its vision.

The end was near for Cohen.

He became ill a year ago with sternum bone cancer. After treatments failed to work, he chose to finish his days at home while caring for Interns for Peace as best he could.

A memorial service for him will be held at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains on Nov. 7.

The Voice of God

…is gone.

That’s what Reggie Jackson called Yankees public-address announcer Bob Sheppard, who died yesterday.

Billy Crystal called him that, too.

Back in 1998, as one of the best Yankee teams ever was about to begin the World Series, I interviewed Sheppard in his small announcing perch high above the old Yankee Stadium.

There was definitely a cathedral-like flair to the setting.

Sheppard, whether he was the voice of God or not, was a very religious man. He attended Catholic Mass daily and was a very active parishioner of his Long Island church.

He detested profanity and was known to walk from the kind of off-color joking around you get in locker rooms.

He did not like to talk about himself, which made for an interesting interview.

”My style is simple, the way I am, ” he told me. ” No one told me how to do it. I speak the way I speak at home, in the classroom, at church when I am asked. I do not change my speaking style whether at the ballpark or the beach. That would not be my style. ”

He told me that George Steinbrenner once asked him to give a flowery introduction for a politician — and he refused.

”I told him that the fans do not like politicians, anyway, ” Sheppard said.

He did get a kick out of all the impressions that announcers, players and fans did of his eloquent speaking style. He particularly liked broadcaster Jon Miller’s ”Sheppard ordering breakfast.”

” I’ll have a NUM-ber one. SCRAM-bled eggs. CRISP bacon. NUM-ber one, ” Sheppard said.