An Interview with Filmmaker Ann Coppel
The setting would have been inconceivable a generation before: In 1996, or 25 years ago this month, Debbie Friedman played to a sold-out Carnegie Hall. The era’s most prolific and influential innovator in Jewish liturgical music had arrived at the pinnacle of music performance.
For filmmaker Ann Coppel, who at the time had known Friedman for 25 years already, a lightbulb went off that night. She felt a sudden urgency to commit to a documentary on Friedman’s life.
The film, “A Journey of Spirit,” was first released in 2004 and will be screened virtually for the Temple Sinai community the evening of Jan. 14 as part of a two-part commemoration of the 10-year yahrzeit for Friedman, who died on January 9, 2011, of pneumonia at age 59 following several years of health issues. A short question-and-answer segment with Coppel will follow the 75-minute presentation. (In the second installment of our commemoration, the temple’s annual Shabbat Shira service, featuring guest speaker Cantor Jeff Klepper, a friend and onetime student of Friedman’s, will take place Jan. 29.)
The film took seven years to complete, with of course plenty of complications along the way.
But the difficulties pale, Coppel says, because she undertook it as a “labor of love,” exploring the life and motivation of the woman she had first met in 1971 when Friedman was her song leader at a National Federation of Temple Youth summer camp.
“I grew up with her sound,” says the filmmaker, impressed from the start of her camp experience by “the inclusive nature of what she did. I think that was revolutionary.”
That inclusivity initially ran up against tradition, even in Reform communities.
Friedman was breaking through tradition with her modernized interpretations of ritual works like the V’ahavta (“And You Shall Love”) and Mi Shebeirach, the prayer of healing. And the shift was not always smooth.
In documenting that transformation, Coppel had to school herself about musical nusach – the style or tradition of a Jewish community.
“I knew nothing about nusach, and that turned out be a real critical point in terms of acceptance” of Friedman’s music. Mixing English with Hebrew, for one, “was a new thing … She wanted people to participate … to try to bring people together.”
The film explores how nusach has changed with the times, doing so through the lens of a life that was at the very center of that change.
And the one who was living it, it turns out, often didn’t realize the effect she was having.
During the filming, for example, Friedman was self-conscious to the point of asking, “Can’t you make this film and not have it be about me?”
That sort of downplaying by Friedman of her role very much defines the life that Coppel captures in the film.
“She had no idea how profound her work was,” Coppel said, rattling off several of Friedman’s works that are now standard in hundreds of synagogues but whose melodies would have been unrecognizable to earlier generations. It is a canon that permeates our services.
In honor of Debbie Friedman’s enduring influence on Jewish music, join us Jan. 14 as we celebrate her life and work with our guest Ann Coppel.
— Kent Allen, music committee member
An Interview with Cantor Jeff Klepper
Cantor Jeff Klepper first met Debbie Friedman in 1969 at a National Federal of Temple Youth music summer camp in Warwick, N.Y. He was 15, sent there by his synagogue after having attended a similar program the summer before and, in his words, “apparently showed some talent.” Friedman was 18, already an instructor at the camp in her second year, and one of three song leaders.
Those early summer camp experiences, he says 50 years later, were the turning point in his life, and Debbie Friedman was the main reason.
Klepper, who will be the special guest speaker when Temple Sinai honors her 10-year yahrzeit at its annual Shabbat Shira on Jan. 29, does not spare praise in thinking back to his first impressions as her student.
“Debbie was a wunderkind. She was just light years ahead of anybody who had ever picked up a guitar and taught Jewish songs,” he recalls. She could write songs like others breathe, creating the different harmonies just as easily. Klepper adds that Friedman combined that native musical talent with “the dynamism of a Pete Seeger or a Judy Collins.”
“Every Shabbat was like a mini-Woodstock,” he remembers (in fact, the Woodstock festival actually took place nearby in that same summer). “The song leaders would get in front of 300 or 400 kids … everyone had their arms over each other’s shoulders.“
As many students in the presence of genius have experienced, Klepper was mesmerized. Ultimately the mentor and her student formed a bond that continued throughout her life, including a collaboration with others that led to creation of the annual Hava Nashira worship and music conference in rural Wisconsin, under the auspices of the Reform movement. It has met annually since 1992, with the exception of 2020 due to COVID concerns.
Along the way, Klepper, who recently retired from and is now Cantor Emeritus at Temple Sinai in Sharon, Massachusetts, interacted regularly with Friedman. Those times together, he says, were always an education and often literally amazed him.
“She was very self-taught; she was unschooled in a technical way,” Klepper says. “Her musical skill was all intuitive; she had this incredible ability to think music in her head.” In fact, Friedman did not read music, yet “I’ve never seen anyone able to command a musical program like she did.”
Friedman’s fame within some elements of the Jewish community started early but took awhile to expand. Even by the early ‘70s, beginning with her first album “Sing Unto God” in 1972, “she was creating this incredible universe of Jewish song. And it just grew from there.”
The basis for her productivity, Klepper says, lies in part with her role as a song leader. Simply put, “the thing if you were a song leader was to start writing songs.”
And at the annual Hava Nashira summer camp, Friedman displayed boundless enthusiasm and passion.
“She had the kind of energy that very few people have. Inevitably after the evening program, she takes out her guitar and sings late into the night, into the morning hours … It would get to the point where I’d say, ‘I’m going to bed.’ She’d stay all night.”
The unrestrained energy and unending creativity led to a legacy that Klepper says is remarkable.
“She created hundreds of songs. Probably 20 or 30 of them are classics; they’re mainstays,” he says. They’re so familiar that many listeners have no idea that they are relatively new standards. “When people are singing her Havdalah melody, they don’t know it’s hers … or the Aleph-Bet song.”
Most important, in Klepper’s mind, is that Debbie Friedman was THE source of the transformation of modern liturgical music.
“She was there first. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that, of just how much she changed things.”
— Kent Allen, music committee member