Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Q&A with Deborah Lakritz




Deborah Lakritz is the author of the new children's picture book biography A Place to Belong: Debbie Friedman Sings Her Way Home. It looks at the life of musician Debbie Friedman (1951-2011), who focused on Jewish music. Lakritz's other books include Say Hello, Lily. She lives in Wisconsin.


Q: What inspired you to write a picture book biography of musician Debbie Friedman?


A: Before I actually knew anything about Debbie Friedman’s journey, I knew her music, and I knew that it made me feel connected to Judaism. I knew that when I listened to it, I felt joy, wonder, pride, a sense of belonging—all of the things she wanted to feel in her early experiences with Jewish life but didn’t.


When I saw that only one book about Debbie existed for children, and it was simply her lyrics with illustrations, I decided to write about her. I became curious about her life and what led her to all that we know her today.


Q: How did you research her life, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I had been told by several of my friends that Debbie’s first cousin, Amy Waldman, lived here in Milwaukee and they knew her. I approached Amy first, sending her information about my other books, and asking her if she’d be willing to meet with me.


At our first meeting, we sat for hours while she brought out the family photo albums and explained the importance of their Bubbie and the duplex on Baker Street in Utica in Debbie’s young life.


From there I reached out to Debbie’s sister, Cheryl, with whom I’ve had ongoing conversations in all the years I’ve worked on this. She included their mother, Freda, in several of our interviews and that was an amazing experience. They all were incredibly generous with their time, with sharing family stories, and with resources, including family photos.


Each time we spoke, Cheryl gave me names of more and more people to contact, and often emailed them first to introduce me. I spoke with her fellow song leaders, people who were youth group members when Debbie first started introducing her own compositions, dear friends, the synagogue youth director in St. Paul who initially encouraged Debbie to start song leading.


I also communicated regularly with a scholar of Debbie Friedman’s music, Judah Cohen, a professor of music at Indiana University. Any time I was I was uncertain about the timeline, or needed to fact check, Judah was there. He also provided me with his own writings about Debbie’s music, which included a great deal of detail about her childhood, as well as a keynote speech Debbie gave where she discussed her journey.


What surprised me was how far and wide Debbie’s compositions have traveled in the Jewish world. Whenever I hum one of her songs for someone they say, “That was written by Debbie Friedman? I thought it was a traditional tune!”


There’s a wonderful video compilation with snippets of the most diverse group of Jews you’ll ever meet, all singing her Havdalah tune at the end of Shabbat. It’s a perfect illustration of her impact on the Jewish world.

Q: What do you think Julia Castaño’s illustrations add to the story?


A: First, I’m so grateful to both my editor, Alef Davis, and my art director, Ann Koffsky, who included me whenever possible in the illustration process.


Julia Castaño’s illustrations do a remarkable job of capturing Debbie’s emotional journey from childhood through to the time she begins to find her place and her music starts to inspire the Jewish world. I also love the way the flow of music is like a character itself throughout the story, continuing from page to page, showing its own journey.


Q: How would you describe Debbie Friedman’s legacy today, and what do you hope kids take away from the book?


A: Debbie’s music is here to stay, having been incorporated into services in so many congregations, summer camps, and schools, so that’s definitely part of her legacy.


But even more important, Debbie’s music says to anyone in the Jewish world, “You belong here.” It doesn’t ask what kind of Jew you are; we are one. It also says, “No matter what you are experiencing in your life, whether it’s illness and pain, growing older, welcoming a new child, or celebrating Shabbat, Jewish tradition can accompany you through your life, and when you combine your Judaism with music, it can be transformative.


I hope that children reading this book will see that Debbie just started out as a girl who was looking for her place in the world, like many of them. And that we all possess talents, gifts, and sparks of creativity that we hold deep inside, and when shared can bring great joy, comfort, strength, and love to others.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My middle grade novel, Things That Shimmer, is coming out in the spring of 2024. It takes place between 1973 and 1974, so many of the events I reference in the story will be having their 50th anniversaries leading up to the book’s release. Watergate. The Yom Kippur War. The Gas Crisis. Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs in The Battle of the Sexes. I expect that promoting it will be fun!


I’m also in the final revision stages of a young adult novel. And, of course, I’m always writing picture books.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Writing this book was a complete labor of love. I’m deeply indebted to Debbie’s mother, Freda, z”l, her sister, Cheryl, and her cousin Amy, who trusted me and were always available to talk to me and to answer questions. The love people feel for Debbie is palpable and I am honored to be able to bring her story to the next generation.


And as with all things Jewish, I had several, what I call, Jewish-Geography-on-Steroids moments, where the connections with people Debbie knew, with whom I also had a relationship, were numerous and always amazed me. We are all connected!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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