Of Music, Memory and Meaning

I never met Devra Freelander, z”l, but I certainly knew her. Her father Danny and I share a passion for Jewish choral music and sit together on the Board of the Zamir Choral Foundation. Her mother Elyse and I share a passion for spiritual civil rights in the State of Israel and both experienced discrimination at the Western Wall. Like my three children, Devra was raised surrounded by all things Jewish. Now, a spiritual community which helped raised such a beautiful soul is reeling in the wake of the shocking news of Devra’s accidental death on the streets of Brooklyn. I know there are many who like me, never knew Devra, yet are feeling this tragic loss in a profound way. Especially those of us who have adult children flourishing before our very eyes.  And especially those of us who have experienced the trauma of a parent having to bury a child, no matter his or her age.

It was 40 years ago on a crisp, cold day in early February of 1979, that two young people from the small Jewish community of Akron, Ohio were killed in tragic accidents. Vicki, my 14 year old cousin, and Jimmy, my brother Barry’s dear friend, who was the 22 year old brother of my dear friend and sorority sister Jennifer, both died that Sunday. I will never forget that Tuesday when we buried the two of them at Rose Hill, Vicki in the morning and Jimmy in the afternoon. I didn’t understand the term complicated grief back then but upon reflection, I know I was forever changed by these tragedies.

It was exactly 13 years ago on a beautiful summer day in early July that Mom and I celebrated Dad’s first birthday after his death, July 3, 2006, by a trip to the cancer center for her first chemo treatment. Before that year was over, I was orphaned in the span of 9 months. My parents were only in their mid-70’s. Once again, the devastation of loss, this time as a result of two deaths by cancer in less than a year, resulted in very complicated grief. Diving into the rituals of our tradition, I found myself in a place of mourning for my parents that lasted 1 year and 9 months. Yet from that place of mourning I found the place of my deepest joy as I reclaimed my singing voice. With the arrival of a HaZamir chapter in Cleveland in 2006, the door was opened into the world of the Zamir Choral Foundation. I found my home when I attended my first North American Jewish Choral Festival in July of 2008.

So it is that I understand at a gut level the shock, devastation and utter despair engulfing the Freelander-Frishman family and the many caring communities that surround them. Just as the mourners have  comforted others through losses of all kinds, now a diverse Jewish community looks to all aspects of our tradition to provide comfort to them. The timing of this loss, immediately prior to the 2019 North American Jewish Choral Festival, means that our beloved Danny will be sitting shiva for his daughter as we gather to raise our voices in song.

Again, the merging of the public and the private allow me to wonder at what I call the sacred synchronicities of life. Being a New Yorker, Devra’s death is a tragic local news story with ramifications for public policy. As a friend and colleague of Danny’s, I am so saddened for their loss. Knowing the role that Danny plays in our annual Festival, I know this personal tragedy will impact our gathering which begins this Sunday in Stamford, Connecticut. That is the same Festival that allowed me to leave my deep grief behind and find a way to express the full range of human emotions through the vast repertoire of our Jewish choral tradition.

Now, it is that very same Choral Festival which must go forward in the face of a profound sadness that will be present in the air. For those who knew the family for so many years, like the founder and director of the Zamir Choral Foundation and his wife, Mati and Vivian Lazar, putting one foot in front of the other with hearts broken will not be easy. Yet, what I learned from my personal experience as a mourner is that my gift of song allowed me to navigate my profound grief.  Jews have known since the beginning of our public rituals that music plays a role in expressing our deepest and most difficult emotions. Being a part of a community of “modern day Levites” has given deep meaning to my life.

It was in that spirit that this past May over 100 HaZamir singers took to a bima in Pittsburgh to express musical solidarity with the Jewish community. Speaking to Vivian today, I commented how as an organization we brought teenagers to a place of public Jewish tragedy and trauma, connecting them to this sad chapter in American Jewish history. Next week, we as an organization will collectively embrace a personal tragedy that is public in nature, and through music we will embrace the Freelander-Frishman families. As to the difficulty of holding both joy and sorrow at the same time, our Israeli chevre can certainly guide us in that quintessential Israeli experience of turning quickly from one to the other as each Yom HaZikaron melds into another Yom HaAtzmaut.

Despite the fact that Mom could not carry a tune, I often hear her voice and her simple wisdom in my head as I live my life here in NYC and Beachwood, playing my various roles. As we navigated my father’s death in March and then her terminal diagnosis in June, we reviewed our life together, remembering Vicki and Jimmy and how the events of February 4, 1979 changed us forever. Once she was gone, my soul needed to find its true home and through my own grief journey I discovered my first Festival in Kerhonkson  and an entirely new life. In that respect, her memory has been a true blessing for me as it was the spiritual map that led the way.

How blessed I have been to know Danny through our Zamir circles. How good it is to see him and Elyse at Romemu on Erev Shabbat.  Now, with the hope that comfort will come to their family in the months ahead, I, along with an international community of mourners, offer a heart filled with the meaningful words of our tradition, set to the many magnificent melodies that we bring to life each summer. As we raise our voices this summer, we will remember Devra, z”l, making her memory a blessing through our songs.

About the Author
Francine M. Gordon is an artist/activist who maintains homes in New York and Cleveland. From November 2010 through November 2016, through The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song Project, she produced over 10 Concerts of Concern in the US and Israel. Since establishing her New York residence, Ms. Gordon has become a member of the New York Federation’s Israeli Judaism committee which focuses on exactly the same issues as SRSS. In addition, she has become a proud member of the Zamir Chorale which allows her to express her Zionism through song.
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