Review: A Place to Belong

A Place to Belong: Debbie Friedman Sings Her Way Home

by Deborah Lakritz, illustrated by Julia Castano

Apples & Honey Press (imprint of Behrman House), 2022

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Ronda Einbinder

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Author Deborah Lakritz brings the young reader into the warm Jewish life of singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman, who uplifted Jewish synagogues around the world with her music.
Little Debbie Friedman’s Jewish life in Utica, New York is full. Her singing is sweet, and her comical expressions bring laughter to her entire family. Debbie is where she belongs. When her parents move her to Minnesota she thinks St. Paul is lonely. No laughing with aunts, uncles, and cousins. No lighting candles with Bubbe. Debbie wonders, Will I ever belong?

There is a feeling of inclusion for the reader when Debbie sings with campers around the campfire. Her voice rises with the campers and counselors. The songs aren’t Jewish, but they feel like prayers.

Her voice soars with passion singing to her youth group. Synagogue directors from all over the country then ask her to be their song leader. She teaches songs by popular musicians. Even the shy kids feel like they belong. But where are the Jewish songs that speak to our hearts?

When teenage Debbie attends adult services she feels them solemn, serious, and boring. In the quiet of her heart, Debbie takes her own feelings of isolation and creates songs that reach a whole new generation.

She changes the synagogue experience by reciting English words to the V’ahavta, a song she holds deep in her soul. The prayer now belongs to the teens who sing with her. Debbie's music connects with those involved in Jewish life and those who have felt forgotten.

The expressive details in Julia Castano’s art reveal the sadness on Bubbe’s face when the family drives away to move to St. Paul, and the joy in Debbie’s body language as she sings to classmates in Hebrew school. The story is brought to life with the drawings of Debbie and her family eating Shabbos dinner, and Debbie juggling jobs to earn money for her own guitar. The art includes diverse people of all ages, ethnicities, and body types. And Lakritz’s words express what can be accomplished with a bit of perseverance. 

The back matter is a note to families asking readers where their creativity comes from. Debbie sang to fill her loneliness and for her joy in being Jewish. Lakritz opens up conversations between parents and children, or teachers and students, allowing kids to think about what gifts they have to share and how they can use those gifts to bring joy and meaning to themselves and to those around them.

This story meets the criteria of the Sydney Taylor Book Award for so many positive reasons. I am humbled to review this story as Debbie’s songs are a pivotal part of my own synagogue's services, and her lyrics and her memory are a blessing to children around the world. It was heartwarming to hear two of Debbie’s songs in this year’s Yom Kippur service.

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Reviewer Ronda Einbinder is a teacher/writer currently working on a young adult novel and picture books. She is a reviewer for Goodreadswithronna and a member of SCBWI and 12x12. She is also a 500-Hour Registered Yoga Instructor. She was a published writer and publicist for ObesityHelp Magazine and non-profit medical facilities. She enjoys writing in her yard in the hills of Pasadena, CA listening to the birds chirp, with her constant companion and very handsome mutt rescue Eugene by her side, when not tutoring at-risk youth.