I read it on Twitter, that Debbie Friedman had died. The Jewish world lost one of the leading lights in Jewish music. I am heartbroken. Debbie Friedman opened up my heart and soul to holiness and the Holy One. And now she is gone.
To understand the depth of the grief sweeping across the Jewish community, one might recall the profound sense of loss that permeated our world upon the news of the death of John Lennon. When Lennon died, the world lost one of the greats – a singer, composer, poet, visionary, and serene commentator on the excesses of his world. Similarly, Debbie’s death removes from our midst one of gedolei hador (the great of the generation).
Debbie Friedman has touched more lives and brought more people into Judaism through her music than – I would argue – any rabbi who has ever opened his or her mouth. She has connected people to their Jewish spirituality more than any composer around the world. Debbie was not just a singer/songleader; she was poet and liturgist. She was an inspiring artist, who was uniquely able to translate the ancient words of our Jewish tradition into engaging musical pieces which spoke anew to a generation alienated from the inherited formal melodies of their parents.
Debbie taught us Lechi Lach, a song based upon the Divine call to Abram to leave his birthplace and home to venture forth to an unknown land. In this one simple piece, she accomplished multiple goals. She taught a primary Torah narrative about God’s eternal promise to people who had forgotten our ancestor’s heroic journey. She recast the story as the egalitarian tale that the Zohar mystically hints at – as a call to both Abram and to his wife Sarai. Then she reminded us that this story was our story; that God’s pledge to Abram and Sarai continues for us today. As such, Debbie Friedman renewed the Divine promise: that we all would be, could be, and are a blessing!
Debbie Friedman got her start in Jewish summer camps, especially at Camp Swig in Saratoga, CA, and in the NFTY youth movement. There Debbie married the hopefulness of the 1960’s and 1970’s with the abiding values of Torah and tradition. She helped us “Sing unto God a New Song,” while reminding us, like the prophets before her, that “Not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone, shall we all live in peace.”
Given the radical nature of everything connected to the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Debbie’s transformation from a youth songleader into a – the? – central Jewish musical figure of our time was not easy. But it was complete. Debbie went from being shunned by many cantors as the epitome of everything that was wrong with the then-current state of new Jewish music, to being embraced by synagogues around the world and invited to join the Cantorial faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and Los Angeles.
Debbie’s true beauty is that she gave voice to so many people because her music and melodies were accessible and extremely peaceful. This led her to become the champion of the nascent Jewish healing movement. Her Mi Shebeirach healing prayer-song combined Hebrew and English to inspire for those struggling with illness. Rituals of naming those seeking healing grew up around her prayer-song, allowing people to bring their anxiety and worry back into the synagogue.
Yet the quiet power of her musical genius can be found in how she engaged every Jew in the pews (and beyond) to sing out for holiness. Suddenly, she flattened the liturgical hierarchy, enabling each one of us to give voice to our aching hearts. In her concerts she repeatedly instructed her audience remain quiet and receive blessings of healing, yet those gathered often sang aloud nonetheless. All because Debbie had already placed the ability to pray for healing back in our mouths, and we refused to sit back to allow another – even the composer herself – to speak for us.
Or as Debbie wrote on her website: “We are not just the recipients of blessings, but the messengers of blessings as well. Remember, out of what emerges from life’s painful challenges will come our healing. And ultimately, our greatest healing will come when we use our suffering to heal another’s pain – to release another from their confinement.”
I twice led retreats in Malibu, CA with Debbie for Jews recovering from alcoholism and addictions. Few Jewish leaders seemed to intrinsically understand the unique challenges faced by people trying to recover from the constant pull of an addiction. But Debbie walked confidently into the retreat, and with openness and vulnerability, listened to stories of struggle and failure. Then, with hope and quiet strength, she began to speak and teach and sing. She lifted each participant up, out of the morass that consumed them. Her music painted a picture of courage and peace. How easily we were lulled into a place of healing and serenity with seemingly little effort on our part!
There are plenty of people who do not even know that the melodies that they love and cherish were written by Debbie Friedman. But they know how wonderfully spiritual her melodies make them feel. And that explains why her music is widespread and her legacy will be abiding.
Now Debbie Friedman has died. We join our light and our prayers together, wishing strength and love for her family. May her memory be for a blessing.