Sunday, January 9, 2011

Debbie Friedman, z'l

The passing of Debbie Friedman today gives us a moment to reflect on the monumental impact she has had on Jewish culture. It goes beyond the music she gave us - melodies to "Misheberach," Oseh Shalom," "Lechi Lach" and "Havdalah" that have become almost as fixed as Kol Nidre in most Reform and Conservative synagogues; kids songs like "Alef-Bet" that actually have taught generations of children the alef bet, and "I am a Latke," that give us a snapshot of what it has been like to grow up Jewish in America these past four decades.

As the tribute to her immediately below states (it was produced in 2007 by the URJ), she took the folk traditions of the '60s and translated them into Jewish sacred language. Through her, words like "blessing," "healing" and "peace" became part of our vernacular. It's not that Jews never talked about blessing and peace before Debbie Friedman, but those conversations were typically couched in jargon few laypeople understood. She would take the words "bracha" and "shalom" transform the unattainable Hebrew into simple, down-home language everyone could wrap their arms around. She brought warmth into our sanctuaries - and feminized Jewish prayer - even as a generation of (mostly male) cantors tried to keep her music out. She was the first post feminist Jewish songwriter - and her image of Miriam singing and playing and dancing is the one Jewish girls now grow up with, proud and equal, as they join together for "Miriam's Song." That song will be repeated, fittingly, this coming Shabbat, as this week we recall the crossing of the Red Sea in the portion Beshallach.

It was the vox populi that insisted that her music be let in to our services, in the face of those who stubbornly stuck to an ossified liturgical tradition. And now she has become the tradition, her melodies are now the standards, and the words of the prayers, those ancient words, have found new life - and services are all the warmer for it.

Debbie came here to Beth El about 15 years ago, but I first met her a few years before that, at a retreat hosted by the Jewish Healing Center in the Catskills. There, before a few dozen people one evening, Debbie, who attended the retreat as a participant not simply to entertain, talked of the difficult chronic neurological illness she endured, which often left her wheelchair bound. When she was here, she gave clear instructions that there be no flash photography during the performance, because it could harm her. Every time she performed, she risked all, and it was clear that the power of her music came from her own suffering. (see this book for more on the subject of her illness and the Jewish healing movement)

And she poured every ounce of her energy into each performance, every song. Her voice was not her greatest strength, but it never mattered, because her music was so brilliant. She will be missed, but her music will live on, quite literally in our prayers.

JTA points us to Sue Fishkoff's article from 2007 on her appointment to the faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Sue mentions the popularity of Friedman's version of the "Mi Shebeirach" healing prayer, which is sung now at countless synagogues and Jewish gatherings. As Sue put it: "When the diminutive Friedman takes up her guitar in front of 1,000 people, tilts her face skyward and lets that rich, yearning voice pour out, the tears often flow."

Below you will find that moving tribute to her by the Reform Movement, followed by videos of Debbie singing some of her best known song as well as a video simply showing the passion of Debbie doing what she did best - getting the rest of us to sing along.

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