“I am a Jew because in spite of all the hatred and violence in this world, I believe we must hope and live together as if the world were sheltered beneath the wings of the Shekhinah,” Debbie Friedman wrote as part of her response to the final words of journalist Daniel Pearl in “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl,” compiled and edited by Ruth and Judea Pearl, the writer’s parents, and published by Jewish Lights Publishing.
When Friedman died on Sunday, The Jewish Journal immediately reached out to her many friends, asking them for their remembrances.
“She wrote the ‘Mi Shebeirach’ for me!” Marcia Cohn Spiegel, a longtime friend and a psychologist who specializes in helping victims of domestic abuse, said. “I turned 60 in 1987, and we thought at the time that 60 was old.”
So, along with a group of friends, they created a new ceremony for turning 60, the simchat chochmah (wisdom celebration), which Spiegel explained, “involved making a vow, changing your name and donning a new garment — the kittel garment you would be buried in. “Spiegel’s was the second such ceremony; the first was for Savina Teubal. But Spiegel had been through a great deal of personal loss in the preceding year; she symbolically took the name Miriam, thus “Miriam’s Song” came about, and her hopes for healing inspired the now-famous “Mi Shebeirach” prayer recited in synagogues throughout the world, often by people who don’t even know it was authored by Friedman, let alone by a contemporary person.
“It was also the time of AIDS,” Spiegel said, and Friedman consciously created the song so that first it would be sung as a group. “Then you’d be quiet, and it would be sung to you.”
Famously in love with sharing her music, Friedman regularly spent whole nights singing and dancing, and she did so just two weeks before she fell into her final illness, at Limmud in England.
We share with you here bits of the outpouring of love for Debbie Friedman that we have received. More complete texts from these authors and many, many more are at jewishjournal.com/debbie_friedman_tributes.
— Susan Freudenheim, Managing Editor
You can measure her impact by the fact that there is a rich profession of contemporary Jewish music when none existed outside the cantorate before her. You can measure her gift by the way it feels natural now to learn and sing Torah in women’s voices and in women’s words. And you can savor her gift in the bountiful harvest of her enormous collection of spirited and spiritual songs. How many congregations now muster spiritual energy for the sick with her words and melody? MORE.
— Rabbi Brad Artson, Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair, Vice President, American Jewish University
I was lucky enough to go to a Debbie Friedman concert many years back at the Pasadena Playhouse. The one thing that stands out most from that evening … was that it was the never-ending show! She would sing her last song, leave the stage and return for an encore ... which turned into two or three songs. Then she would leave the stage again, with the audience on their feet, and return to sing, as she said, “One last song.” To which she looked around and said, “OK, that was the second-to-last song ... here is the last song!” MORE.
— Elizabeth Cobrin, teacher, Mann Family Early Childhood Center, Wilshire Boulevard Temple
For years, I would end my workshops on grief and healing with Debbie’s rendition of the Kaddish, one of her early and less-well-known melodies. Her setting defies conventional understandings of the Kaddish yet is indeed consistent with the Kaddish’s affirmation of life. Debbie’s melody is lyrical, danceable and downright sexy. Because healing takes place in such a deep, cellular part of the self, it gave me great pleasure to infuse this sensibility into the souls and bodies of those who mourn, gently urging them to connect with the subterranean currents of life and joy that flow in us even when our consciousness is filled with grief and pain. MORE.
— Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW
My first encounter with Debbie was in 1986 at the simchat chochmah ritual for becoming an elder she helped create and lead for the feminist biblical scholar her friend Savina Teubal. Two moments in the ritual took my breath away. The first was in the middle of the ceremony, when Savina put on a kittel, the traditional burial shroud. Without words, that robing communicated the powerful truth that everything changes, and that although this new stage of Savina’s life would someday end with her death, she could continue to be a blessing.
The second moment was hearing Debbie sing the song she wrote for that moment: “L’Chi Lach.”
“L’Chi Lach,” like many other of her songs, became constants in the new rituals that a generation of feminist rabbis created to connect girls and women to the divinity present in their lives. And from these rituals, men as well as women learned a new way to connect to God and to make real the truth our tradition teaches that God is present in every moment. MORE.
— Rabbi Laura Geller, senior rabbi, Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills
… Debbie Friedman is uniquely responsible for the transformation of liberal Jewish sacred music in North America in the last 35 years. Debbie had a rare gift for finding the melodies that people needed to hear at that moment in time. She blew open the gates of music, and congregations throughout North America were forever changed.
It was never about complexity or sophistication: It was about the precious gift of a simple tune and the power of sharing it with anyone willing to sing. In her quest for a community of singers, Debbie empowered congregations across the continent and beyond, by making synagogue music accessible. Everyone who has followed on the path of sacred Jewish music since then has been touched by her music, informed by it and guided by her example, one way or another.
Her path was not easy. Many obstacles were placed along Debbie’s journey by people and institutions who felt threatened by her enormous popularity, by her lack of academic credentials, and by her overwhelming charisma. She never backed down from her convictions and never wavered, sad and deeply wounded as she may have felt at times. She triumphed, and we are the beneficiaries of her victory.
My friend was a funny, smart, powerful, infuriating, fiery, sweet, generous and difficult person; both insecure and courageous. She was a woman of true substance, of real worth, of lasting value, and I adored her, as did my family.
Over the years, I have seen Debbie gravely ill. I have personally carried her in my arms off stage and out of rooms when she was too ill or too weak to walk after a song session or a performance. Never too weak to joke, though.
Debbie, who saw music as an instrument to perform open-heart surgery on willing souls, opened my heart many years ago and, God willing, will continue to open many hearts around the world and heal the wounded in spirit through her sweet and generous music.
And you shall be a blessing, Debbie, L’Chi Lach . . .MORE.
— Danny Maseng, chazzan and music director, Temple Israel of Hollywood
Debbie was always about involving everyone in her music — with a twinkle in her eye and passion in her voice. My special connection was through the early Jewish feminist events of the mid-1980s, when she was living in Los Angeles. When I walked into the synagogue for Marcia Cohn Spiegel’s simchat chochmah, she was in the corner, changing the strings on her guitar at lightning speed. She immediately asked me to play tof (drum) for her when she sang what turned out to be “Miriam’s Song” (“and the women dancing with their timbrels …”). Of course, the song became a classic, sung at Jewish women’s events of every kind. And another time, I walked in early to an event where she premiered the “Angel Blessing,” and she quickly taught me the song before the event started, so I could join with several others in singing in harmony with her. It’s the way I remember the names of the four archangels … and that Shekhinah is all around. May she rest under the wings of the Shekhinah, of whom she sang so movingly. MORE.
— Aviva Rosenbloom, Cantor Emerita, Temple Israel of Hollywood
Debbie was an amazingly gifted singer and songwriter. Most knew her through her incredible Jewish music. I had the privilege of knowing her not only through singing and her music, but as my teacher. When I was 12 years old, I was already teaching religious school music at Temple Israel in Memphis, Tenn. The Sisterhood of the temple invested in my skill and talent and sent me that June to SoFTY camp at Jacobs Camp. SoFTY was the old NFTY name of the Southern Region of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, the Reform Jewish Youth Movement. I wasn’t in SoFTY yet, I was still in middle school, not high school. Debbie was song-leading at SoFTY camp. It was 1972. I was sent there specifically to learn from her how to song-lead! And I did. She taught me technique and style and song-leading tips. In private classes! And there began a special friendship that would last these many years. It was that first exposure to her and her music that ultimately helped propel me toward the rabbinate. MORE.
— Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood