January 10, 2011
Remembering Debbie Friedman: Aviva Rosenbloom
I’ve always considered Debbie to be a genius – even when colleagues were putting down her music as “camp” music or “just for kids.” Her special knack as a spiritual songwriter was taking a Jewish practice, a holiday or a prayer, distilling its essence, and heightening the power of that essence through her words and music – almost always including a powerful and poetic interpretive English singing translation, as in the “Mishebeirach” we’ve been singing for her all week. I think also of “Not By Might,” one of the most energetic and joyful peace songs ever written (and one of the best songs to get a bunch of kids excited), to words from the Haftarah for Chanukah. Who else could have thought of that? And who else thought to include “Lechi lach” along with “Lech lecha”, and thereby including our matriarch Sarah and all her descendants—Jewish women—in the call to leave a known place and be a blessing. In doing so, she created the ultimate song of transition, appropriate for any life cycle event. She was always ahead of the curve – be it in songs for healing, Jewish feminist music, or interfaith spirituality.
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 Chochma* (only the second of such ceremonies to take place – she wrote “Lechi Lach” for the first one, for Savina Teubal, z”l), 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 Shechinah is all around. May she rest under the wings of the Shechinah of whom she sang so movingly.
*Simchat Chochma – literally Joy of Wisdom, a ceremony celebrating a Jewish woman’s turning 60 years old. “A woman celebrates the personal spiritual journey of transition, transcendence and transformation honoring the years from mid-life to elder and sage as we become wisdom keepers & mentors.” (Joy Krauthammer)