Jewish Journal

Remembering Debbie Friedman: Chazzan Danny Maseng

by Chazzan Danny Maseng

Posted on Jan. 10, 2011 at 2:08 pm

[UPDATE] Debbie Friedman’s Funeral - Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011, 11 am [LIVE VIDEO] - available here.

Yesterday morning, at 5:49 a.m., my friend and teacher Debbie Friedman left the world. I’m not sure what is an appropriate time to leave, but I’m quite certain she left too early.

I first met Debbie 18 years ago at OSRUI, a Jewish summer-camp in Oconomowoc, Wisc. She was leading a song-session, and I, her partner in directing Hava Nashira (the songleader’s workshop), had never been to one before. I can still remember my reluctance to participate; I can still remember my life changing; I can still remember weeping like a child and I can still remember thinking: So this is what a community can feel like when it sings.

The magic of that first night of musical healing has never dimmed, not one iota. The power of that first encounter with the shaman of Jewish song-leading has fueled much of my spiritual life since, and I have seen scores of spiritual seekers transformed by their encounters with Debbie.

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. There were many obstacles 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, Lechi Lach . . .

Danny Maseng is chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood. He is also a composer and performs regularly worldwide.

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