If ever there was evidence that I’m not bonafide Jewish, it’s this: I’d never heard of Debbie Friedman before the singer/songwriter passed away yesterday.
The Jewish Journal has about a billion tributes to Friedman. Turns out she was quite the celebrity. (I know, I’ve probably never sounded more clueless.) Here’s an excerpt from my favorite tribute, this one from Rabbi Paul Kipnes:
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 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 a 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 that 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!
That John Lennon analogy really helped me understand how iconic a musician Friedman was for American Jews. The above video is an eight-minute tribute from the Union for Reform Judaism.