Debbie Friedman, zichrona livracha, may her memory be a blessing, died this week. The loss of this icon in the Jewish world has left a gaping hole in the heart of our global Jewish community. Debbie Friedman was a huge star, an innovator, and a celebrity, and yet, she did not set out to be any of these. She loved music and Judaism, and she lived a life infused with both.
Debbie Friedman’s lyrics touched our hearts, saying what we only wished we knew how to say. Her melodies touched our souls, drawing us out and helping thousands – probably millions over the decades of her career – to heal, to create, and to live. But while Debbie was passionate, out-spoken, and present, she was also quiet and humble.
We all have our “Debbie stories,” and I hope we continue to share these stories together. I had the privilege to share the stage with Debbie Friedman last March when the Greater Hartford Jewish community, under the auspices of the Mandell JCC, brought her here to lead our Women’s Seder. Eight hundred and forty women listened, sang, laughed, and cried along with Debbie. Her power, might and spirit that night were palpable. She had such presence, she was so much larger than life, and she had such a powerful way of engaging her listeners. And yet I remember feeling that she was also so human, so real, so humble: her voice cracked when the emotions overwhelmed her, she would turn to me on occasion to ask what the next verse was (of songs she had written!), and she was just as moved by the evening as we were.
Debbie wanted everyone to feel part of the experience, to be moved, and to have a personal spiritual journey. Her questions and challenges to me that night were so thoughtful and right on: too much Hebrew, or a piece of music that just wouldn’t work (again, her own creations!), or “let them keep eating dessert, we’ve been singing enough!” She and I talked that night about music, about healing, about Jewish journeys, and about motherhood. At the time, I had a new baby at home and it was my first evening away from him. Debbie shared that while she had never had any children and it was not in her life’s plan, she had always wondered what motherhood would have been like. Talking with Debbie Friedman was like talking with an old friend.
And indeed, that’s what Debbie was for so many. Most of us never had the opportunity to meet Debbie in person, and yet, for years we heard her familiar and beautiful music as we entered religious school, attended concerts, or listened to records, cassettes, CDs, and MP3s. Debbie Friedman truly transcended generations and denominations. This was evident in our Women’s Seder and it will be evident for years to come as we continue to sing her songs.
The Women’s Seder ended on such a high. Debbie invited all of the women to come towards the stage. “Closer, closer,” she kept saying. We sang “L’shanah Habaah B’Yerushalayim” – Next year in Jerusalem – over and over again. And the women got closer and closer and the melody sweeter and sweeter. The energy was incredible. Tears streamed down so many faces as dreams were realized, healing began, and community – the true sense of community – was formed. It was clear that those of us in the room would never be the same again – we had all experienced a transformation. Those who were there will never forget that moment. I know now that it is our obligation to tell of that experience – or better yet, to sing of it – for future generations.
No, Debbie Friedman was never a mother, but in some beautiful and poetic way, she was the mother of contemporary Jewish song, the mother of a global Jewish community, and the mother of spiritual and physical healing. Her presence will be sorely missed at conferences, synagogues, institutions of learning, and Women’s Seders all over the world. But her present – the many gifts she gave us – will live on as long as we “sing unto God” just like Debbie, imeinu morateinu, our mother our teacher, demonstrated throughout her life. Zichrona livracha – may her memory be a blessing. Zichrona l’shira – may her memory be a song!
Rabbi Ilana Garber is a spiritual leader at Beth El Temple in West Hartford.
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