Yesterday the Jewish people lost one of our generation's g'dolot, the singer and teacher Debbie Friedman z"l. Debbie was the pioneer who over the last forty years brought Jewish prayer to us in a new way at camps, youth groups, sing-alongs, sanctuaries, conferences, and eventually even Carnegie Hall. When we stand in a circle at the end of Shabbat, it is her melody for the Havdalah blessings that we're singing. When we pause during the Torah reading to seek healing, it is her Misheberach that we are praying.
My memories of Debbie's music start with the early albums, back before she was famous. Her mother Frieda and my father came from the same place, Utica, NY, and Debbie's family lived not far from us. When I was a teenager, on Friday evenings after Shabbat dinner and Birkat Hamazon, we went to the den and put Debbie's music on the record player while we read or played games. Years later, at the start of the blizzard of '96 which shut down New York City for about three days, Laurie and I went to see Debbie at Carnegie Hall. Debbie came on stage and immediately haimished up the place: "Welcome to Beth Carnegie!"
From the beginning, Debbie Friedman was about ruach, spirit -- songs like Im Tirtzu or Not By Might, Not By Power. She used her music to teach, and to become a great supporter of Jewish educators, a fixture at CAJE each year. I remember hearing her Alef-Bet Song for the first time on a stage at the Minnesota State Fair, of all places!
Over time her music became even more intensely spiritual. She started in her 20s, and she and her music grew as she and we did, creating an even closer relationship to those who had sung her music since we were all young. One of Debbie's signatures was her ability to weave the Hebrew of prayers and Torah together with English -- not translation, but her own understanding based on the words. As a feminist, she found ways to bring out the inclusive spirit of our Torah.
In recent years Debbie was not physically well, yet she continued to push herself to sing and perform and teach. Her Misheberach reflected a wisdom about illness and prayer. She knew that not all prayers would be answered with physical recovery. So her Misheberach begins not even with a prayer for healing, but like this: May the Source of strength, Who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing. In the thousands we sang these words for her this past Shabbat, praying for her to be well. Debbie might have told us: Even if I don't recover, remember all that you prayed in these words.
Debbie Friedman died this week of Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Miriam's Song. Debbie helped create one of largest women's Seders, at Mayan in Manhattan. I'm sure many will be singing her Miriam's Song.
There will be many memorials and gatherings of song. As I learn about them I will pass them on.
We mourn this loss of Deborah Lynn Friedman, throughout the Jewish world.