As our previous post noted, Debbie Friedman is seriously ill and needs our prayers. She has a special place in my heart, as she does in the hearts of countless others, because Debbie is an extraordinary person with extraordinary gifts and an extraordinarily generous spirit, and she has made a remarkable impact on our lives. No one else, besides Shlomo Carlebach, has changed modern Jewish worship the way Debbie has.
With her music, written over the past 40 years or so, Debbie bridges heaven and earth. She takes text straight out of Torah, the writings of the Prophets and the prayer book, and sets them to music that is brilliant in its simplicity. The melodies are easy to learn, and the refrains usually perfect to sing in rounds. It joins those singing together in community and elevates their spirits. It’s hard to overstate the impact of being at one of her feminist seders or healing services. As you sing you can stop thinking, and just be in the prayer-songs. Your desperation, fears and sadness ride up on the wave of her powerful music and you feel connected to God, as well as to everyone singing with you. When you finally do stop singing, you find that your soul has been soothed.
Debbie, who has described herself to me as “a vessel” for God’s power, has long tried to bring that experience to as many people as she can, going to the bedside of anyone seriously ill and bringing them comfort when little else can.
For several years she ran a Jewish healing service at synagogues on the Upper West Side. I had a rough time after Boychik was born 16 years ago, with unanticipated medical problems and the challenges that came when my husband was laid off shortly after. When I finally got help, I was diagnosed with post-partum depression. As part of my struggle to climb out of that pit, I went to a few of those healing services and found there the one place that I could find relief.
Debbie’s music can have that impact on a person, and she has always been generous sharing it.
Close to a dozen years ago, my middle child was a week old and had seizures, which sent us back to the hospital, where she was diagnosed as having had a massive stroke. Girlchik is, thank God, today a healthy 11-year-old delight of a daughter. Soon after she was discharged from that hospitalization, I was trying to put together her simchat bat. I wanted the family and friends gathered for the celebration to sing Debbie’s “MiShebeirach, because we did not then know if she would recover completely or be permanently disabled.
I called Debbie for her advice about constructing the simchat bat (there were no good resources at the time, which led me to write the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”)
When she heard what happened, Debbie immediately offered to come to my living room to sing the prayer for healing at Girlchik’s simchat bat herself. She had an out of town concert to get to, but changed her flight so that she could come. That’s Debbie.
I loved going to the Ma’yan seders Debbie conducted in lower Manhattan in a catering space overlooking the East River for several years. I brought many friends over the years, and Boychik and later Girlchik, and one year my mother traveled from Philadelphia to come.
After my mom died in 2001, I went to the next Ma’yan seder, then held at the JCC of Manhattan, and sat right up front. As soon as Debbie began singing “those who sow, who sow in tears, will reap in joy, will reap in joy” it opened the deep places in my heart. That’s her gift.
In 2007, though she’d been ill, she wrote a song for Boychik’s bar mitzvah and came to our shul, teaching it to the congregation and singing it with us. That’s Debbie.
Debbie is loved by millions of people; from people who had her as a camp counselor to those who came to her concerts at Carnegie Hall, to those of us whose lives she has touched in an even more personal way.
Now she needs each and every one of us to send our prayers for her healing higher and higher. Let’s do our best. Because she can take us there.