Jodie Foster’s speech at The Golden Globe Awards Sunday night was rambling, provocative and prompted strong reactions. She seemed to come out as a lesbian, upending one of Hollywood’s oldest open secrets. And she made an ardent, funny case for respecting her privacy. Some people loved it. Others did not. Based on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, lots of folks struggled to follow what she was trying to convey. But I found Foster utterly comprehensible. And the justification of her desire for privacy, for her right to keep private whatever part of her personal life she wishes, reminded me a great deal of Debbie Friedman.
Debbie died two years ago, on January 9, 2011, when she was 59 years old. Her second yartzeit, which fell this week, will be honored with a singalong tribute on January 24 at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, which posthumously named its cantorial school for Debbie.
When Debbie died, and even before she had been buried, gay activist David Levy made public a part of Debbie’s life that she had neither advertised nor hid: That she was a lesbian. Anyone close with Debbie knew she was gay. Levy’s decision to invade her privacy offended me, as I wrote at that terribly painful time.
I would love to have been able to chew over with Debbie what Foster said at the award show. I think she would have related strongly to it.
Due to my husband’s long work hours, dinner at our house is often ladies night, adapted for the Mommy-and-Me set. Like any top chef, I start Lila’s meal with an amuse bouche. That is, I let Lila chomp on some Cheerios, while I design that night’s dinner menu. Sometimes Lila and I just chat over dinner — her comments made largely in Lilese — but on most nights, we have musical accompaniment.
When Lila began eating solids last fall, we listened to WFUV, my favorite New York radio station, then branched out to Pandora’s Raffi station. However, ever since my sister brought us a 2-CD set of Debbie Friedman classics in February, Friedman’s voice has been our go-to evening soundtrack.
I love that the CD opens with an up-tempo rendition of “L’cha Dodi”. Lila perks up when the opening chords play, recognizing that a favorite song is starting. I often dance to the beat and sing, while Lila bops back and forth in her high chair. We both clap along too.
Growing up, I learned most of these tunes, and words, at Solomon Schechter, but I didn’t remember they were Debbie Friedman’s. It turns out that so many of the songs I loved singing in choir — and even the version of “Oseh Shalom” that most successfully soothed Lila last year — were composed by Ms. Friedman.
Soon after Debbie Friedman died about a year ago — her first yartzheit is later this month — I heard about the version of “Shalom Aleichem” she penned and shared, but never had a chance to record.
Now, I love the “original” tune with which many of us are familiar. I used to sing it to my youngest child to soothe her when she was an infant and toddler, holding her and stroking her back as I rocked in my mother’s rocking chair. She loved it and would request it by name, as soon as she was old enough to say the words.
Nonetheless, Debbie’s “Shalom Aleichem” has come to be our family’s new tune.
My son, who had a special relationship with Debbie, returned from her memorial service about a month after she died (I was just starting to pierce the fog of grief at that point, and couldn’t bear to go) with it to share with our family. Over the next few weeks, he taught it to us as we sat down to Shabbat dinner.
We have sung it ever since, and we share it with everyone we can.
Something didn’t sound quite right to me at last week’s dedication of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, the cantorial school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.
Despite the love and sadness that suffused the event, which was born out of a desire to honor the singer-songwriter who died in January, hearing Debbie’s folky Jewish spirituals sung in multi-part choral harmony didn’t quite fit. And I wonder how she would have felt about the cantorial school being renamed in her honor. After all the school probably wouldn’t have accepted her, had she ever applied, because Debbie had absolutely no formal musical training.
Debbie’s innovative compositions changed the way many religiously liberal Jews approach prayer. Instead of the high-church operatic quality that characterized classical Reform worship (attended by a choir), Debbie used music to create a direct line of communication between congregant and God. Much as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach did in Orthodox Judaism, Debbie took text and themes right from the prayer book and Bible, marrying them to melodies structurally simple enough for anyone to be able to quickly catch on. In time, as Debbie taught them to Reform-movement campers and youth group retreat-goers, and then groups of song leaders and Jewish educators, her work became transformative.
The Jewish world lost a great light with the untimely death of Debbie Friedman on January 9. She was an inspiration to multiple generations of song-leaders and Jewish musicians, congregants, campers, students, friends, rabbis, cantors and educators. Her impact on Jewish music and worship has been so widely felt across the Jewish spectrum, across movements, across generations and across oceans that it leaves a massive, gaping, black hole —dense with energy and aching with potential.
Debbie’s music provided the soundtrack to my childhood, whether it was her “Alef Bet” in Hebrew school, “Im Tirzu” and “Not By Might” at camp, or “Miriam’s Song” and “T’fillat HaDerech” at NFTY conventions. I sang Debbie’s “L’chi Lach” at my confirmation, at my high school graduation and again at my college baccalaureate. She was a personal mentor to me at a crucial period in my life when I was “coming up” in the song-leading world, and helped me land my first job when I moved from California to New York to work as a freelance Jewish musician in the years before cantorial school.
I hadn’t spoken to Debbie Friedman in many weeks and had only seen her once since she moved back to California. Still, I had to try. I sent her an email asking if she was coming to New York anytime soon, that I needed her. Ten minutes later, she emailed me back. “Is it Deb?” she asked. I’ll never know how she remembered that my cousin, whom she had seen at many Healing Services that she and I led together at the JCC in Manhattan, was ill. I’ll never know how she knew that my cousin was dying. I only know that everyone who knew Debbie has a story like this.
She got on a plane about four weeks ago and came to New York. Despite the fact that she was struggling herself physically, she came up to Mamaroneck and led an exquisite healing service for 70 people in my cousin’s living room. My cousin was fully present for the service — her sons and husband and father held tightly by her music, her spirit and the community in the room that felt so grateful to be there and give voice to their love.
I am disgusted by what someone who goes by “DLevy” has written about Debbie Friedman on the Jewschool blog, breaching basic standards of dignity and respect, and what people are sending around the Twitterverse. As Debbie’s funeral is livestreamed, people watching and posting comments are conjecturing about whether her partner will be named.
I’ve been asked to respond to this, or else never would have discussed it publicly, because Debbie would not have wanted her personal life bandied about. The privacy and dignity with which she lived her life – all aspects of her life – should be respected, not tossed aside to satisfy someone else’s prurient curiosity or politics.
Debbie was not in the closet. Neither did she ride floats at a gay pride parade. She was, quite simply, a private person. She did not shout from the rooftops. She responded to alienation and injustice through the music she wrote that changed the way we pray.
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.
Fifteen years ago today, Debbie Friedman gave a sold out concert at Carnegie Hall, commemorating 25 years as one of the Jewish community’s most beloved singers. Yesterday, Friedman was hospitalized for pnemonia. JTA reports that she is currently sedated and on a respirator.
Debbie Friedman began recording on her own label in 1972 and has since recorded 20 albums that have sold over 200,000 copies. Today, her music is sung in synagogues across the U.S. and has become so widespread that, for many, it is thought of as “traditional.” Her “Mi Sheberach” prayer for healing has become the fastest adopted liturgical melody in both the Reform and Conservative movements. This week, we sing the “Mi Sheberach” for her.
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