The funeral has been recorded and is available to watch on-line on the website of the temple where it was held: http://www.tbsoc.com/debbie. Or, to see tributes from across the Reform movement, go the movement website at http://urj.org/debbiefriedman/ — the video isn’t up yet, but will be, and there’s plenty else, including lots of links to writing about her. And believe me, there’s never been a tribute page created like that before, and with all due respect to the leaders of the movement, it’s hard to imagine when it will be again.
If you’re not familiar with her music, please know that every speaker quoted or grounded themselves in her words. Not just the musicians, the speakers too.
And know that her words quoted and were grounded, in their turn, in 3.000 years of Jewish textual history.
Over seven thousand people watched on-line, live. It took two hours and felt short. Pretty much everything I share below was said or framed by speakers and singers at her funeral. At the best of funerals, you learn more about the person. I learned a little new; but it really helped me think clearly about what I know about her.
There’s still another post in me, though, a much more personal one than this. Be patient.
With all the musical talent there, including the cantor of her synagogue (Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, CA), her rabbi still chanted El Maley Rachamim, the memorial prayer. (Only I really said to myself, “They let her!!!!”) That moved me incredibly. As a singing rabbi, it’s a privilege I’d want to have, and usually do at the funerals that I do. I will chant it for her at Shabbat Shirah serives this Friday night. But Debbie’s family could have had whomever they wanted from the entire Jewish musical world, and they let her rabbi chant it for her. It was so in line with Debbie’s inclusivity: We all can sing, whether metaphorically or ideally literally. We all share our spirit and our voices.
The last speaker (other than that rabbi, Heidi Cohen, who read words from Debbie’s big sister Cheryl) was Tamara Cohen. She reminded us that part of Debbie’s legacy was attention to the margins — whether it was the one or two people in the room who didn’t sing, or differently-abled Jews, or gay and lesbian Jews and diversity in families, or feminism and the voices of women. She understood that God was in all those places. She didn’t singlehandedly transform the face of American Judaism on these issues, but her music tracks all of it and pushed some of it.
And Debbie lived in the margins, for all her centrality, and she struggled with her own fragility and brokenness. She pushed herself in ways that, overall, probably hastened her death. She wanted healing and peace, not just for the world, for the Jewish people, for others, but for herself; yet over and over, she chose outward healing first, chose to give what she could.
When she sang her Mi Shebeirach, her prayer for healing, she would always look at the audience, who by that time was completely in the palm of her hand and singing along enthusiastically, and tell us: Don’t sing. First I’m going to sing this for you. And in the video link above, from 2008, she doesn’t even have to explain all that; it’s known. “This is for you.” (Or maybe the recording just started after she explained all that; but still, I recognized it.)
Jerry Kaye, beloved camp director who used to hold us spellbound with his stories after Shabbat dinner (and I suppose he still does), told a two-sentence story: News of Debbie’s “end of days” flashed around the world on Sunday and tributes began pouring in. “Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi considered just a day or two ago that she is now among the descending angels that touched the mind of Jacob.” [N.B. And see Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s comment #8 below about Debbie’s music in Reb Zalman’s world.]
And that tells you something about how widely she touched people. For all I know she may have studied or taught with Reb Zalman. The on-line chat during her funeral (which mostly I ignored, but some friends were there) affirmed that her melodies have been heard sung by Chasidic men. In fact, some of her music has even been introduced as “an old Chasidic tune” — or miSinai, “from Sinai,” which refers to the oldest liturgical tunes that we have, going back several centuries.
She was, as Tamara Cohen said, the pioneering midwife of more inclusive, accessible Jewish prayer experiences.
Not an angel. Nowhere near perfect. In more than 20 albums, there is plenty that will remain timebound. But a very large body of songs and prayer settings that have already transformed the face of American Judaism — particularly liberal Judaism, especially the Reform Movement. But not just us. Wider.
And besides being a singer and composer, she was a teacher. She taught and mentored others musically, incredibly generously, for years, encouraging them to find their singing or composing or writing voice.
And more than that. Jerry said, from the time she was in high school, she was trying to make meaning of the text. Rabbi Stuart Kelman, with whom she taught at retreats for years and years, told of a room of 1,000 people singing Havdalah (her melody, which is probably the one that’s been introduced as “an old Chasidic tune”). And in the middle she yelled “Stop!” Then, “That’s not the way I wrote it!” And then, in her sweetest teaching voice, she explained: “I wrote it with a pause. Because Shabbat is something we don’t want to let go.”
Teaching it with precision, and correcting the singing, not for the precision of the music, but for the intent of the music. As Jerry Kaye said, and he should know, all she really wanted was to teach Torah in its broadest sense.
And she did. She taught on almost every continent, as far as he could tell. And if she’d gotten to Antarctica, he’d no doubt that she would have taught the Alef-Bet to the penguins.
Go in peace, Debbie. Deborah Lynn Friedman, Dina Leah bat Freydl v’Gavriel. As Rabbi Richard Levy said: Our prayers didn’t bring your body healing. But they provided an escort into the World to Come that told God, “This woman is going to rock Your throne!”
Zichronah livrachah. Let us learn from the best of what she taught us, to help us find the courage to make our own lives a blessing, as she did. So that her life and ours continue to be a blessing.