Yes, I know there is nothing explicitly “in the mix”-y about Debbie Friedman, but amid all the obituaries and tributes flooding in for the singer-songwriter, I’m feeling sad.
Not only about her untimely death before her 60th birthday (on a horrible weekend that also featured the horrific Arizona shooting), but also because I (and my daughters, who I think would have loved her) did not fully appreciate Friedman while she was alive and never had a chance to hear her perform.
Although we have a lot of Jewish music and folk music on our family iPod, none of it is Friedman’s. I’m struck, however, by how familiar all her songs are to me, mostly because I’ve heard them so many times — at services and in the background at other Jewish events, usually without even realizing they were hers.
Just in the past few months, since we’ve joined a Reform temple and my kids are constantly singing the liturgy from the Hebrew school service, my appreciation for Friedman’s lovely folk melodies that seamlessly blend Hebrew and English — and the spiritual and pedagogic power of music in general — has grown.
Her legacy is especially impressive because she transcended denominations, writing liturgical music that was accessible to liberal and unaffiliated Jews (and non-Jews) yet that also appealed to more traditional types. She was unquestionably a product of the Reform movement (and perhaps one of the biggest shapers of Reform life in the past 40 years), but her influence was felt throughout the American Jewish community, outside the fervently Orthodox world at least.
Considering that she was so successful, talented and famous, Friedman was remarkably J.D. Salinger-esque (especially for a performer) at keeping her life private and shielding it from nosy journalists like me. I learned only this weekend that she suffered from Multiple Sclerosis. Google searches turn up virtually nothing about her life beyond her illustrious career. In this age of confessional blogging and Facebook (to which I and my ego have undoubtedly succumbed), there's something very dignified and modest about the way she so consciously eschewed the spotlight.
May her memory be a blessing. Check out this video tribute from the Union for Reform Judaism:
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