Debbie Friedman Talks About Being Gay
01/13/2011 - 17:56
Jonathan Mark

I left out any mention of Debbie Friedman's romantic history in my farewell piece. (Correction: Debbie Friedman was born in 1951, not 1952 as reported).

 I spoke about this topic with Debbie enough times to know that she wasn't interested in that aspect of her private life being discussed in print.

I knew about it, other writers knew about it, and respected her privacy. There was enough to write about her (and the same goes for Shlomo Carlebach, for that matter) without writing about her romantic partners, or getting into what she (or Shlomo) did or whom they called when they were lonely.

Did some closeted Jews feel that closeted lesbians would benefit from her talking about sex? Sure.

But Debbie said, there were enough people talking about sex. There weren't enough people talking about God. And there certainly were not enough people who were talking and singing about God the way she did.

"People," she said, "are more uptight talking about God, more uptight about God language and God concepts, than they are about sex."

But now that The New York Times mentioned that she was gay in their obituary, and now that it's being widely reported in print and over the Internet, in JTA and elsewhere, readers may be interested in this conversation I had with her in 2008.

It was part of a larger interview, and I never printed it until now, but with radical gays criticizing her for not coming out, I figure Debbie should have the chance to speak for herself. She was pro-choice, and her choice was to keep her private life private as long as she could, something to be shared only with lovers and friends.

She didn't want articles about her to waste paragraphs about how much of a lesbian spokesman she should or should not be, instead of focusing on what she wanted to focus on -- Jews, music, God and spirituality.

Let's remember, by staying focused, Debbie Friedman almost single-handedly introduced intimate God-talk into modern Reform Judaism. Aside from Debbie, many in the Reform movement could only talk about God in terms of "tikkun olam," or "social justice," ideas that are more about justifying a person's pre-existing political choices, a communal choice, more than about anyone's personal relationship with God.

In terms of her death, she believed in an Afterlife, as traditionally understood, and wanted to talk about that, something that many Reform Jews are still uncomfortable with.

She figured enough people were speaking up for gays, lesbians, bi's, and transgenders, especially in her wing of Judaism, while so few could speak about God. 

Debbie Friedman: "They want me to come out. And I feel, hamayvin yaavin [those who know, know]. I’m out enough. I think I’ll ultimately be able to accomplish more just by living the way I’m living."

"A Jewish educator once told [my partner] not knowing she was my partner, ‘You know we’re not even allowed to use any of Debbie Friedman’s music in our congregation, the rabbi forbids it because she’s gay.'

"So if there’s that kind of crap going on, it just doesn’t pay for me to… Anything that’s going to happen, or needs to happen, will take itself where it needs to go. The same way my career has gone.”

JM: "You don’t want that one thing to define you."

DF:  “No! That’s not who I am. I’m not ‘Debbie Friedman the lesbian.’"

JM: "But people in the current culture will do that to you."

DF: “Right. That’s what pisses me off about people who say, people need you to come out. I’m thinking, more than people need me to come out as a gay person, they need me to come out as a liturgist and a spiritualist. People are more uptight talking about God, more inhibited about God language and God concepts, than they are about sex.

"That concerns me more than anything, people’s spiritual inhibitions. That, there, is something that is really on my agenda. That people’s spiritual vocabulary is so limited, even as they’re so spiritually hungry without knowing how to nourish themselves."



Nowhere is family and commitment more valued than in the Jewish world. To deny or hide a loving committed relationship is to say that there is something wrong with that relationship and, if that partner is the same sex, it is to strenghten those who condemn gayness as sin. I agree that sexual orientation is in fact not simply about sex but a way of being in this world and yes, I do think it subtly, deeply affects every part of my being. I have lived for many years the life of a heterosexual woman and now for 11 year as a gay woman and one of the differences is that as a gay woman one always knows that there is the potential of condemnation and rejection. At 57 I can cope with that but young believing Jews, and Christians or Muslims, who are serious about their faith and are also gay and scared of that rejection and condemnation need strong successful spiritual role models to help them believe that G-d can love and use them too
I am a heterosexual. This sexual orientation does not, to my knowledge after careful and thorough introspection, relate in any substantive way to my spiritual life and my relationships with G-d, loved ones, or friends. Debbie Friedman's music and her immersion in Jewish spirituality profoundly impacted and changed, in a positive way, the opportunities of countless Jews to connect in a meaningful way to our faith, traditions, metaphors, and a G-d concept. Her life will be a blessing for generations to come. Her sexual orientation is irrelevant, except in the sense that we embrace and love her without regard to this minute aspect of the totality of her gifts to all of us.
Mr. Mark, In support of ChicagoTist: your sentence linking Friedman and Carlbach in your original piece can only be construed to suggest that there was something deviant about Friedman's sexual orientation. It is you who are suggesting that Carlbach transgressed some boundaries, irrespective of charges of violent behavior. Whether we are willing to forgive him for alleged boundary violations is another matter.. But by linking him to Friedman in your piece in the context of hinting at Carlbach's alleged boundary violations, we must infer that you think that Friedman was violating some boundary. And it's not like the assertion that homosexual behavior is a transgression is so far-fetched; mainstream Jewish Orthodoxy does in fact make such an assertion. I just think it would be a fair for your readers to know where you stand on homosexuality. I'm torn about whether the post-mortem outing of Friedman was appropriate. But in trying to listen to the arguments on the issue, I would significantly dismiss the arguments of someone who believed homosexual relationships, by definition, constituted a transgression. That person would, according to my values, lack moral authority. So it would be helpful to know where you stand.
I did not charge him with rape. I pointed out what someone else pointed out your comparison implied in light of those allegations about him going around. That was all. And in light of your rhetoric above, it was quite believable that that's what you were quite capable of doing. In light of what? 1. You reduce being gay or lesbian to sex ("Did some closeted Jews feel that closeted lesbians would benefit from her talking about sex? Sure.") That's not all there is to being gay or lesbian. It's not just "sex". Just like being Jewish does not only take place in synagogue or at the Shabbat table. 2. Your references to "radical gays". Unless of course, you think "Israel lobby" or "Jewish lobby" is acceptable talk. In that case, I take the second example back.
Wonder what the NY Jewish Week will think of this Together with the "radical gays" comments above, somehow I am not surprised about why thinks what it does. Is this what the New York Jewish Week stands for? Ugly homophobia?
Mr. Mark, Are you really comparing being gay to sexual violence? (I hate myself for this lashon harah, but there is no other way to explain it to those who don't know - that is what Carlebach reference is about.)
Reb Shlomo may have been inappropriate with women, so I'm told, and he was very loved by many women, as well. But I don't believe he was ever violent. No charges were ever filed against him, to the best of my knowledge, and all accusations happened decades before he died, leaving decades for anyone to have pursued him legally if indeed he was violent. Therefore, in the absence of anything to go on, other than your admited lashon harah, I don't think I made any comparisons between being gay and sexual violence. Even a charge of rape does not mean rape actually happened unless there is a conviction. I personally know of one rabbinical student whose "girlfriend" went to the police with a rape charge against him. He was, thank God, alive and able to fight the charges, eventually winning when he was able to produce several emails from the woman and other evidence proving that she was trying to frame him. If he was not alive, as Shlomo is not alive, he would not have been able to clear his name, and if he was famous, people like you would have been able to talk about him as a rapist when indeed he wasn't. The place to charge Shlomo with rape is in a courtroom, not over the Internet without any evidence except rumor and innuendo.
While I "get" why Debbie Friedman didn't come out, I really question that "radical gays" are the ones who regret Friedman was not open about her innate nature. I'm far from radical, and I regret she didn't come out, even though I do respect her reasons. It needn't have been a radical thing: just to live her life normally without hiding her relationship would have done it. Not to act as if being gay was something to be ashamed of would have been a good thing. Not inadvertently trashing her partner by hiding her would have been nice. Yes, she revolutionized the way Reform Jews worship, and opened new avenues to deeper spirituality, but why hide who she was in the process? Would G-d have worked less effectively through her were she honest about her identity?

It was certainly common knowledge anong Jewish Lesbians that Debbie Friedman was Gay, and we were, and are, proud. It seems she felt her mission on earth was to envigorate Judaism with song, and she fullfilled that so well. It is not up to Miriam 525 to judge that Debbie "trashed" her partner by not publicising their relationship. Their private, personal relationship was not anyone's business but their own. Gay liberation did not need Debbie Friedman. The spiritul renewal of Judaism in the modern age did need her. I look forward ro meeting her in the World to Come and thanking her.

It's a fair point, perhaps I was wrong to say this was only the work of radical gays. I said it was because it is usually radical gay activisits who presume that a gay person should not have any other priority higher than fidelity to the gay cause. Just maybe she took her Judaism and music seriously and didn't want that jeopardized. Just maybe she was a private, modest person. I think the less than radical gays might be more sensitive to Debbie Friedman's request that her private choices remain private. The only point of this blog entry was not to judge radical gays, less than radical gays, or to judge Debbie. I just wanted to let her have her say now that the discussion entered the public domain.

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