One of Debbie Friedman’s most beautiful songs, “Lechi Lach,” reflects God’s telling Abraham and Sarah to go to “a place you do not know.” In her way, Ms. Friedman — Dina Leah bat Freydl v’Gavriel — did that for the rest of us, taking us to a spiritual place that few could have imagined, either as individuals or as a community.
She did it not only as a composer and singer but as a presence, a guide, a friend.
John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, said, “She was our teacher in front of thousands” at communal conferences and concerts around the world. “And quite remarkably, Debbie was also available at the bedsides of those who were ill; convening healing services for the terminally ill, to provide an infusion of inspiration and courage.”
She held monthly healing services when Ruskay’s late wife, Shira, confronted a terminal diagnosis in l997.
“Once a month,” he recalled this week, “we gathered with Debbie and she uniquely wove together prayer and Torah in ways which all could imbibe. After one healing service, Shira looked to the heavens and proclaimed: ‘Who dies like this?!’”
To see the word “song” in obituaries seems not to do Ms. Friedman justice, so seamlessly did her songs — of every genre — become prayer, and so easy did prayer seem when expressed in her songs.
The word “spirituality” seems omnipresent these days, the preferred substitute for “religion” for many, and yet it was this diminutive folk singer from the Midwest, a spiritual prodigy without a day school education, let alone rabbinic or cantorial or formal musical training, who revolutionized how liberal American Jewry came to understand spirituality, who came to understand through her music that spirituality could co-exist with modernity in ways that few once thought possible.
Confronting what she called society’s “spiritual inhibitions,” she used her talent to engage all ages, from her “Alef-Bet Song,” which became a staple of “Barney,” the children’s show, to her “Miriam’s Song,” a pulsating, sinewy, sensual explosion of sound, evoking Miriam’s dancing with a timbrel after crossing the Red Sea. It became an inspirational feminist anthem.
Blu Greenberg, the Orthodox feminist leader, noted that while Ms. Friedman’s music impacted most on Reform and Conservative liturgy, “she had a large impact [in] Modern Orthodox shuls, women’s tefillah [prayer], the Orthodox feminist circles. … She was a religious bard and angel for the entire community.”
Ms. Friedman once told us, “Nothing could give me greater pleasure than knowing some of these songs could put a child to sleep and be calm.”
It was calming and inspirational for anyone to share in her soul. It is now her turn to sleep and for God to sing Lechi Lach to Debbie Friedman, “And I shall make your name great,” a greatness for the ages.
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