The Healing Of Debbie Friedman

Beloved singer, writer, musical game-changer dies at 59.

01/11/11
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To a broken generation, Debbie Friedman delivered a mystical truth: You don’t have to be cured to be healed.

She, who suffered for so long from elusive, debilitating neurological illnesses that finally took her life Sunday after 59 years, understood, with humor and faith, that she was singing and writing with one foot in Heaven and the other on a banana peel. It was as if from Heaven, however, that her most ethereal music seemed to come, transforming not only lives but whole denominations.

She emerged in the 1970s, as if from a cornfield, from campfires in a Wisconsin summer camp, and an untethered Reform childhood in Minnesota where her parents wouldn’t even send her to Hebrew school, relenting only when she begged.

Without rabbinic, cantorial or even musical training, Debbie — even in formal settings she was always Debbie — nevertheless did more than anyone to upend the old Western European model of Reform Judaism, with its magisterial formality, organs, operatic cantors, let alone its scientific skepticism about the power of a blessing.

She was arguably the most successful composer of Jewish religious music in the American musical vernacular of folk and popular song, and she sang with an unvarnished voice, as simple, yet strong, as her prairie roots.

Let’s not pretend she was always loved by the Reform elders of her time. The JTA news service reported that she “was an outsider in the Jewish musical establishment for most of her life… she long faced resistance from cantors, rabbis and others who considered her music inappropriate in synagogue.”

The elders were not all wrong, Debbie admitted in an interview with me several years ago. “When I started I didn’t really know that much about liturgy. I hadn’t much of a background.” By the end, she was arguably the most influential Reform Jew of the last century, nothing less than a rebbe to thousands, from the unaffiliated to professional clergy. With more than 20 albums, selling more than 500,000 copies, she composed songs for every phase of life, from playpen to hospice, and in almost every genre.

However unfair it is to focus on one song, her “Mi Sheberach,” based on the traditional prayer for healing, was the most important, and perhaps the most loved.

Let’s put it into context: Several years ago, Jack Wertheimer, former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that liberal synagogues had pretty much eliminated the traditional Shabbat morning prayers for an individual’s healing “because they wasted much time,” putting “an unacceptable burden on the flow of a public service in the cause of a private prayer.” And anyway, what modern Jew believed that “healing” could come from a Hebrew incantation, a blessing?

But a change began to sweep over the country, noticed Wertheimer, in Reform synagogues “the entire congregation stands to sing the prayer in a melody and setting composed by Debbie Friedman…”

Her melody and wording is now heard in many Conservative congregations, and some Orthodox shuls, too.

That one song gave rise to an entire service, “the healing service,” that Debbie popularized in her travels. Synagogues that couldn’t fill the pews on a Saturday found people coming by the dozens on a weeknight to be part of the phenomenon. No one needed to speak, or do anything, really, other than have an appreciation of stillness, a willingness to blessed, to believe in a blessing, the power of anyone to bless anyone else.

You didn’t have to be Reform, either. I went to one of her first healing services in New York, in a side room at Congregation Ansche Chesed, in the early 1990s. I went as a journalist, as detached as if in a press box, and with an Orthodox orientation on top of that. Before the evening was over, I had to stop taking notes to wipe my tears.

The service, with Debbie on guitar, and with another person reading selected poetry and inspirational prose, would culminate with Debbie singing “Mi Sheberach,” a song that she’d stretch from its initially recorded brevity into a trance of 10 minutes or more.

The service was conceived, Debbie told me later, in prayer workshops in California over the years, “and when we saw how people were responding” to “Mi Sheberach” and other songs of quiet blessing (such as “Lechi Lach,” a gentle twist on God’s command to go “to a land that I will show you … And you will be a blessing”), the healing service “kind of created itself.”

The services became so popular that they were scheduled monthly at Manhattan’s JCC on the Upper West Side, when her schedule permitted. Debbie would ask participants not to sing along at first, “If it’s a blessing, you have to be able to simply receive.”

Later, in her apartment, stroking her dog Farfel, she said of the service, “For each of us, something is not right.” And yet, in service was so much “compassion and love… That’s the joy of it all.”

Look, she told me, “You can’t take the pain away, for God’s sake. You can’t pretend its not there. You can’t say you don’t have what you have. We’re going to have these afflictions for however long we live and we’re going to have to learn how to manage for as long as we live.”

Instead of public confession at the services, she said she preferred to study a text, “like Jacob wrestling with the angel only to walk away limping but healed. Yes, I’m injured, I’m hurting, I’m broken, but it’s only my body, my soul is whole. ... That’s healing. It’s not throwing away the crutches.”

Born in upstate Utica in 1951, Debbie and her parents moved to Minnesota when she was 5, her father finding a job in a Rayco garage, working on seat belts and mufflers. The move was hard for Debbie, who missed her grandparents back in Utica; they were her prime religious influence.

She remembered her grandmother’s farmhouse, where her grandmother, with covered head, would wave in the Shabbat candles with a blessing.

“What are you whispering, Bubby?” asked young Debbie.

“Oh, I make blessings on all the ones who are in Gan Eden (paradise),” said her Bubby.

Her grandparents’ home remained vivid to Debbie, as a holy, magical world; the red dimpled glasses for seder; the sukkah decorations; the bedtime Shema.

Most singer-songwriters in 1971 aspired to write love songs. Debbie wrote love songs, too, but to God. She even turned the Kaddish into a love song, which, of course, it always was.

After cantorial and teaching jobs in a half-dozen cities, she made the Upper West Side her base in the 1990s. She was more noticed by the media, and more appreciated by the Reform and Conservative seminaries based in New York. In 2007, her acceptance complete, embraced by a new generation of rabbis and cantors, she was appointed to the faculty at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music.

“By creating a whole new genre of Jewish music, Debbie was able to reintroduce authentic Jewish spirituality,” said Rabbi Daniel Freedlander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a statement posted on the movement’s website this week. “She wrote melodies that spoke to us, spoke to our intellect, spoke to our emotions.”

Reform Jews “had forgotten how to sing,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, on the website. What is heard in Reform synagogues today is “in large measure due to the insight, brilliance and influence of Debbie Friedman.”

Debbie moved to California in late 2010 to be with her mother and sister, but our goodbyes hinted of an ominous, existential farewell. She was healthy enough to fly to London for several jobs in late December, but she suffered a precipitous decline after returning to California, resulting in a hospitalization, pneumonia and an induced coma.

Debbie once laughed, remembering how she and her Bubby, after splashing in the bath, would play peek-a-boo with the towels. “Where’s Debbie? There she is!”

When Bubby died, Debbie participated in the traditional preparation of Bubby’s body for burial, pouring the water over Bubby. She and her Bubby believed in rituals, blessings and a Jewish goodbye.

Where’s Debbie? There she is — in the Other World and in this one, in hundreds of synagogues, summer camps and healing services.

And she will be a blessing. 

Last Update:

01/16/2011 - 17:35

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We all loved Debbie. I got to know her thru Rabbi Stan Levy's wonderful High Holiday services at the Brandeis Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, CA. I will miss her and her spirit. She lives forever in our hearts and spirits. God bless you, Debbie.
I knew Debbie only briefly when I was a religious school teacher, and she was a music teacher at one of the day schools here in Houston many years ago. Her music touched so many parts of our lives....we felt the healing from Mi Shebarach during the ups and down of our fertility issues, sang along to her Concert at the Del during my son's birth, included Lechi Lach at his bris, returned to listening to the Concert at the Del during our trips to Russia to adopt both of our daughters, gained healing again getting through our 1st daughter's death, then, listened to so many of Debbie's songs as we rejoiced after bringing our 2nd daughter home from Russia, then used the Rainbow song at her naming and Lechi Lach again at our son's Bar Mitzvah...Of course, one of my favorites, which is also one of her silliest songs, the Thanksgiving song, is one I play each year when my 83 year old mom and I prepare for Thanksgiving...So, like the old Kodak commercial....Debbie's songs evoke the moments and the memories of our life....Her voice, music & spiritually will always remain a part of our family forever. So, to Debbie: LaHitraot and may you always be a blessing....
How do I remember Debbi? Not feeling connected to temple or services friends invited me to a concert..Who? I asked..Debbie Friedman was the reply..I had no clue who this woman was but I was assured by my friends that I and my daughter would love her music. The music from her beautiful voice caused my toddler to jump from my arms and dance in the way only a little one can dance..Full abandon! Over the years we bought her cd's and went to Debbie's concerts.. Watching her funeral today seemed unreal but as speeches were given the reality that she was gone became all to real.. What her music has done for me is brought me back to G-d through song..Why speak it when it can be sung? Debbie is gone but what she has left behind will travel through the generations to come..
Songs, Prayers and Tears from the Heart: A Tribute to Debbie Friedman z”l In the summer of 1971, a “wet behind the ears” assistant rabbi from Portland Oregon was invited to spend two weeks at Camp Swig, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations camp in Saratoga, California. The purpose was to serve on the faculty and better connect with students from Congregation Beth Israel whose families sent their children to the camp for Jewish enrichment and fun. Never having attended a “sleep away” camp in my entire life, this was a “she-he-che-ya-nu moment” for me. I arrived in the rustic setting and shown to my cabin. As I was unpacking there was a fateful knock on my cabin door. I opened it, and was greeted by my next-door neighbor. “I’m Debbie Friedman,” she said.... and the rest is history! Debbie was a smiling, young, frisky, talented, irreverent and venerated musician around whom I soon learned the activities at the camp seemed to evolve. She was from the Chicago / Minneapolis area, and her first album “Sing Unto God” had just been released. She thought she was “hot stuff!” ... and apparently so did everyone else at Camp Swig! We took an immediate liking to each other and she promised to “show me the ropes,” and let me know all that I needed to know. She escorted me to meals, she showed me all the places to “hang out,” and in short served as my “key” to open all doors at Camp Swig. In that brief moment of connection, from that first knock on my cabin door, I had no idea what an impact Debbie Friedman would have and the pivotal role she would play in shaping the path of my professional and spiritual development. It was only when I first watched her lead singing following every meal that I became aware of her skills as a teacher, Jewish leader and musician. The fast of Tisha B’Av was coming up and Debbie asked if I would help her prepare an evening program for campers and staff. She had just written a setting to the poem by the Russian poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, “Laugh at All My Dreams” and wanted to juxtapose the verses of her song with chapters from the book of Lamentations which is traditionally read on Tisha b’Av. Working closely with Debbie taught me what a perfectionist she was, and how, if we wanted our work to have meaning, we need to be hard on ourselves. For instance, it would take her many minutes to tune her guitar – an eternity to get every string “just right.” She demanded that each detail of this program needed to fit together and flow properly. She wanted to teach the song (no song sheets here!) in her own inimitable style. Leading with a phrase and then having the group sing along. In the end, it was a magical hour around a campfire which stays indelibly in my mind’s eye. I was blessed to collaborate with Debbie in 1974 at the UAHC’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica Mississippi when I relocated to Temple Sinai in New Orleans. By now she was an iconic figure in the world of Jewish music, although many cantors did not recognize the impact she was having on the next generation of Jewish leaders and congregants, every rabbi who worked with her or watched her interact with campers and congregants knew they were in the presence of a genius who would shape the face of Jewish music for generations. As the years passed Debbie and I (and later Cyrille) met at CAJE conferences, NATE conferences and UAHC Biennials. When she was stricken with a strange illness - a reaction to a medication – which affected her vision, Debbie Cyrille and I had a long talk during which she explained how her life had been impacted by the realization of the power of prayer and its impact on her own spirituality. She told us that she was working on a healing prayer which she hoped would become a part of the mainstream liturgy, along with an album of music which would provide inspiration for those seeking healing and spiritual renewal. The following year at a CAJE conference in San Diego, we joined Debbie’s volunteer choir and learned the music which had grown within her soul. Reb Nachman’s Prayer, the Morning Blessings, and others were introduced at this gathering. I was instrumental in bringing Debbie and her music to Temple B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City. Our renewal services which featured Debbie’s music attracted hundreds. How blessed Cyrille and I feel to have been able to share a part of our lives with this gifted, inspirational human being. In 2008, she selected another verse to concluded her MiSheberach. In many ways it was prophetic. Many years ago, Debbie had given me permission to conclude the MiSheberach with her “Halleluyah,” since I felt that in this way we could pray that our prayers for healing would be answered. But Debbie found a better way to enhance her iconic prayer. She selected Psalm 126:5 (found in the Shabbat Birkat HaMazon) “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.” We, Debbie’s admirers and disciples by the thousands are sowing in tears as we mourn her loss. And yet, we will continue to sing unto God in joy for the gift of her life and talent, in addition to all the songs and prayers she taught us so well. Zichronah livracha! The memory and melodies of Debbie Friedman will be a blessing and inspiration for generations to come.

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