Friday, January 14, 2011

Remembering Debbie Friedman

It is with considerable sadness that I devote this week's posting to mark the passing of Debbie Friedman.

Perhaps you've never heard Debbie's name before.  But, if you've stepped into a synagogue in the last 30 years so, I can virtually guarantee that you've heard her music.

She is almost single-handedly responsible for rejuvenating the musical content of American Reform worship.  She drew on her wide knowledge and appreciation of American folk melodies of the 1960s and 70s, and applied the genre to Jewish liturgical texts and themes.

I first experienced her music during my three years as a camper at Camp Harlam, the URJ camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, not too far from where I grew up.  My Jewish experience at camp was punctuated by the music.  Like so many others who have spent a summer at camp, my Jewish identity was brought to life through song.  Prayer suddenly became spiritual - and meaningful - in large part because of Debbie's music.

The first time I saw her in concert was at the NFTY National Convention held in Washington, DC in the winter of 1995.  We all piled into buses at the hotel and went to the cavernous sanctuary at Washington Hebrew Congregation, where she performed.  What a moment for me: to have the chance to experience, in person, the composer of all of those melodies that had made such a deep impression on me just a few years earlier!

I remember, at that concert, that somebody made a big deal about insisting that no one should take any flash photography during the show.  I only learned later that she suffered from an illness - and that one symptom of the illness was acute discomfort from flashes of light.

That illness, which was never fully diagnosed - and certainly not cured - stayed with her all through the years.  It is incredible, to me, how she transformed her own sense of pain, suffering, and struggle - into music that would ease the pain and suffering of others.  That's a gift that she gave to anyone who ever heard, and was moved by, her rendition of the Mi Shebeirach (prayer of healing).

There were lots of other Debbie Friedman moments over the years: other concerts, cameo appearances that she made at Jewish conferences that I attended, and even the first time Amy and I played a Debbie Friedman CD for Siona.  Her music was a core part of the Jewish soundtrack of my life.

To get a sense of her impact on the Jewish world (and particularly our Reform movement), watch this tribute which was produced as part of the presentation of the prestigious Schindler Award, which Debbie received at the 2007 URJ Biennial here in San Diego:

You can find obituaries marking Debbie's passing in: the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Forward.

You can add your own reflections about Debbie's music - and its impact on you - here on this blog in the comments section below, or here on a page sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism.

You can buy Debbie's music on Amazon or itunes.

So many of the remembrances that have been flooding in online about Debbie have had a particularly serious tone to them.  Here's something a little bit more lighthearted, offered up in the spirit that 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.'  Enjoy:

May her memory - and her music - live on to be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom.

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