Debbie Friedman z’l Tribute
On January 9, 2011, Debbie Friedman (zichrona livracha, may her memory be for a blessing) was taken from this world. Her music inspired generations of Jews to sing unto God in a new way. When it comes to Jewish liturgical composers, we often speak of how music can live on even when we are gone. It’s hard to compare Jewish composers from years ago to an individual who was so much more than the notes she jotted on the page. Debbie commanded the attention of those assembled, whether it was in a concert hall or an intimate camp setting. Influenced by the folk stars around her, Debbie Friedman was a remarkable musician and master song leader. Those attributes that made Debbie the person she was may always be remembered, never duplicated.
I had the honor of conducting a memorial sing-along last night at the Jacksonville Jewish Center. Being the 1 yr anniversary of her passing is not the same as a yartzeit (corresponding to the hebrew date), but then again there was nothing typical to how Debbie Friedman made Judaism relevant for so many contemporary Jews. I was humbled at the amazing turnout, many of whom did not really know what to expect from my “Monday Night Musicale” title. We watched a tribute video created a few years back by URJ, and I followed by giving some personal reflections of how Debbie Friedman influenced my musical tastes, both in the synagogue and outside of it. Debbie Friedman’s music spans beyond the walls of a synagogue, beyond the set matbea (order) of the ritual service. If there was a prayer to be made, whether in Hebrew or in English, her music spoke in a profound way. In many Conservative congregations, Friedman’s influence seems limited to a few liturgical settings, with the occasional addition of her powerful Mi Shebeirakh prayer. Friedman’s songs such as “Kaddish D’rabbenan” are inspired by liturgy but speak to the common congregant through Friedman’s own words. Other selections are inspired by quotes from famous Jewish figures (e.g “Im Tirtzu”) Tanakh (e.g “Not by Might”). Friedman had a great sense of humor in writing “I’m a Latke” and amongst others. I’ve come to realize that in all her works, no matter the language or context, Debbie Friedman made you feel like you were praying. The songs become relevant prayers by speaking to those who sing them. We don’t need to be in a chapel to thank God for the gifts in our lives. We can bless our families, teachers, and God through the notes we sing anywhere and at anytime. It makes a powerful statement that in everyday life, we can sanctify the mundane, make the ordinary spiritually uplifiting, and make any space where music is played a sacred place.
We concluded our evening with the singing of Debbie Friedman’s Birkot Havdalah. “Havdalah,” meaning separation, is sung Saturday evening (and following festivals) as we transition from holy to mundane, from the sacredness of Shabbat to the ordinary of the week. Just we created that sacred space last night, I hope that as we reflect on Debbie Friedman: the teachings, the lyrics, the music and the person, we can find moments within the ordinary to create the extraordinary, to bring music to life, to bring holiness to this world.