After Debbie Friedman passed away I composed an email to some friends. Now that about a month has passed, I feel like I want to share it with all of you as well.
I know that you all have your own unique relationships with Debbie and her music. You all know what a huge impact she had on me, because she had a very similar impact on you. So much of my Jewish knowledge and love for Judaism came from listening and singing her music with my mom growing up. She is a huge reason I am in Cantorial school today. As long as I have known of her, she has been seriously ill. However, I always thought of her as invincible, kind of like kids think of their parents. She has stayed strong through so much and so, even though she had just been hospitalized, I still thought for sure she would pull through. I was shocked when I found out she passed away.
Of course many of you also know that HUC’s Cantorial program is now the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. I feel so honored to be a part of this program, named after someone who helped so many people connect to their spirituality and community through music.
HUC planned a Debbie Friedman Tribute that took place here at school this past Saturday night. Hundreds of people showed up. Israelis, American immigrants, Americans who were on vacation, NFTY EIE students, Hebrew University students…etc. Rabbi Ken Chasen flew out here to Jerusalem WITH Debbie’s guitar to play in the tribute!! He brought her guitar, the same guitar that was placed on her coffin at her funeral in California. I actually had the guts to ask him if I could play a few chords on it. Once I was holding it, I couldn’t even think of what to play. I just kind of fiddled around and thought about all of the places I had seen her play that same guitar at concerts, Biennials and Hava Nashira retreats. I thought of the hundreds of healing services she led with it. I remembered how at concerts she used to strum the last down beat of a song with her guitar high in the air, signaling to the audience the last note had arrived. It was pretty surreal.
A combination of Cantorial, Rabbinic and Education students here at HUC formed a choir and sang a beautiful arrangement of Lechi Lach that one of my fellow Cantorial students, Ben, conducted. I got to help lead Miriam’s Song, which felt great and so appropriate. Another fellow Cantorial student, Sara, led us in a gospel version of Debbie’s T’fillat Haderech, which I got to sing back up harmony on.
After the concert, some people stayed and continued to sing Debbie’s music. We even sang the Aleph Bet Song at the top of our lungs, like little kids.
During the concert I was reminded of how she would always sing her Mi Sheiberach at concerts. She would always say, “First, I will sing it to you. And then you can sing it back to me.” Do you guys remember that? All of a sudden it occurred to me… the first time through, she sang to me, and for the last 29 years I have been listening. Now, she is gone and it’s my turn to sing it back. It’s all of our responsibility to sing it back and to carry on the music that she started.
Thanks for listening to my thoughts and experiences.