Debbie Friedman’s memory is a blessing. Beyond the hundreds of songs she composed, she was a pioneer of an entire genre of Jewish religious music (sometimes known as “American nusach”) that has revolutionized American Jewish prayer. My memories of Debbie are too numerous to put in a comment, so I’m putting some of them in a new post.
Everything I know about songleading I learned from Debbie Friedman. She could lead a group in song (whether she was performing a concert or leading a service) with her little finger. I had the opportunity to study songleading with her at Hava Nashira for four years. At my first Hava Nashira in 1997, in Debbie’s songleading workshop, it was my turn to get up and teach a song to the group, and then be critiqued by the group. After I finished, the first thing Debbie said was “You need to take off your clothes. Get naked.” After I got over the shock, it became clear that she was speaking figuratively; she meant that when we lead a group in song or prayer, we need to shed our inhibitions. And she was right; I have taken her advice to heart ever since then (as well as laughed many times about the time Debbie Friedman told me to take off my clothes).
In some ways she was a larger-than-life figure. She composed hundreds of songs without knowing how to read music; if you asked her for the chords to a song, she would say that she didn’t know the names of the chords, but she would play it so you could watch and write them down (”…and then it’s this one with the two fingers over here…”). There was the time at NFTY Convention 1997 when she broke a string during “Miriam’s Song”, and the backup musicians kept on going while she removed the broken string, put on a new one, wound it, tuned it, and came back in for a triumphant final chorus. And then there was the time at Hava Nashira when the power was out on Shabbat morning. Before services began, Debbie taught her new melody for Yotzeir Or (”creator of light”). When we got to that point in the service, we sang Debbie’s Yotzeir Or… and all the lights went back on!
Yet despite her larger-than-life celebrity, Debbie Friedman never sought out the spotlight. Her goal was always (as she wrote in the liner notes to Sing Unto God back in 1972) “the importance of community involvement in worship”. Debbie was at Limmud NY in 2006, where I was leading the Shabbat team. We had asked Debbie to lead havdalah for the conference. Then, on Shabbat afternoon, she told me that she was having second thoughts, and didn’t think it would be appropriate for her to do it. She felt that she was already famous, and that Limmud should be an opportunity for a new generation to take the reins, and that it would be a step backwards for her to lead it. My thought as a program organizer was that this would have been a good conversation to have several weeks before, but now that it was a few hours before havdalah, it was too late to rethink the plan for an 800-person program. But Debbie persisted, and tried to encourage me, of all people, to do it. To be clear, she was Debbie Friedman, and I was (and still am) a nobody, but I was one of her students and she was encouraging me to take off my clothes. In the end, Debbie led havdalah after all, and it was amazing of course, but what made it amazing was the way she brought the whole room together in song.
May this be our blessing, amen.