Debbie Friedman: Why I Am a Jew

By Debbie Friedman

Published January 10, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Singer and songwriter Debbie Friedman, who died January 9 of pneumonia, wrote this letter to Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered in 2002 on assignment in Pakistan. In it she expresses her own deep connection to her faith. It was published in the 2005 anthology “I Am a Jew: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl,” and is republished here with the permission by Jewish Lights, the publisher.


Dear Daniel,

This is the first time I have had to think about the “why” of the words “I am a Jew.” I have never defined myself or my work before.

I was born into a Jewish family, exposed to Jewish experiences and Jewish people.

The concept “I am a Jew” never crossed my mind until I was asked to reflect on your words.

I actually chose to be who I am. I felt that my life was incomplete. I was looking for connection. I was always drawn to the Jewish people and our history and particularly to the values that were so easily translated and incorporated into life. It chose me back when at a point I began to interpret those values. Through songs and prayers I was able to reconstruct the same ideas and share them with others.

In your last moments, when you uttered the words “I am a Jew,” you gave some people their first experience of acknowledging their Jewish selves. Those who never identified before were awakened by your strength and conviction.

In every interaction — be it a concert, or when I function as a sh’licha tzibur, or at a healing service — in any of my relationships, no matter what I do, I am a Jew. I feel the presence of the Divine and a link to the past. I know there are many who have come before me who have made their mark. They, like you, have left pieces of themselves so that we, the living, might incorporate them into our lives in order to reconstruct the places in our world that have been shattered.

I am a Jew because I know that it is not meant for me to do this work alone. I am engaged both with the Holy One and with all of those with whom I am involved.

I am a Jew because I know the world that you and I and many others like us envision is a world yet to be created by us.

I am a Jew because in spite of all the hatred and violence in this world, I believe we must hope and live together as if the world were sheltered beneath the wings of the Shekhinah. We must live as if we were enveloped in a world of love and compassion. I am a Jew because together we must pray for the day when all people will sit beneath the vine and fig tree—when none shall be afraid and when all the words that come forth shall be words that speak of the family of humanity.

The world you had envisioned is a world that we will continue to build through song and prayer, through action and acts of lovingkindness.

Often we dreamers are laughed at for our lofty thoughts. In truth it is love and peace that are two values that cannot be touched or defiled by anyone. They are held in one’s heart and soul in the most sacred parts of us, and they soar to the highest heights in the heavens.

I had to write you because, though we never met, we were engaged in a shared dream of a world in which all human beings would be seen as precious—to be celebrated and loved.

This piece was not to have been a tribute to you, but it would have been hard to write about “I am a Jew” without making reference to you, since you were and will always be the one who made me think about why I am a Jew.

Your memory is a blessing.

The above excerpt by Debbie Friedman is from I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. © 2005 Dr. Judea and Ruth Pearl. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091 www.jewishlights.com.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.