The poet-laureate of the Jewish people, Chaim Nachman Bialik, once wrote a poem in which he extolled someone who died “before his time and before anyone’s time. He had one more song to sing, but now that song is stilled forever.”
That’s how I feel, and the way that many of us feel, about the untimely death of Debbie Friedman, perhaps the foremost composer of synagogue music of our generation. No, that hardly begins to express it. Debbie Friedman created a revolution in Jewish music. She changed the way that American Reform Jews sang. Simply put: She caused us to imagine our liberation from both the minor-key melodies of Eastern Europe and the large organ sound of Central Europe. She took Reform Jewish music out of the choir lofts, and she gave it back to the people, where it rightly belonged.
Just as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were the musical great-uncles of anyone who tuned a guitar in the 1950s and 1960s, Debbie was our inspiration and guide. Countless musicians and singer-songwriters wanted to be like her, or to attempt to do what she had done. And in so doing, they created a truly American Jewish nusach, or musical mode. It not only got us singing; it got us praying as well.
This musical revolution started in the Reform movement’s summer camps and in its youth movement. But it did not stop there. No — it moved into the highest echelons of Reform Jewish living, to the movement’s largest synagogues and to its national biennial conventions. She utterly changed the aesthetic of Reform Judaism and with it all American non-Orthodox Jewish movements.
Judaism has seen its share of aesthetic revolutions over the years. But rarely has an aesthetic revolution walked hand in hand with a theological revolution. Debbie Friedman’s best-known song is “Mi Shebeirach,” the musical prayer for healing that has now become virtually canonical in the non-Orthodox synagogue.
Granted, the custom of uttering the “Mi Shebeirach” for those who are ill is not new. It is quite traditional. But by giving it music, Debbie gave it new life. In so doing, she reanimated the theological possibility — once likely to be deemed heretical in its non-rationalism by many Reform Jews — that communal prayer could actually have a healing effect on the individual. Debbie didn’t just sing it; she lived it.
Anyone writing a history of contemporary Jewish introspection, celebration and playful spirituality would have to focus his or her attention on the career and life achievement of Debbie Friedman. She pursued her vocation with style and with a fantastic sense of humor, never taking herself or her audience too seriously. She treated her fellow musicians and composers with utter love and care. It is impossible to count the number of composers she encouraged and nurtured. She knew, wisely, that she had helped midwife an entirely new musical expression, and that there was room in that “hall” for everyone.
It is a matter of sad, poignant irony that Debbie died at the beginning of the week that Jews mark as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of song. It is the Shabbat in which we read — no, we sing — of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and how Miriam led the women in joyous singing. In the Haftorah, Miriam’s song morphs into the song of Deborah, a celebration of military victory that is our tradition’s oldest song. It is another poignant, yet sweet and even poetic, irony that two of Debbie’s most famous compositions celebrate both Miriam and Deborah, her biblical namesake. They are in heaven, but here on earth they are enshrined in history as the greatest Jewish women composers. And now, Debbie Friedman takes her place with them.
May it not be too outrageous to suggest that at this very moment Debbie is in the olam haba, the world to come — and that she is jamming with Miriam, Deborah, Hannah Senesh, Ofra Haza, Naomi Shemer and every anonymous Jewish woman who ever sang to a child, or to a student, or to a lover, or, certainly, to God.
May her memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the rabbi of Temple Israel in Columbus, Ga., and the author of several books on Jewish spirituality, all published by Jewish Lights Publishing.