Friedman, as Those She Touched Remember Her

Published January 12, 2011, issue of January 21, 2011.
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Three people who know knew Debbie Friedman, the prolific singer and performer who died on January 9, share their memories of her. Compiled by Debra Nussbaum Cohen.

“Debbie’s relationships were deep and intense, even with strangers. She once allowed me to take her to a doctor’s appointment, which, for those who knew her, meant she was in serious need of help. We arrived to find the waiting room filled to overflowing, and wrangled a seat for her while I approached the staff. By the time I returned, she was off in a corner, working the crowd. She had already learned almost all the patients’ and two receptionists’ names, including their family issues, jobs, dreams and taste in jokes. She was well into cross-pollinating everyone’s medical advice when a nurse arrived to pry her away. In those few minutes, she had energized herself through these strangers, as they had, in turn, been energized through her.

“We were neighbors as well as friends. Debbie lived one and a half blocks from me on West End Avenue, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. //We talked endlessly about God and our search to fulfill what God might want of us in this life.//After a visit, we’d walk each other home; that is, she’d walk me home, then I’d walk her home — and so it would repeat, sometimes for hours. In the end we’d find the midpoint between our buildings and simply stop conversation in the middle of the block, in the middle of a sentence. And that is just how she left us. In the middle.”

Arlene Agus, adviser to the Jewish Heritage Initiative of Jewish Child Care Association and teacher at the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning

“My brother died of AIDS in 1987, and [Debbie] became a very regular presence in my life toward the end, because she knew I was having difficulty coping with it. She was relentless in asking how others were. It was almost like radar: She knew that someone else was having tsoris. She meant a great deal to me.”

Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president and chief operating officer, Union for Reform Judaism

“When she was a week old, my newborn daughter had seizures that the neurologist /diagnosed as symptoms of ‘a significant stroke.’ After spending her second week of life in intensive care, we returned home, with her prognosis still uncertain.

“Despite this, I was eager to celebrate Aliza’s simchat bat, the naming ceremony for a baby girl. I knew Debbie Friedman slightly, from interviewing her and attending a couple of healing services, and called her for advice. As soon as she heard my voice, she knew something serious was wrong.

“Debbie had a concert in Chicago, but she insisted on coming to sing to Aliza. She rearranged her flight and walked into our Brooklyn living room. She sweetly drew out our son, shy in front of our gathered friends and family, by singing his favorite song, her “Aleph Bet,” together. Then she sang to my daughter, “Mi Shebeirach” and “L’chi Lach,” blessing her on her life’s journey, before picking up her guitar case and setting off to fly to her next concert.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Forward contributing editor and author of “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways To Welcome Baby Girls Into the Covenant” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001)

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