Memories of Debbie Friedman
Little did I know that when I was a Sunday School student in Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1960’s, that this person standing in front of us, teaching us music with her guitar, a young lady not quite three years older than I, was going to take that guitar and transform my world, along with the Jewish world.
Little did I know that, when I came back home in my freshman year of college, and she gave me a cassette of some music she had written and was in the midst of recording (Sing Unto God), that my friend would grow up to be a leader of our movement and a legend in the Jewish community. She gave me this tape so that I could listen to it and transcribe the music for her, since she herself did not read music. I am glad I have kept that tape for the last 40 years, for little did I know that my friend would grow up to be Debbie Friedman.
Little did we youth-groupers know in the chadar ochel (dinning hall) of Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, as she taught us these songs she had just written, like “Sing Unto God,” and prayers she has set to her own music like “Dodi Li” and “Lecha Dodi,” that what she first taught to us would soon be sung in our synagogues and in synagogues throughout the world for the next two generations.
The Jewish world has lost a very precious soul, Deborah Lynn Friedman. There are a handful of us who lost a very special life-long friend.
You can’t really understand Debbie unless you understand the community in which she developed. We were part of the Reform youth movement. Our NFTY region was called NoFTY, the Northern Federation of Temple Youth, spanning Wisconsin, Minnesota, parts of North and South Dakota and Iowa. Inspired and encouraged by the Temple Educator at Mt. Zion, Mike Fefferman, Debbie became a NoFTY song leader and NoFTY became Debbie’s family and musical incubator. She had started to write music while in Israel on Kibbutz, and we NoFTYites were the first ones she taught this music to at our conclaves at Olin-Sang (later Ruby) Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. We were fun, we were funny and irreverent, often crude and downright gross. We cared deeply about Judaism and being Jewish, and above all, we loved to sing. And Debbie was simply one of us.
Yes, there were other truly fine song-leaders at the time along with Debbie, both at Olin-Sang and at the NFTY national Camp Kutz. They taught us the current Israeli songs and songs of the chalutzim. They taught us the love/peace/protest songs of Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, and Jacques Brel, as well as Hebrew texts set to music by contemporary composers like the hasidically influenced Shlomo Carlebach and a young Michael Isaacson. But what Debbie did was different. It was not just that Debbie put Jewish texts to music that sounded like the music of our generation; she wrote in our language (English) with the music that was already in our hearts. What Debbie did for us – and for the Jewish world at large – was epitomized by her signature song, the title of her first album, “Sing Unto God.” Debbie gave us our Jewish voices , voices which could not only express our connection with God and with each other, but which nurtured those connections in ways that transformed us. We were singing about God and to God – a new song that was our song.
Little did we know that when we did a NoFTY Reunion a couple of years ago where Debbie was her usual generous, boisterous, funny and caring self, staying up until past 2 AM singing and laughing, that it would be the last time that many of us would be with her.
Debbie and I kept in touch through the years and when she was performing near me, she brought me up on the stage with my flute and it was like we were back in our youth group days. Some of her new songs I heard for the first time literally while I was on stage with her. She would simply say, “Here is something new – you can figure it out.” Her encouragement and personal affirmation through the years meant a great deal to me and helped me keep faith in myself as a rabbi.
In the days since her passing, many of former NoFTYites have expressed how blessed we were to have had her among us that one last time. Here are but a few of those thoughts:
There is some consolation for me that in November we will sing together in celebration of the joy that is our memory of Debbie. We were all lucky to know her just as Debbie our song leader and for me the most raucous, rude and funny person I ever met, and also a selfless friend and shoulder to cry on. – Judge Linda Portnoy, Seattle
How amazing for us who NoFTYized with her as our song leader back in Minnesota/NorthDakota/Wisconsin/Iowa youth, now spread out over the continent, to have shared Debbie and her music as a unifying theme through our young adulthood and middle age lives, even sharing her with our kids and probably already (at least for others) grandchildren. Hard to believe, and terribly sad, that Debbie will not grow old with us. – Betsy Platkin Teutsch, Philadelphia.
My own feelings now were best expressed this week by Dr. Jonathan Weinberg of Boston, former NoFTY president (1969-1970): So very sad for all of us and for so many people. I felt special to Debbie, and I’m sure I was, but it was also because she held so many people as special and made people feel special.
Our second NoFTY reunion this coming November (11/11/11) in Oconomowoc will be suffused with her presence as we share our common loss and celebrate the tremendous impact she has on us in our youth and throughout our lives.
Debbie’s song, “Lechi Lach,” includes the words from Torah: “You shall be a blessing.” This I do know: Debbie was and always will be a blessing in my life, in the life of my family, and in the lives of all those whom she touched, encouraged, inspired, healed, enabled to sing unto God. And for this, I will be forever grateful.