Monday, January 10, 2011

You Shall be a Blessing: Debbie Friedman z'l

To stand in covenant with God is to accept a challenge
to regard one’s entire life as a channel for
bringing divine presence and blessing into the world.
We as a Jewish people, the people of Sinai, made such a commitment,
one to which we remain bound forever. To understand us Jews
is to realize that we are eternally devoted to that vision.
No matter how secular we may declare ourselves,
something within us remains priest at that altar.
--Rabbi Arthur Green

There is a lot going on in the world. There is a lot going on in my life, too, as we are packing and moving into a new life of our own making. And at our ages!

I have had several blog posts planned, some political and some personal, but they can wait.

Yesterday, I heard that Debbie Friedman died.
I put aside the boxes, the bubble wrap and the packing tape.
And I sat on a just-packed box of Siddurim and cried.

Although I can count the number of times I met her on both hands, she was one of those people that completely altered the direction of my life. Many Reform Jews of my generation can probably say the same thing. Debbie was a singer and songwriter who completely changed the world of Jewish Music, and the way worship services are conducted in Reform synagogues. And yet she had no formal training, did not read music, and never got the credentials that have become so very important in the Reform Jewish world.

Debbie's heart and soul were her credentials, and all of the fussy rabbis and cantors looking for degrees and checking for skills off of lists were undone by her energy, her joy, and her love for her work.

But for me, Debbie's influence was much more personal. I believe her music saved my life and confirmed to me my Jewish soul--the one that was standing at Sinai*-- though I didn't believe in that at the time.

*In the Talmud we are told that the soul of every Jew that has ever lived or ever will live stood at Sinai and directly experienced the giving of Torah, each one accepting the Covenant for herself.

My high school years were a living hell.
My Aspergian traits were in full flower, though I had never heard of Hans Asperger. In me resided a strange combination of idealism and social naivete that together made me a perfect candidate to be the class outcast. I went to a small private high school in a very socially conscious town, where social climbing was a blood sport, conducted both on and off the athletic fields. I am not an athlete, and to this day I possess that self-conscious awkwardness that plagues so many of us Aspies.

Things at home were difficult for me as well. There were aspects of my childhood home and family of origin that made it very difficult for me to believe that my differences had value, and that what I did or did not do made any difference at all. Depression is a common co-morbidity for Aspies, and I struggled with undiagnosed depression for most of high school and into the beginning of college. My parents had no idea of what to make of my moods, my social ineptness, my perseverations, and my passions. I was a strange little kid who grew into a very different and difficult teenager. I was vehement that they should leave me alone, and they did. To be fair,they were trying to sort out their rebellious middle child whose behavior required a great deal of attention, and it must have been overwhelming. They finally got a break with my even-tempered, mostly normal baby sister. But that was years later.

And into this difficult picture burst a short young woman with long flowing hair, unbounded energy, a huge guitar and an even huger voice.
My best friend and twin-sister-by-different-parents bought me her first album, Sing Unto God, from Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp where Debbie was a song leader, and I fell head over heels in love. In love with this voice and this music, and in love with Judaism and the Hebrew language through the music.

Using a copy of Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook (with transliteration) and a dusty little Hebrew dictionary I found at the university library, I sat down to teach myself Hebrew. Not yet a university student, I had to do that work at the library. I began to light a candle for Shabbat, hidden alone in my room, like a Spanish converso. I began to understand that somehow, those Jews in part of my family tree had reached out across space and time and bequeathed to me the soul that stood a Sinai. I have no better explanation for this.

My Hebrew study and my solitary practice were not terribly successful, but they stood me in good stead later, when as a college student I began attending services sporadically at the local Reform synagogue. It never occured to me to actually talk to a rabbi; I would go in, sitting with my best friend if she was there, and if she wasn't, I'd leave immediately after the service. Later, when as an adult I actually joined the Reform synagogue here in Albuquerque, I had learned a few social skills and actually talked to people. And I felt like I was coming home to a place I had never been before.

Throughout the years that followed as I studied Hebrew intensively, had an adult Bat Mitzvah at the age of 33 (only 20 years late), served for a while as a cantorial soloist, taught Hebrew, and took my own children through life-cycle ritual and Holy Days--throughout it all--Debbie's music kept the beat of my Jewish life. It was her melody that I sang to end Shabbat with the ceremony of Havdalah. It was her Shehecheyanu that I chanted at my Bat Mitzvah. It was her Misheberach with which I prayed for the sick. And it was her healing album, Renewal of Spirit, that brought me through breast cancer and gave me the courage to ask for the help I so desperately needed. And I sang Debbie's Arise, My Love at the reception after I married my dear Engineering Geek under the Chuppah.

It isn't as if Debbie was my only Jewish mentor. There are countless others who were angels unawares for different parts of my Jewish journey: My two rabbis, Paul Citrin and Joseph Black, challenged me to choose life in very different ways--and I wasn't such an easy student then, either. (Just ask them. Or better yet, don't ask). And my cantor's cantor, Jacqueline Shuchat Marx, taught me how to pursue happiness again after a very dark time. Glenda, my Hebrew teacher, pushed and prodded and mothered, helping me learn to be a grown-up, as well as starting me on the way as a Hebrew scholar. But Debbie was there through her music for the entire long, strange trip my life has been.

I did have the privilege of singing with her as her student at several CAJE (Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education) conferences, and I was able to thank her in person and sing "Days of Wine and Haroses" with her when she gave a concert at Congregation Beth Shalom in Santa Fe. I will never forget, when she came to give a concert at Congregation B'nei Israel in Albuquerque, her story of being stuck on the tarmac in an airplane at the Sunport. The reason for the delay escapes me now, but Debbie was having health problems even then, and I suppose it must have been uncomfortable for her. It was very early morning, pre-dawn, she said, and she was staring out of the little window at darkness, until, she said, "Suddenly, the mountains came out!" And her joy at their beauty was obvious in the energy with which she said it. That was Debbie, and that was something else that she reminded me of, something that with my Aspie tendency to see the glass as half-full, cracked and dingy, I too easily forget. There is beauty in the most unexpected places and in the most uncomfortable situations. Then she called all of the cantors and soloists in the audience to come up and sing Carlbach's Esa Enai (I look to the Mountains) with her.

Yes, Debbie and her music have been there for my entire Jewish journey.
Until now. And I feel as if, when she left us, she took a little piece of my soul with her.
As many Jews of my generation feel today, our crown is broken and a precious jewel has been taken from us.

And yet I know that her music remains. In particular, her song taken from the verse in B'reshit (Genesis) in which G-d tells Abraham to go to a new and strange place when Abraham is already somewhat advanced in age, speaks to me anew these days. It is not only about the journey of the young, but about the new adventures that await us, boundary crossers all, as we travel on our life's path. Each new step requires a choice. When G-d told Abraham to "GO!", old Abe still had a choice. But despite his age, and all the other reasons to stay in Haran, he went. The Hebrew words for G-d's command are lech l'cha--go to/for yourself!--the name of the song is the feminine of these words, Lechi L'ach:

L'simchat Chayim--to a joyful life!

Debbie Freidman has taught me that we are all meant to make of our lives a blessing. I have been a rather recalcitrant student, and it has taken me all these years to learn the lesson that finding joy in life is what makes our lives a blessing.

Debbie's name and her memory will be a blessing to me and to all who were touched by her energy, her music and that heart of hers.

Alev ha' Shalom, Debbie.


Brianna said...

I'm sorry.

Tullia said...

I'm sorry for your loss.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for (if I can be so bold)taking me on your private journey. Thanks too for sharing Ms. Friedman's beautiful voice.