Debbie Friedman

Debbie Friedman died yesterday, January 9th. If you are not Jewish or a musician, you might not know that Debbie Friedman was a composer and musician whose influence on Jewish music was profound. She infused the sounds of 60s and 70s folk music into prayers and songs making Jewish music contemporary and accessible to North American Jews of all ages. She made over 20 albums and sang at Carnegie Hall as well as countless other synagogues, churches and concert venues.

It was my sister Rachel who emailed me the news. If you didn’t know already, Rachel is always the first person to alert me to deaths of all famous people be they actors, sports figures, politicians or musicians. The subject line yesterday read, “HUGE death”. Debbie was strictly A-list.

I knew who Debbie Friedman was but I had never seen her in concert, and until today, I couldn’t name 5 of her songs. So, I went surfing on the web. “That one is hers?” “She wrote that song?” “I had no idea that was a Debbie Friedman song!” I must have listened to an hour’s worth of Debbie Friedman songs by the time I called it quits.

As I’m scrolling through videos taking in her androgynous style, if you can call it style, I thought to myself, “Hmmm. Folk singer, lesbian or both?” Sometimes, it’s difficult to make these kinds of important distinctions. And I went web searching once more. It took me ages to find a couple of obscure references to the fact that Debbie Friedman was a lesbian. Yet, in the growing list of articles announcing her death last night, not a single one made mention of the fact that Debbie Friedman was gay or that she might have been survived by a partner.

The director of our Jewish preschool called while I was writing this blog. She wanted to know if I could sub for a teacher in the morning, but before she could even say, “Hello,” I asked, “Did you know Debbie Friedman was a lesbian?” She did. “Ok, well don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m going to assume that if YOU knew she was a lesbian, most everyone else probably did, too.” She agreed that was a fair assumption.

I called Rachel.

Deborah: Did EVERYONE know Debbie Friedman was a lesbian?

Rachel: No.

D: Did you know?

R: No. Do we actually know this for a fact?

D: Seems to be common knowledge. I mean, if our preschool director knew, it’s likely lots of people knew. Word on the street is that she initially wanted to be a cantor, but congregations refused to hire an out, lesbian cantor, so she took it on the road. But why is it that not a single article mentions that she’s gay or that she was shafted by her own people because of it?

R: That’s not who she is, Honey, just like that’s not who you are.

D: True, but it needs to be said.

R: But why should it matter?

D: It shouldn’t, but it does. If being gay were not an issue in any synagogue, it wouldn’t matter. But until then, we have to hold up our upstanding, gay Jews and say, ‘Hey! This one’s a winner! Her love of Judaism was infectious, and her music enabled so many of us to connect to our religion, find a deeper meaning in our prayers and have fun singing Jewish songs. And she was a lesbian. And it shouldn’t matter.’ But no one is saying it. Why?

R: Sounds like you’ve got the scoop. Get writing.

D: Are you trying to get rid of me?

R: There’s a chance I might get lucky tonight. Hey! Are you writing this down? Stop it!

D: It’s been so long since I’ve been able to suck a blog out of you.

R: Well, maybe you should have posted that story I told you about the slit log.

D: Yeah. I did write that one up. It’s on my PC somewhere, and ever since I switched to Mac… What was the story? Evan wanted to play the slit log?

R: He wanted to stop taking piano lessons, but we said he had to take an instrument. He decided he would play the slit log, instead.

D: Well, maybe I can work that story into this post. I bet Debbie Friedman played the slit log….if you know what I mean.

R: Nice.

D: Maybe I’ll bring a slit log to services this Shabbat in honor of Debbie Friedman. I’m leading the children’s services this week. We’ll sing some of her songs, and I’ll tap out the beat on the slit log, and I’ll say: ‘Debbie Friedman wrote that song, boys and girls, and she liked vagina. And now, she’s dead. Shabbat Shalom!’

R: Good luck with that.

D: Thanks. Good luck, tonight. Hope Ron plays your slit log.

R: Thanks.

21 thoughts on “Debbie Friedman

  1. Sorry to hear about this death. Being neither Jewish or a musician I didn’t know about Debbie Friedman, however, I understand your feelings about her sexuality being ignored at the time of her death.

    I am a Seventh-day Adventist, and a lesbian, and I wish that my faith was as inclusive of your sexuality as your Jewish pre-school is. It encourages me to hear of your inclusion in these aspects of your community’s life.

    Good luck, as your sister Rachel said, with playing your slit log (both in services and elsewhere!)… And long may you continue to highlight the vital contributions of all upstanding people.

  2. Please do not disrespect Debbie Friedman after her passing. She was an amazing and spiritual person. That is what defines her. By discussing and presenting what you did here disrespects her being and her essence.

  3. Please do not disrespect Debbie Friedman after her passing. She was an amazing and spiritual person. That is what defines her. By discussing and presenting what you did here disrespects her being and her essence.

  4. It is not at all disrespectful to describe Debbie Friedman in the totality of who she was, which includes being a lesbian. In fact, I first came across Debbie Friedman’s music in the context of “Womyn’s” music – she clearly identified as a lesbian and a feminist as well as a Jew. To imply that her sexuality is a source of shame, is in fact homophobia as is the resounding silence in the Jewish community. You would never suggest that being Jewish is irrelevant, or something to be silent about – that is equally true of Debbie Friedman’s lesbianism. I’ve never come across this blog before, but I thank the blogger for honoring Debbie Friedman’s life and legacy. May her memory be a blessing.

    1. The issue isn’t that she felt or didn’t feel her “sexuality is a source of shame” as you mentioned. Doesn’t someone have a right to privacy? If she chose to not publicize this aspect of her life, for whatever reason, didn’t she have the right to that? She was an amazing talent and a good, kind person. That is what should be talked up. The rest was her choice…

  5. Thank you so much for your post, Marj! I do appreciate how lucky we are to have found a congregation as welcoming as ours. I hope you have found strength and support outside of your religious community. We bloggers are always good for a virtual hug, too! xo

    Anon, I agree that Debbie was an amazing person, musician, Jew, feminist and lesbian. I respect all that she was. We are saddened by her loss, and I hope we can all find comfort in her memory.

    Thank you for your comments, Rachel and gabriella, and thank you for honoring Debbie with me.

  6. And for anyone who wants to know how it ended, it seems the best way to honor Debbie Friedman is through abstinence – at least that’s what Ron said last night. Hmmpf!

    Rachel (the sister)

  7. We do not yet live in a post-gay society so, of course, it matters.

    p.s. Rachel – call me so that I can transcribe our conversations onto my blog because I have writer’s block and need some material. You have my number.

  8. …Such a beautiful life and soul was Debbie, a life which was only added to by her “life-partner,” whomever she may be. I was shocked and dumb-struck when the rabbi officiating at the funeral painfully, in slow verbal moment, noted Debbie as a sister and a daughter, etc, and never noted Debbie as a partner to someone unnamed but, I can only imagine, quite loved.

    A eulogy is for the living. Debbie’s life partner is one of the “living.” There was no doubt regarding Debbie’s sexuality, as is no doubt about her musicality and contributions to Judaism. If only her life partner was as homored as was her music and her family of origin. A disservice was done this morning by a rabbi who failed to note this other important facet of her life.

    If so many who were professionally and spirituality could have been included, in what Rabbi Naomi Cohen noted as “Debbie’s tapestry,” then too, Debbie’s life partner could have been at least mentioned.

    May this righteous woman be remembered as a blessing ….fully.

    Rav K

  9. Rav K, I can only imagine that the family expressed wishes to keep her personal life out of the service. It could very well be that Debbie wanted it that way, too. Still, carving out such an integral part of a person’s being saddens me, too.

    Since posting this entry, there has been much heated debated online and on twitter regarding whether or not publicizing her identity in full is appropriate, respectful, necessary, etc. I believe that the silence surrounding her lesbianism only invited conversation as opposed to maintaining any kind of privacy.

    Furthermore, Debbie would have been very sad to see how people are behaving towards each other in her name when her life’s mission was to connect us to Judaism and to each other.

    The subject of homosexuality continues to divide us, and I do think Debbie could have been that person to bridge the gap between our people. It’s a shame that anyone (Debbie, her family, our community) compartmentalizes relationships and hides them as if they are bad.

    Thank you so much for your comment.

    As far as the slit log goes, Pencil, that’s private! Just kidding. I’m working on it.

  10. Why people think it is OK to dismiss love I’ll never understand :-(, maybe it is because they really don’t understand love themselves; I can’t think of another valid reason.

    I don’t think the discussion about Debbie Friedman was in any way disrespectful. There are so many aspects of a person’s life that defines them; we are not after all single dimensional people.

    Thank you for the NY Times link and the virtual hug – both appreciated.
    Hugs back xo

  11. I agree that it is essential, if one is to truly honor a person, to acknowledge all aspects of her identity. I also agree with you that, given the exclusion that so many gay people face in religious contexts, holding her up as a good Jew and a lesbian – both at once – is helpful to many.

    But I’m curious at all of the comments wondering at the exclusion of Debbie’s partner from all discussion. Is anyone certain that she was partnered? Even wonderful, influential people can end up being single, by choice or by accident… perhaps there was no mention of a partner because there was no partner?

  12. This just in from a gay couple at my temple and someone who knew her – Debbie Friedman did NOT have a partner. Just thought I’d share.

    Rachel (D’s sister)

  13. Don’t know where you guys get your information and all but I personally knew Debbie very well and worked for her, but she was most definetly 100% NOT a lesbian. So please take this off, her family is grieved by this false information spreading around, Thank You.

  14. This entry (even as I read it on October 2, 2011) moved me very much — the combination of loving discovery and restoration of someone’s full humanity — and your usual funny, distinctive voice. I haven’t heard of Debbie Friedman, but will now set out to discover her music. Thank you for yet another precious gift, Deborah.

  15. you guys are missing the point. Debbie may have been talented and touched many lives with her music, but in the grander scheme of things, God always looks down on homosexuality and lesbianism. For those of you who think I am a homophobe, get a life. Ultimately one day we will all meet our maker and then what do we say, that your Torah meant nothing!

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