I swore I would not call Debbie Friedman a rock star in this piece. It was too vague, too cliché, maybe even too off-putting a term to associate with contemporary religious music in a post-Scott Stapp world.
And then I watched her 2001 performance at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston — guitar in her hand, intensity in her eyes, crowd cheering as soon as they recognized the familiar story coming next. She launched into “Miriam’s Song,” one of her signature jams, a feminist folk-revival remix of the Passover story, and it’s hard not to jump right in with her. There are even children jumping and starting a conga line as she sings the iconic chorus, known to many a Jewish camp or youth group alum.
“Miriam’s Song” is catchy, driving in a way that feels like a far cry from what is conventionally portrayed as “Jewish music,” heavy on clarinets and minor key progressions and tsuris. It’s empowering, centering a Biblical woman leader. Although it should be acknowledged that, during her life, Friedman did not want to be defined by her sexuality in public, there’s something that feels queer about this music. It’s the ‘70s folk progression, the centering of the other, the hidden history, the lyrics about liberation and joy, and, yes, a whole lot about women dancing with timbrels.
“‘Miriam’s Song’ is written in a musical chord progression where you’re climbing up the mountaintop, reaching this expansive connection to the divine, and I love that feeling,” says Shira Kline, a former student of Friedman’s, a ritual artist and Jewish kiddie rock performer under the name ShirLaLa. “Debbie understood the music of release.”
Release is at the core of Friedman’s music and ethos. As she even wrote herself, “ultimately, our greatest healing will come when we use our suffering to heal another’s pain — ‘to release another from their confinement.’” That feeling of seeking release, whether through reflection or healing or ecstatic joy, especially in these deeply troubled times, is why generations of Jewish kids, queer or otherwise, still seek out Friedman’s music, why we’re still talking about and celebrating her today.
“It’s the sing-ability, how her melodies are gorgeous, gorgeous compositions,” says Julie Silver, a Jewish folk musician and a friend and mentee of Friedman’s. “And I think it’s those memorable, haunting or joyful or penetrating melodies that, just being human and showing her human soul in her lyrics, translating the way she wanted to. She knew you don’t have to do the ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ thing. She wrote like she talked.”
Like many Jewish kids who grew up in the Reform movement, Kline was raised on Friedman’s music, eventually attending and becoming a songleader at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), Friedman’s alma mater, where Friedman began Hava Nashira, a program to train the next generation of songleaders. Silver, too, was first introduced to Friedman’s music taught by other songleaders — by the time they met, Friedman was a big celebrity.
Her music feels so canon, so integral to the worship or communal experience now for so many Jewish folks, that it’s difficult to think about a time when she would have been considered pioneering or radical. But when she began composing and playing in 1972, Friedman, the daughter of a Kosher butcher and a self-taught musician, defied so many conventions. As Joanna Selznick Dulkin wrote in The Forward, even group singing was a wild concept in synagogues back then.
Silver recalls a story that Friedman’s late mother, Freda, shared with her: “Her husband was squeezing Freda by the arm when Debbie was singing, and he kept saying, ‘We’re gonna get excommunicated.’ Nobody knew what was gonna happen. And now, you cannot be a faith leader in Reform Judaism without being in on this music that she created.”
It’s something that feels true to her summer camp roots, and perhaps the reason so many Jewish kids are first exposed to her music in environments focused on building intimacy and community. “I felt like I could express myself as I was, based on some model of how it should be,” Silver says. “I never got the sense that Debbie was trying to rebuild the temple. She was building an entirely new institution.”
Kline crafts her concerts in a story arc, and emphasizes universal themes. She says using Jewish vocabulary and evoking joy, challenge and release to foster connection and making big concepts more accessible are all things she learned from Friedman.
Julie Silver’s music, which spans eight studio albums, follows in Friedman’s commitment to accessibility (she makes much of her sheet music available for free download) and to centering women and themes of healing and social justice. One recent song, “Sanctuary,” is a salient anthem for these times: “All of us are slaves until all of us are free / everyone needs sanctuary.”
“[Friedman’s] music included me,” Silver says. “So I wanted to write music that included other people, music that included women, music on different themes.”
Kline describes her as someone who “worked in othering,” and both Kline and Silver praised Friedman as someone who centered and created space for the experiences of marginalized people.
It is impossible to write about Friedman’s significance for queer Jewish people without acknowledging that Friedman herself had a complicated relationship with her sexual orientation and never wanted that aspect of her identity in the spotlight. As Friedman told Jonathan Mark of the New York Jewish Week in an interview excerpt published after her death: “They want me to come out. And I feel, hamayvin yaavin [those who know, know]. I’m out enough. I think I’ll ultimately be able to accomplish more just by living the way I’m living.”
She goes on to share a story with Mark about a Jewish educator who once told her partner, not knowing she was Friedman’s partner, that their rabbi refused to use Friedman’s music in the congregation because she was gay. In addition to concerns about how being publicly out might impact her career, Friedman said in interviews she wanted to keep the focus on spirituality and connecting people with the divine. “People are more uptight talking about God, more inhibited about God language and God concepts, than they are about sex,” she told Mark.
Friedman’s position is understandable. There are generational and cultural factors, but also, she was so deeply passionate about her life’s work, creating this beautiful music and educating people, cultivating relationships with God and each other. We all know (or we should) it is up to each individual as to how “out” they wish to be. No one owes anyone a grand-scale coming out.
But equally understandable is the position of Friedman’s mentees and queer Jewish community members who may have wanted Friedman to be more out. Having queer adults, role models, in a young person’s life makes the coming-out process a whole lot easier. Especially in a faith-based community, you look for signs that these important parts of your identity are not mutually exclusive, that you can be “both/and,” that you still may access the Divine without fear of rejection or worse.
Silver came up in the Reform movement at a time where coming out was still difficult, and she says even Friedman’s limitations were a model for her.
“How was the synagogue going to accept me?” Silver asks. “I loved the synagogue. I was consecrated in a Reform synagogue and youth group and music. It was impossible to think of a life back then where I could have come out. But as I grew older, there was a shift forward in the country, and even when Debbie couldn’t fully express it in her own life, she taught so much love. She taught love, and that was an example for me, to not leave out the things I want in my life, like a family and kids.”
Although Friedman was not comfortable being publicly out, she still was a generous and patient mentor for the next generation of LGBT Jewish songleaders and spiritual leaders. Kline says that when she was just coming out and in her first relationships, Friedman reached out to her and understood that Kline was in a relationship with another woman. Friedman’s sexuality was never a major outfacing part of her identity, Kline says, but she supported her queer and questioning students and had those conversations on a one-on-one basis.
“She taught me to integrate my queer side with my Jewish side,” she says. “She was queering Judaism that whole time. She really did that. And she was also protective of me in ways that she knew that I was going to have some challenges as an LGBT person in the mainstream world. So we had conversations around that. She just was a consciousness-raising person.”
Regardless of whether or not she was able to guide and heal and galvanize by being an out spiritual leader, Friedman’s music still guides and heals and galvanizes us. “L’Chi Lach,” a melodic, plaintive take on Abraham and Isaac in the desert, feels like a guiding hand on your shoulder. It acknowledges the uncertainty and discomfort of the journey — one that can be applied to spirituality, sexuality, gender affirmation, all of it so ripe for metaphor — and offers comfort along the way.
And there’s perhaps her best-known composition, “Mi Shebeirach,” an interpretation of the Jewish prayer for healing the sick. Many congregations and communities have developed their own mini-rituals around Friedman’s music. My synagogue in Chicago, an ecstatic crowd so big they have to hold High Holiday services at a concert hall, encourages congregants to break into small groups for “Mi Shebeirach,” and to, in these smaller circles, share their healing thoughts and prayers for their loved ones. It makes a big room seem small, and yet expansive with so much compassion and empathy.
According to friends and students, compassion and empathy were two of Friedman’s watchwords. Silver describes preparing to head to Chicago’s Midway airport for a flight and stopping at a pharmacy nearby to pick up medicine for her daughter, who had an earache. Wandering the aisles of a CVS on the Southwest Side of Chicago, she heard one of Friedman’s best-known Chanukah songs, “The Latke Song,” over the PA (tell me that’s not a rock star move). “I get a call [from Debbie] while I’m on the plane. ‘How is Sarah? Is her ear okay?’ That’s all she said. I asked, ‘Did you hear that I heard your Chanukah song in the deepest part of Chicago?’ and she went right past it, all she cared about was my daughter and her earache. That’s who she was. All love, all concern, all healing, all connection.”
Kline shared similar stories about Friedman’s caring ethos, how on the way to her classes, she would pick up bagels for her students, saying, “They need to eat!” “The deli person felt as much of a sacred relationship with her as I did,” she says.
When I spoke with Kline about Friedman, it was the day after she and more than 1,000 Jews and allies occupied an Amazon bookstore in Manhattan to hold the company accountable for its collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Music has played a central role in the #JewsAgainstICE protests, and I asked if protesters had sang any of Friedman’s songs. She said they hadn’t, but they adapted “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” the work of Rabbis David Paskin and Menachem Creditor: “I will build this world from love / And you must build this world from love / And if we build this world from love / Then God will build this world from love.”
Kline says protestors never moved to the “Then God…” line, focusing on “we will build this world from love.” Although these weren’t Friedman’s words, Kline says, the adaptation still echoed Friedman’s spirit. “It was a change that was made for the streets,” Kline says. “And I think it was really following in the translation footsteps of Debbie Friedman, asking ‘how can this be accessible to all’?”