[This week we mark the first Yahrtzeit of Debbie Friedman. Following are remarks offered by her sister Cheryl at a memorial concert in Debbie’s honor at New York’s Central Synagogue, February 1, 2012.]
My Sister, Debbie Friedman
by Cheryl Friedman
A couple of weeks ago, mom and I were driving back to our home in Orange County from a day in LA. I asked her to pick her choice of music for the ride home. I began to read the playlists on my iPod. When I got to Peter, Paul & Mary, she stopped me. Many of you heard Debbie say that she was inspired by Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and, others like them. When I was a young person, these were the people who gave me a voice. There was no “Not by Might,” no “Miriam’s Song,” or “Thou Shalt Love.” No “One People.” Instead, we had “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a Changin’,” “If I Had a Hammer.”
What did these musicians have in common? They were folk singers, they sang with a guitar, they composed, they spoke to social issues. These people raised their voices, at the risk of incurring the wrath of those in positions of power and popularity – they challenged the system – the status quo. Sound familiar?
But Debbie’s influence and inspiration was indelibly etched on her heart long before those folks came along. My mother, Freda, and her mother and father before her, Bubbe and Zadde Chernoff – they were Debbie’s first and real inspirations. From them flowed her passion for love, justice, honesty and humor. Even her, often irreverent, humor found its source – mostly in Zadde’s humor and my mother’s after him.
In the 1920’s and on, Bubbe’s and Zadde’s home was marked by Hobos as a place to go for a meal and a safe place to sleep. Some might have said that it was irresponsible of them. After all, there were five young children in the home and barely enough food to provide for them. What were they thinking? Opening their doors to strangers? They gave anyway.
My grandfather, known as Billy the Jew, in his hometown filled with anti-Semites, shared food with people even when he knew how they felt about him. He would take money, much to my grandmother’s chagrin, to buy cigarettes for people in the local jail.
Almost two months ago, Debbie’s dog, Gribby, was out for a walk with a neighbor. The man dropped the leash and Gribby ran. She was fatally injured when a car hit her. I can’t find words to describe our anguish and pain – it was as if we lost Debbie all over again. In the midst of Mom’s pain, she said to me, “I know you’re not going to want to do this. Go to Costco. Buy a chicken and some potato salad. Take it over to Don. He must be so upset.” In the midst of Mom’s pain, she looked outside of herself to attend to Don’s pain – the man who was responsible for the death of our dog, Debbie’s dog.
So, you see, Debbie had great teachers. They were wired Jewishly. They might not have been able to quote chapter and verse. But, they knew what was right. Their lives pointed Debbie in the direction she would go.
But, Debbie had a choice, as we all do. With a huge heart and a tender soul, Debbie chose to continue to walk the path the origin of which came from Bubbe and Zadde and Mom, giving life to the concept of L’dor V’dor.
With that solid foundation, Debbie was well on her way to becoming Debbie Friedman, the liturgist, the composer, concertizer, student, teacher, daughter, sister, friend and more.
Her music touches people in myriad ways. Her music compels the willing soul to pray in a different way, see others through different eyes, understand ways to give that were previously unknown, find deeper parts of ourselves that were hidden. Her music makes Judaism accessible to all who are open. Through her music’s spirit and energy, we can see the wonder of Judaism. The mysteries of our beyond-brilliant teachings and exquisite prayers were waiting for someone to unfold them, to unwrap them.
Her songs, the prayers for which she found melodies are for everyone. As is true in our teaching, we are a community. But, a community is made up of individuals. And, Debbie spoke to the community through its individuals. We are healed one person at a time, one soul at a time. As Debbie would say, “First I will sing for you … ”
Debbie was gifted beyond measure. But, first she was a good person. She gave and gave selflessly, often to her own detriment, for the enrichment of our People and Judaism. It is true that her work was born in the Reform movement. But, her brilliance was in her commitment to speak the truth of what we, as Jews, are to be to each other and to all people. Her consistent message brought people together from every corner of the Jewish world and beyond. We respond to a messenger who lives what she speaks – what she sings. That is why Debbie’s impact was so profound. Her values were reflected in her music – and in her life. She lived Torah. Ever the student, she never ceased to strive, to study, to learn.
Not to take anything away from Debbie’s achievements or gifts, but, like us all, Debbie was human. She was cursed and blessed with the same frailties with which we all struggle.
But, in the end, Debbie got up everyday and went to work. When she came up against the barriers of sexism, patriarchal biases, politics, arrogance – impediments that would have caused a lesser person to give up – she kept writing, she kept singing and, she kept believing.
Her greatest dream was realized when she joined the faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. I can say with confidence that every achievement in her life paled in comparison to the joy and fulfillment she experienced sharing herself with her HUC-JIR students.
To her students who are here tonight, you are amazing people. You gave her joy beyond measure. She would be elated. She would be touched. Her eyes would sparkle, when she talked about you – when she thought about you, her students.
I’m tempted to say that Debbie was proud of you, her students. But, to say she would be proud, would suggest that she felt responsible for your gifts and achievements. Debbie’s sole focus was to provide an environment of freedom to let you become more of who you are. Metaphorically and, as I have been told, literally, when you were on the bima, she would whisper in your ear and then slowly step back, little by little by little, to let you come into your own. All she ever wanted was for you to find yourselves.
To you, my friends who are really young and really old and every one in between, whatever your education, whatever your chosen way of expressing your Jewish identity, gender, sexual orientation, even religion, each of you and all of you together can have an unimaginable impact on the world. Too big to grasp? People say that Debbie had an unimaginable impact on the Jewish world – and I say, the world. None of us will ever be able to do what Debbie did. We are not Debbie. But, we, too, can have an unimaginable impact on our world. And those we affect, will in turn, affect another and another and another.
If we choose to get up every day and do what we do best, if we do what we love and that for which we have passion, when we lie down, when we rise up, and when we go on our way – just as students of the student, my little sister, Debbie, we can all be inspired to inspire others.
Im tirtzu ain zo agada – if you will it, it is no dream.