Cantor Jacqueline Shuchat-Marx, ,Temple Emanu-El, Edison, New Jersey
Sunday, January 9, 2011 10:10 PM, EST Debbie Friedman died this morning. A very important voice of song in the Reform Jewish music has been stilled. I was taken aback at how hugely her death jarred me. So many reasons.... certainly anyone my age or older remembers Jewish music before Debbie's (at camp we sang Pete Seeger, whose music started making a comeback in this venue a couple of years ago).
The tradition of the healing prayer in the synagogue service originally began during the Torah service. After the Pentateuch was read or chanted, the gabbai (leader of the Torah portion of the service) asks God's healing blessings on any and all whose names are supplied; either in English or in Hebrew. The Hebrew name is given as "Daughter or son of" their mother - for instance, my name would be listed as Ya'kova Leah bat Sarah Chaya (were I not egalitarian enough to include Yitzhak ha-Kohen as well). This is so even in the androcentric Orthodox tradition: Think about the first name that came to your lips whenever you were in the most trouble. Chances are your lips came together to form that first mellifluous "Mmmm"..... In the 1980s Debbie Friedman suffered a severely adverse reaction to prescription medicine, which she took as prescribed by doctors who prescribed it poorly, for back pain. Within a week she was immobilized from head to toe. Debbie knew a lot of people, so they began to pray. They told their friends, and their friends told their friends. Her recovery was lengthy but miraculous, and she attributed her return to wellness as much to the prayers as to the efforts of the medical community. Indeed, science has proven that patients who are prayed-for heal faster and more often than those who are not; this appears to be true whether or not the patient knows s/he is being prayed-for. Debbie Friedman already had a great number of songs going. She had begun in the UAHC (now URJ) summer camps; the songs had spread to mainstream synagogue use and even to churches. She had recorded many albums, and her concert demand had never waned. Now she turned to writing healing songs. The best-known of these is "Mi SheBeyrach (May the One Who Blessed...)" - which has become the national anthem for healing in Reform Judaism. The traditional healing prayer during the Torah service had somehow gotten lost in Reform Judaism. Since even the most die-hard non-religious Jews are born healers, I really can't say how this happened; maybe the loss began when Jews first started whispering words like "cancer" in conversation. Now the "Mi SheBeyrach" is back. It's returned to the Torah service, but many times it gets moved earlier, right after the Amidah /Shemoneh Esrei / Standing Prayer. In modernity the healing prayer has become a beautiful ceremony of its own, where the rabbi or cantor spans the congregation with a loving gaze, asking for names of people who need healing so that the congregation can pray to God on behalf of those who are ill. Note the difference between "Healing" and "Curing", and not just lately, when Susan G. Komen for the You-Know-What has become manically litigation-happy: Curing an illness means banishing it completely without a trace or chance of recurrence. Healing, on the other hand, represents an achievement of wellness that allows one to return to daily life as they knew it to a certain degree; but allowing for the presence of certain temporary or permanent changes. Curing would be healing, but healing does not always mean curing. So it was with Debbie. Her spirit never dimmed; but though she regained the use of her body and talent, these gifts shined within a changed physical framework. Certain allergies and intolerances persisted; they dictated stringent care of her person and strict guidelines in her performance contracts. I was present at more than one live performance where she literally stopped the show until the flash photography in the audience, which made her prone to seizures, ceased. But if Debbie were to go on as before, she needed these strictures. They were her way of taking care of herself so that she could take care of the rest of us. When you are sick, you don't begin to get well until you acknowledge what's wrong with you. This is true of a cold or a virus or an intolerance or an allergy or an addiction or an injury. In the South we say, "You are as sick as you are secret." Or more bluntly put, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt." Only when we declare ourselves in need and begin to seek help do we begin to heal. I'm not talking about the space you need for planning and regrouping upon hearing your own bad diagnosis. I'm talking about pretending it doesn't exist. Debbie gave illness a voice so that it could sing out and ask for help. Singing is more resonant than talking, but it sure feels better than screaming. Debbie's music, and her own experiences, helped us to redefine life, not merely existence, on the terms it dealt us. Her songs reached out to those lucky enough to live in the realm of vitality and gave them two missions: to reach out to the unwell, and to work on their behalf. By the mid-twentieth century, modern Jews had two basic choices: to pray or to do. Religious Judaism and "socialist" Judaism [read the plays of Arnold Wesker] were mutually exclusive. Debbie's songs gave a voice that helped evolve the Reform Jewish concept of tikkun olam so that spirituality could happily marry with healing the world and create a new love child: "social action." It doesn't seem possible that someone so young and vital, whose music meant so much, is no longer with us physically. Debbie Friedman is not the first beloved artist to leave us too soon, and unfortunately she won't be the last. Ironically it is her precarious health itself that provides the paradox. Since the 80s, she has continually faltered and rallied; faltered and rallied again, so that nobody who knew her ever believed she would fail to prevail over her physical challenges. As the Jewish world prayed for her healing over this past Shabbat, we felt sure she would pull through. How could she not, with so much prayer power behind her? But to paraphrase the words of a wise friend, all those loving voices lifted in holy petition must have touched her to the point where she knew it would be all right to let go at last. And so she did. I don't want to say "Rest in Peace." Instead I say, "Lech L'cha...L'chi lach, Deborah Lyn Friedman. Get going, as God said to Abraham in Genesis 12:1. If we could only number the stars, surely we would see your face among them. But we know it is there, nonetheless. Ken y'hi ratzon; may this be God's will.