These words were delivered at Congregation B'nai Israel on Friday, January 14th, Shabbat Shirah, before the recitation of the Kaddish:
'O Sing Praises, sing a new song, sing a new song...'
These words, close to the start of the 'Live at the Del' album, were my first introduction to Debbie Friedman. It was around 1992 and I'd been attending a workshop in London about contemporary Jewish female composers who were doing remarkable things. In the UK Reform headquarters bookstore, this cassette was all they had. My mother and I put the tape on to drive back home and were singing along within seconds, even though we'd never heard these songs before. Because that's what Debbie wanted you to do sing! And she knew how to get everyone joining in. When Debbie came to the UK two years later, to lead a choir and several workshops at the Limmud Conference, she did something transformative. As Educator, Robbie Gringras notes, she 'created an astonishing ad hoc choir of Brits who sang to the heavens with a freedom and joy that I'd never heard in the UK'.
Debbie transformed lives. I have lost count of the number of postings that I have read in the last few days where, whether someone had sung with her, met her for a moment, worked with her professionally, or knew her as a friend, they felt that she had inspired them to follow their dreams, and fully realize their potential. I was one of so many. When Debbie left the UK after that Limmud Conference, I established a monthly music gathering Shir B'Yachad (sing together), with no purpose other than to sing our souls to God, but that path eventually led me to the Rabbinate, and to the USA.
Speaking about the message of her song, L'chi Lach, Debbie explained that, in the parsha Lech Lecha there are the words 'Y'hi bracha' Be a blessing. 'Its not a suggestion', she said. 'It's in the command form; Lech l'cha go within and find that spark, that essence, and let it shine forth in the world be a blessing. And that is exactly what she did.
I got to know Debbie as a dear friend over time and by the time I moved to New York in 2003 I felt like I had a big sister, confidant, and special friend in Debbie. One of the reasons that Debbie moved so many people was because she always spoke from the heart. She was the most real and honest person. She could see inside your soul and, when you were not being honest with yourself, she'd help you find yourself again. She was a private person but, when you had her trust, she would share her world with you and give you the privilege of giving her a little something back.
Debbie was also extremely funny. She loved slapstick, could tell a joke like few others, and would have audiences in stitches with laughter just as often as she would have them in tears from the emotional outpouring that her songs and prayers gave rise to. Even in the midst of a healing service there would be laughter and, of course, that was sometimes the most healing of all.
Debbie's life and legacy were remarkable. She became ill in the prime of her career, after a reaction to some migraine medication. It left her with the neurological illness that she had for the rest of her life, and which showed considerable signs of worsening in recent years. Yet Debbie inspired us all by giving everything that she had. She did not grumble or complain her burden became her inspiration, and her Mi Shebeirach blessing for healing, in addition to so much more liturgy set to inclusive, communal music, transformed how we pray, and how we feel when we pray.
Last Saturday morning, for parshat Bo, I had talked about freedom requiring us to confront our inner Pharaohs. I know from the conversations that I have had with close friends of Debbie's in recent days that Debbie did exactly that in the last couple of months of her life and, despite her physical deterioration and pain, lived more fully than she had for so long, doing everything she loved with everyone she loved just one more time to the max no holding back. She jammed until 4am on the last two nights of Limmud. When she got back she had a day out with her family doing some of the things that they loved to do together. This was the day before she was admitted into the hospital. She called and emailed many friends in recent weeks and months and gave each of us one last special gift. She freed herself from her slavery, even though it meant that as she crossed the parting sea, she left us behind. She is now dancing on the other shore with Miriam and all the people.
'And the women dancing with their timbrels, followed Debbie as she sang her song. Sing a song for the one who came before us, Debbie and the people sang and sang the whole night long.'