In Memory of Debbie Friedman

The following article written by Mayyim Hayyim Executive Director Aliza Kline was published last week in the Jewish Advocate.

In Memory of Debbie Friedman, zichrona l’vracha, (may her memory be for a blessing.)

 

By Aliza Kline

January 11, 2011

 

Ever since hearing the news that Debbie Friedman was in critical condition, my head has been flooded with memories of hearing her music, meeting her, working with her, and of course, singing my heart out with her.

I was raised on the early Debbie Friedman albums. Every summer my whole family went off to Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. (We all got to go because my father, a Reform rabbi was on the staff.) Debbie’s music was de rigueur at my camp – as it was at so many others across North America. We sang her Sh’ma every morning, her Bar’chu every evening, and a rousing “Not By Might” at after-lunch song sessions. Debbie came to camp to perform, too, and all of the song leaders emulated her style. Back at home my family would listen to her records on Shabbat afternoons, and think wistfully of our summers at camp. To say we idolized her would not be an exaggeration.

My sister, Shira Kline was one of many musicians and song-leaders who followed in Debbie’s footsteps and was mentored by her.  Shira has since become a master teacher and full-time Jewish music professional, and she has covered several of Debbie’s songs on her own albums – the highest kind of compliment.  Shira shared, “Debbie taught me about the ‘courage to be a blessing’ – to open my heart and do my work.  Last summer I lead Shabbat services with Debbie and Dan Nichols, and I was nervous. Debbie just said, ‘well, we are here to do it together; you are not alone.’  That was all I needed to hear.”

She was generous with her blessings – and I think about the way she would look me in the eye as if to say, ‘Shira – you’d better do your work, write music, get over your fears, be you.’  In the next breath she’d crack herself up trying to tell a funny story– never making it to the punch line because she could not stop laughing.”

Debbie’s music was part of my Jewish professional life, too. As a teenager teaching Hebrew to primary school students, my curriculum began with one of her songs: “In the classroom, bakitah; a boy is yeled and a girl is yaldah.” The words were easy to remember, the melodies simple and catchy, and most important, easy to teach and share. Even for non-singers, Debbie’s music made Jewish learning and life accessible.

In my role as executive director of Mayyim Hayyim, I had the privilege of reconnecting with Debbie as the producer of a disc of original music to support the organization.   In 2007, we invited Debbie – among others – to write a song for a CD titled, “Immersed.” Debbie said yes immediately. She said that she resonated with the idea of people — men as well as women — immersing in the mikveh as a part of a journey to healing – both physical and spiritual.

It was such a treat to be in the studio when she recorded her song, “Come Into the Water.” I remember hearing musical director Josh Nelson gently suggesting, “Let’s do that one more time – nice and slow, Debbie.” I had to pinch myself at the honor of being part of the process, which mostly included keeping her supplied with organic tea and honey. In March of that year Debbie graciously performed her song at a Mayyim Hayyim benefit concert along with her friends and colleagues, Peri Smilow, Julie Silver, Cantor Jeff Klepper, Josh Nelson and Peter and Ellen Allard.

Debbie had hoped to participate in Mayyim Hayyim’s recent international mikveh conference, but a scheduling conflict prevented her from coming. In an email exchange this summer she offered to lend her support in some other way at some other time; She wrote, “If you and Anita [Diamant] think about doing anything on the West Coast…you have me. Love to you and all and especially to your parents and sister. Debbie Friedman”

When my parents heard of her death, they called me from California where they were attending a conference of retired Reform rabbis and spouses.  They spoke about Debbie in deeply personal terms because it really feels like we lost not only a teacher, friend, and hero, but a member of the family.

May we all find healing in her transformative work and may her memory be for a blessing.

From Debbie’s song, “Come Into the Water”

© 2007 Debbie Friedman

Come into the water

Wash away your pain let there be a new beginning

Every drop is pure

Every drop is birth

Every drop is You

Water everywhere

Water everywhere

Pictured with Josh Nelson, Cantor Jeff Klepper, Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, Ellen Allard at Mayyim Hayyim’s March 2007 benefit, “Making Waves”


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