This Shabbat is the first Yahrtzeit of Debbie's passing according to the Hebrew calendar. I wrote the following to introduce a service of her music at my synagogue, Temple Sinai in Sharon, Massachusetts:
Like Miriam, whose spirit is felt so keenly in next week’s Torah Portion (Shabbat Shirah), Debbie Friedman brought the Jewish people together with song and dance. As Rabbi Dan Freelander has observed: “Debbie Friedman died the week of B’shalach, which contains the first Torah verses of a woman as explicit leader, musician and prophetess. Debbie was the inheritor of Miriam’s timbrel, but her timbrel was a guitar. Her voice led us out of a barren enslavement, and her spirit is eternal.”
On this Shabbat we mark the first anniversary of her passing on January 9, 2011. We celebrate Debbie’s lasting contributions to Jewish life in the best way, the only way we can — by singing her songs. Debbie's music touched the Jewish people in so many ways. Her prayers filled the empty places in our souls. Her melodies did not so much topple the walls that divide us, as they floated above them. The more people sang and took her songs to heart, the more Debbie's music permeated the borders of ethnicity and observance, gender and generation.
Tonight we celebrate three wonderful gifts Debbie gave us in song...
First, we remember her as the consummate song-teacher and song-leader, a collector of Jewish folk songs and forgotten musical gems. She always said the best songs were the “golden oldies,” not the songs she wrote. Three of these will be included tonight, the opening (Nigun by M. Twerski) and closing (Yigdal, from Greece) songs, and a majestic melody for Psalm 98 from Argentina.
Second, Debbie established herself at first by composing melodies for the familiar Shabbat prayers. Her tunes, which could be rhythmic or flowing, playful or serious, spoke initially to her generation. In time, her songs captured peoples’ ears, and everyone began to hear the ancient words in a new way.
Third, Debbie dreamed of a world where Tradition spoke to everyone. Her English interpretations of Torah, Midrash and blessings made them accessible and relevant to all. The astonishingly widespread acceptance of Mi Shebeirach is a testament to the way Debbie reached out and embraced the Jewish people with her spirit.
It is an embrace we feel whenever we sing her songs.
זכְרוֹנַה לִבְרָכָה, נְעִימַה זְמִרוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל
Sweet singer of Israel, her memory is a blessing.
The photograph is by Gay Block.