Remembering Debbie: The Music Lives On
by Karen Humphrey
It was January 9, 2011. I was sitting at my computer, shocked and saddened, as I read the announcement that Debbie Friedman had died. Like many, I felt as if I’d lost a friend and the world was a little darker. I joined with a virtual multitude that night as I tuned in for a healing-service-turned-memorial that was broadcast online from the JCC in Manhattan. I joined with another virtual multitude just two days later when her funeral was also broadcast online. My heart ached and I mourned for the passing of someone whom I’d never met, yet knew so well through her music.
It wasn’t enough for me just to be a mourning spectator. I felt a need to do something. I wanted to pull together a tribute to her life and music. And I tried. Our congregation was being lay-led at the time, our rabbi being on vacation in Israel. I got the blessing of the lay leader to do it if I could get someone to come in and lead it (we didn’t have a guitar player or song leader). I spent a few days working on it, before it became clear that it just wasn’t going to happen for us on short notice. In the end, I had to abandon my efforts. So I went to Austin instead, where I knew a congregation that was planning to do the type of tribute service I was hoping for. I’m glad I did. It was what I needed at the time.
That Shabbat was Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song. Many congregations chose to honor Debbie that week at their services, and fittingly so. That Shabbat is now forever linked to her memory.
It’s been two years since we lost Debbie. It still saddens me to think about it. There will be no more concerts, no more new songs.
But yet, she’s not really gone.
She’s still with us, every time we join together in singing one of her songs. She’s there, every time we hold our loved ones in our hearts as we sing her “Mi Shebeirach.” She’s there in the way our Judaism has become more accessible and engaging and inclusive. She’s with us, quietly encouraging us as we strive to live out her directive to “be a blessing”. She’s not gone – far from it.
There may not be any more music from her. But there continues to be music through her. How many of our guitar players and song leaders are such because of Debbie’s inspiration and influence? She sparked a revolution in Jewish music that continues to echo to this day. She changed our liturgy, and as a result the very way we relate to our Jewishness.
Giving the eulogy at her funeral, Rabbi David Ellenson, President of HUC, read an excerpt from Debbie’s letter to Alice Shalvi, founder of the Israel Women’s Network, on the subject, fittingly enough, of death and dying. She wrote: “I think we are frightened of our own death for a few reasons. First of all, we wonder if we have given anything to the world, enough that we will be remembered? We are terrified we are going to be forgotten. That we will have lived and worked hard to make a difference in the world and it will all have been for nothing because it is forgotten and we are forgotten.”
Rabbi Ellenson went on to say, “How could you, Debbie, ever think you would be forgotten or that your life would “be for nothing”? Your body, it is true, will soon be returned to the dust. But your soul will not perish, and your spirit and your voice, your being, will touch and comfort us in moments of sadness and joy forever.”
It’s true. Pause for a moment the next time one of Debbie’s songs is sung. You can feel her spirit. If you listen closely, perhaps you can even hear her voice. She’s there, and she always will be.
It’s been two years since I first read the news, and yet I still feel the same need to do something. It’s up to us, in Debbie’s absence, to carry on her work. It’s up to us to sing the songs and to break down the walls and to build community. Debbie knew the healing power of music, and it’s up to us to use that healing power and to never forget it.
You are loved and you are missed, Debbie. But your memory, and your music, continue to be a blessing.
Karen Humphrey is a member of Temple Rodef Sholom in Waco, TX, where she currently serves as a Board Trustee and the Chair of the Ritual Committee.