The Importance of Debbie Friedman

[Image Description: Debbie Friedman on stage holding a guitar and smiling]
Debbie Friedman was born in Utica, NY in 1951. She grew up in St Paul, Minnesota and went on to live across the United States and in Israel. In the 1970s she began writing Jewish spiritual music and eventually recorded more than 20 albums in Hebrew and English. Throughout her life she also served as a songleader, cantor, and teacher. She also had a chronic and often debilitating neurological condition which was never formally diagnosed but impacted her life for two decades before her death at only fifty nine. 

Friedman’s work focused on inclusivity and accessibility: her music was made to empower women and it had a significant impact on them, and on congregations in general, across denominations. In many congregations her work is so integrated into the liturgy it is considered traditional. And her pieces such as the alef-bet song are used to teach countless children the basics of Hebrew and Judaism.

Many young Jewish people become alienated from Judaism as they grow up because they are not interested in the way it is presented to them. Those who do stay connected are increasingly disconnected with the religious aspect of Judaism. While Jewishness is a complex identity, and is absolutely not reliant on any form of religious belief or any particular type of practice, some people may feel this disconnect because religion has not been presented in a way that is relevant or meaningful to their lives. Friedman’s music aimed to give people the words to access spirituality on their own terms. After singing own of her songs at a gathering she said “I was stunned when they [a group of young people] suddenly put their arms around each other and there were tears rolling down their faces. They were reclaiming this prayer, and it was ours in a musical language they were able to understand...We were reclaiming something that we hadn’t touched, that we had no access to until now”.

I feel very lucky to have had access to Jewish prayer in a way that is meaningful to me. Songs of Debbie Friedman’s, particularly Miriam’s Song, have always been some of my favorite parts of my family’s tradition. I feel lucky to have had this experience and I feel lucky to have music that is steeped in my tradition and focused on people like me.

And made by people like me, because not only was Friedman a Jewish woman, she was also gay. While many claim that her sexuality was more or less an “open secret”, it was only after her death that it was first published. This revelation sparked controversy about the privacy of leaders and celebrities and about their obligation, if they have one, to come out.

Debbie Friedman, and every other LGBTQ+ person, has a right to their privacy and a right to decide how they share and perform their sexuality. Friedman made huge contributions to the Jewish world and Jewish music and she deserves to be remembered for that. But she also deserves to be remembered as a lesbian. Not acknowledging her sexuality would be to erase part of who she was and how she experienced the world. It is undeniable that Friedman faced discrimination based on her sexuality, and it is likely that she would have faced more had she been more open. Her desire to stay private about her sexuality could have stemmed from these experiences or could have simply been the type of person she was. Regardless, she deserves to be remembered as a Jewish lesbian because the way in which you share your sexuality has no impact on your belonging in the community. And as important as it to prioritize respecting Friedman, the public knowledge of her sexuality is indisputably important. The work of an LBGTQ+ woman is a fundamental part of the liturgies and experiences of so many Jewish people and that means a lot to a lot of LGBTQ+ Jews.
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DM  @risenzine or @ellanoruhhh on Instagram for the articles I read about her sexuality.