Music, Feminism and Debbie Friedman

My first memory of Debbie Friedman’s music came from my mother. At the tender age of three, before bedtime I would listen to my mother sing “L’chi Lach.” I had no idea who Debbie Friedman was, but I already knew that her music was good for my soul…or at the very least, my sleeping patterns. When I first started thinking about writing this piece I wanted to explore the connection between feminism and music.

After Friedman’s tragic passing, it only seemed fitting to focus my thoughts largely on her.

As much as music in general, and Friedman’s in particular, played a part in my sleeping life, as I grew more cognizant of the world around me it began to hold equal weight in my waking life – specifically in my burgeoning feminism. As long as I can remember, my feminism has been connected to and encouraged by empowering, woman-centric music. Music is a powerful political and personal tool and therefore the perfect medium with which to make “the personal political.” Music evokes emotion, takes us back in time to a specific place or person and calls us to action.

Friedman’s music managed to call Jewish women to action; to remind us that we could and should take ownership over our religious identities. For years I didn’t even realize that “Miriam” and “Mi Shebeirach” were Debbie Friedman’s songs. I just thought that they were universally acknowledged, Jewish classics—which goes to show how much she was embraced by the larger community. The song “Miriam” stuck with me so firmly because it spoke explicitly about a woman and gave her a current importance that traditional Jewish History often does not. Although today the lyrics might not seem particularly revolutionary or subversive, they still give voice to Biblical women and by extension affirm the importance of women in the Jewish community today.

The earliest groundwork for my musical feminist awakening was surely laid by Debbie Friedman. As I grew up a little more and began attending a progressive, Jewish summer camp, I continued to embrace and be empowered by women musicians. Dar Williams is the most obvious example of this (and it is worth nothing that she and Friedman were both influenced by Joan Baez). Her words pushed listeners to question the rigidity of gender roles and religious affiliations, and pushed back at the consumerism that so often fuels these divisions. I remember being eleven or twelve, listening to “When I Was a Boy” and realizing what it meant to connect in a real way to lyrics:

And now I’m in this clothing store, and the signs say less is more
More that’s tight means more to see, more for them, not more for me
That can’t help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat

We live in a society where we are constantly bombarded with commercials urging us to buy this and that in order to be a real woman or real man. Songs that speak to this and other flawed realities, and make the listener feel angry enough to want to change them, are powerful tools. Luckily there are quite a number of rocking, lady-empowering artists out there whose songs do just that. In recognition of a few of them I have created a suggested listening playlist for this post.

1.     Dar Williams, “As Cool As I Am”
2.     No Doubt, “Just A Girl”
3.     Alix Olson, “Eve’s Mouth”
4.     Salt-N-Pepa, “None of Your Business”
5.     Mirah, “Jerusalem”
6.     Ani DiFranco, “Not A Pretty Girl”
7.     Rilo Kiley, “It’s A Hit”
8.     Jewel, “Who Will Save Your Soul”

My father, a childhood friend of Debbie Friedman’s, recently reflected upon her assertive nature and the way that she constantly encouraged her audiences to interact with her music. This interaction is exactly what makes “politically charged” music so moving. So readers, I encourage you to listen closely, get inspired and create some change; just the way Debbie surely would have liked it.

-Emma Gray

One comment on “Music, Feminism and Debbie Friedman

Comments are closed.