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Singing People through the Narrows, Like Miriam

Musician, songwriter and performer Debbie Friedman’s music has become part of the canon in a tradition that takes music seriously. Her music teaches the Hebrew alphabet, introduces overlooked women in the Bible, and gives fresh meaning to old holidays.

“The level of women’s sensitivity and the way we relate to each other has affected the world. For example, people in the Reform movement didn’t talk about feelings. It wasn’t part of the vocabulary, and my music was about feelings because women are about feelings. In that way, I’ve helped pave the way a little for women in Judaism,

“My hope is not just for women,” Debbie says. “It’s across the board. I want men to develop the feminine in themselves and to move out of imprisonment. I want women to do this, too, and women have a special role at this time. Some are putting themselves on the line.

Debbie says, “If we sang our liturgy during our daily lives, we wouldn’t need to go to a synagogue to find God’s love. Singing prayer would be such a natural part of our existence that we would live it all the time. Prayer would help our pain and increase our joy. What happens when we sing is that it touches every cell in our bodies, and every cell vibrates when we sing. We open ourselves to let the air in and out.

“I bring my whole life experience to my work, including growing up in Utica [New York] with my father, the butcher, my mother, and siblings. I remember the big, long table on Shabbos and the wine all around the table. Bubbe cooking upstairs and we’re cooking downstairs; I remember the smells. My father couldn’t stand his mother because he was a misogynist, and because of this he was intolerable. My two sisters and I became invisible with his voice and the violence of his hands. I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but my father’s abuse and the alienation and isolation of having lived in that situation has influenced me. It’s made me want to go into communities and make things better. For a little while, I can make a home with those people, We can sing peacefully and make beautiful sounds together. There is no yelling and screaming, and I can be a part of that joy that was missing from my home.”

While mainstream Jewish leadership in the late 1980s didn’t think the AIDS epidemic had to do with their community, Debbie began her ministry of healing by creating a ritual for people with AIDS. What distinguishes her service is an authenticity that can come only from one who has asked to be healed herself. Besides the childhood she describes, she has other wounds to heal.

Fifteen years ago she took a medication that practically killed her. She says, “I can’t run, but at least now I can walk. When I couldn’t walk and when I couldn’t run, when I couldn’t get up from the table without spasms.. .those were the times when I felt totally helpless and hopeless. When I saw someone with cerebral palsy or heard of a child who had died, it freedom to talk about living and dying and illness. I believe that when we are aware of each other’s’ fragility we have the capacity to lift one another from despair to places of hope.

“When I was in Tucson a few years ago for High Holidays, I needed both rabbis to help me up the steps. After wards, someone told me how important that was for the older members of the congregation to see. I could consider myself damaged because I needed help, but for somebody else, I was an example.” Debbie says, “Even before I got sick, before the healing services, my work was the same. I’ve always wanted to bring people together, to feel closeness, and to create community. Each of us is hurting, and everyone knows that. Everyone wants to find a safe place. When we come together, we heal each other.

“The issue of healing is the bottom line of prayer, and the bottom line of being a Jew is to engage in tikkun olam, the healing of the world. You can’t repair the world unless you repair yourself it’s not that you have to be totally intact, but you have to know how to look at yourself honestly and commit to your own healing.”