Friday, January 14, 2011

The Healing Words & Music of Debbie Friedman

Debbie Friedman passed away, fairly suddenly, at the age of 59 this past Sunday. For readers who are seeing her name for the first time, she was a Jewish singer, composer and leader; a unique voice in her generation.

If this was a blog for sharing all of my thoughts or those on my feminist and Jewish identities, I’d talk about her role in reinvigorating Jewish worship, (especially in the Reform Jewish Movement) which led to the type of services that inspired the first inkling of Jewish spirituality in me. I’d tell you about the feelings of pride that every kid who grew up at
my summer camp had, knowing that she emerged from the same dusty roads and shvitzy tents as us. I could talk about my favorites amongst her songs and melodies, or share anecdotes about my limited but meaningful personal interactions with her. But most germane to the point of this blog, is her contribution and commitment to healing, and how that devotion infused her music and so much of the legacy that she has left.

There are so many examples of how Debbie’s words and melodies beautifully expressed the healing power of prayer. I’ll share just a couple:

Debbie often came to camp to teach and work with campers and staff to create meaningful Jewish experiences. My first summer as a counselor, about 9 years ago, Debbie led a song-session during our staff week in which she introduced us to a new melody she’d written for a verse from Psalm 126: “those who sow in tears, will reap in joy.” (Here’s a
link to another song leader playing the melody). She repeated the song over and over - for nearly an hour, by some accounts. The intensity of the experience yielded a range of reactions. Some of the group of about 150, nearly all between the ages of 18 and 23, were so moved that they got teary or wept openly. For some, the intensity of the moment was too much and they got a bit giggly. I honestly cannot recall my reaction. But the moment and melody stuck with me. Since then, I’ve used that memory and the tune as a sort of mantra to power through particularly tough moments: that short verse, a promise of good things to come after periods of suffering.

There's little doubt that her greatest legacy is her version of the Mi Shebeirach, the Jewish prayer for the sick. I think that this prayer is part of every service in which the Torah is read including every Shabbat morning and is a regular part of Jewish worship. It is also said by congregations and individuals at times when healing is needed. Debbie wrote a version of the Mi Shebeirach, adding meaningful words, and a beautiful melody that is now used in congregations across the country, including, and far beyond Reform temples. There is a mystical, inexplicable healing power in the singing of Debbie’s Mi Shebeirach that is difficult to articulate with words alone. Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Senior Advisor on Disability Issues at the Religious Action Center, and someone who has become a close friend and mentor of mine since I worked for her four years ago, is the survivor of a terrible car accident that left her on the brink of death over a decade ago. She wrote an article in Reform Judaism magazine, saying that when she was in a coma for six weeks following her accident, friends and family would come to her bedside and sing Debbie’s Mi Shebeirach. She writes, “I later thanked Debbie for teaching the Mi Shebeirach to the entire Reform Movement just in time for my accident. It was as if the arms of the Jewish community were wrapped around me, holding me tightly yet lovingly, keeping me in this world.

Debbie taught her generation and my own to celebrate the shekinah, the Jewish concept of the divine feminine, to identify and experience that manifestation of God’s presence, and to call upon that spirit in times of transition and healing. I was thinking about this very concept when I learned that on Wednesday, Representative Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes for the first time since the terrible shooting in Tucson on Saturday. Her friends, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Speaker Nancy Pelosi were all present in the room with Giffords' husband and parents during that extraordinary and miraculous moment. To me, part of the miracle was the power that friendship and sisterhood can have on a person’s healing process. In their account of the experience, Representative Wasserman Schultz and Senator Gillibrand describe the experience as so profound that I wonder if the shekinah wasn’t present in that moment, in that room. The energy that comes from having beloved friends, having some of our nation’s most extraordinary women, by your bedside, is healing. The energy that comes from a person hundreds of miles away sending renewal through the mystically powerful words of Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach, is healing.

Debbie suffered from chronic ailments for many years. I think that those experiences colored her world view and guided her career-long focus on prayer and music as a source of strength and healing. I think she captured her orientation beautifully on her website under the heading of “healing work.” She wrote:

“We are powerful. It is hard to remember that. Sometimes life takes its turns into the unknown and presents us with challenges we would have preferred not to encounter under any circumstances. Suddenly we are confronted with our pain. It is a strange thing that pain creates beauty and potential for healing. It is hard to imagine that it can provide a foundation for beautiful moments to arise. We attempt to find a way to manage survival from one minute to the next, as pain becomes the overriding force. When we are experiencing emotional discomfort, we need to find a safe place to express our grief and loss. The willingness to both offer and receive blessings of healing and well-being allows one who is wounded to transform and unravel their pain. Our pain need not bury us, instead it may elevate us to the point of healing - if we choose to allow it.”

These profound words reflect my deepest aspirations for how I hope I'm handling my cancer journey. To take the challenge presented and find beauty and potential for healing. To express my grief, to give and accept help, to be more elevated than diminished by the experience as a whole.

Tonight, the first Shabbat since she passed away, began. I hope that we all find comfort in knowing that she’s still everywhere, her melodies resonant and sung with spirit and love that will echo off the walls of thousands of synagogue, temple and communal spaces across the country and world.

In these moments of loss, of triumph, of pain, and in looking ahead to my transplant, coming up in these next weeks or months, in Debbie’s own words, I will try to remember that “pain creates beauty and potential for healing.”

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