Singer Debbie Friedman, whose memorial service is today in southern California, helped me find something I often lacked during childhood and young adulthood. She helped me discover a love for my faith and the beauty and meaning of many prayers.
I saw Debbie in concert just once. I had no idea who she was, having not grown up attending Jewish camps and Shabbat services. She was the headliner for the Jewish Arts Festival in Dallas in the late 1990s. I walked into a full auditorium. She made prayer understandable with heartfelt English interpretations. And she made me weep as I listened to her and everyone else sing Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for healing. In that moment, she made me feel like a part of a wonderful, loving community. And she ramped up a hunger to know more about my religion.
Her CDs became regular companions. I never saw her again in concert, but learned her music. I played it on the flute. I sang it on my own and for others. Mi Shebeirach, a prayer I never knew until I heard her sing it, became a part of my healing from a long-ago loss. I was disconnected from my religion when my brother Kevin died in a car accident in 1986 at age 23; I was 21. I had no use for religion as a salve in my early 20s. I did not know how to pray nor did I want to after my brother’s death. I stumbled, often badly, as I tried to mourn without Judaism’s artful structure for grief.
My brother had been dead for more than a decade when I first heard Debbie’s music. By then, I was in my early 30s and interested in figuring out how faith might become more a part of my life. Could prayer be something other than meaningless words? I eventually joined Temple Emanu-El in Dallas because I liked the temple chorus. The chorus often sang Debbie’s version of Mi Shebeirach. With each time I sang it, the prayer meant more. I could not turn back the clock and erase the years I lost to intense grief after my brother’s death. But I felt more at peace.
Debbie made Mi Shebeirach easy to embrace. “May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing, and let us say: Amen…. Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leimah, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit, and let us say: Amen.” I needed to find the courage to make my own life a blessing and find that strength from my love for my brother, for my family, and now, for my faith. When I sang Debbie’s song or played it on my flute, I felt as if I were praying to a higher power even if I were unsure about God’s role in my life. My voice seemed clearer, purer when I sang the beautiful melody.
Her music brought peace. And it brought joy. I led about 40 others in Miriam’s Song on May 6, 2006, when I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah at Temple Shir Tikvah in Winchester, MA. I researched the story of Miriam as a part of my studies and became entranced by how Miriam was the pioneer for Jewish women as leaders of prayer. Debbie’s version of Miriam’s Song was a natural fit for my ceremony as it has been for many other women celebrating their bat mitzvah much later in life. When I think of Debbie Friedman and her music, I will think mostly of this pair of songs. Peace and joy. I will also remember this talented songwriter who took so much after Miriam: She was a strong leader of prayer, of prayer done in a lively, rousing way.
She is not the only musician who played a role in my journey closer to my faith. But she will remain one of the big influences. With her music, she helped many of us find our way to the heart of Jewish prayer.
Note: Photo of Debbie Friedman originally appears on GoldenLand.com, a concert booking agency.