I have a bit of an embarrassing confession to make: Before she died Sunday, I’d never heard the name Debbie Friedman.
Never has there been greater evidence that I’m merely Jew-ish but not really a Jew than this ignorance. Turns out Friedman, who was only 59, was a legendary Jewish musician and singer, best known for rewriting Jewish prayers for a new generation of American Jews.
And Friedman’s death has been covered in the mainstream press. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times both ran short obits today. But that coverage has paled in comparison to the attention her death has received in the Jewish media. In publications like The Forward, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, Friedman coverage has rivaled, if not overwhelmed, coverage of the Tucson shooting rampage (of which at least two of the victims, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, were Jewish).
The Jewish Journal, for instance, published eleven tributes online from LA-area rabbis, cantors and Jewish leaders. The paper also published a handful of news story prior to and after Friedman’s passing, and also streamed her funeral live.
The coverage I’ve seen of Friedman’s death raises the question of just how mainstream media should treat a major event within a religious community, particularly when the impact of that event may be limited to that community. To the average reader, Friedman was not Bob Dylan, but read one of the JewishJournal.com tributes, like this one from Rabbi Paul Kipnes, and you’ll realize that to some people she meant much, much more:
To understand the depth of the grief sweeping across the Jewish community, one might recall the profound sense of loss that permeated our world upon the news of the death of John Lennon. When Lennon died, the world lost one of the greats — a singer, composer, poet, visionary and serene commentator on the excesses of his world. Similarly, Debbie’s death removes from our midst one of gedolei hador (the great of the generation).
Debbie Friedman touched more lives and brought more people into Judaism through her music than — I would argue — any rabbi who has ever opened his or her mouth. She has connected people to their Jewish spirituality more than any composer around the world. Debbie was not just a singer/songleader; she was a poet and liturgist. She was an inspiring artist, who was uniquely able to translate the ancient words of our Jewish tradition into engaging musical pieces that spoke anew to a generation alienated from the inherited formal melodies of their parents.
Sad as it was, I certainly didn’t feel that way when Kurt Cobain took his life. But Cobain’s death got more than just a mention on the obituary page.
Sure, Nirvana helped changed the alternative music scene. What though about a musician who helped a religious community communicate with God as they had not before? Should mainstream media give pop culture any less attention simply because the actor/musician/artist focuses on religious expression?
The LA Times, though not the NYT, recognized that one of Friedman’s many masterpieces, “Mi Sheberach,” Hebrew for The One who Blesses, is the traditional prayer for healing and it was sung been members of Tucson’s Jewish community as a prayer for Giffords. NPR also recognized this, and replayed a 1997 interview in which Robert Siegel asked Friedman about the place of such a prayer in a Reform temple:
Ms. FRIEDMAN: Early on in Reform, there was a leaning toward more intellectuality and less emotional, less spiritual, that anything that was a-rational really didn’t have a place.
And I think that the greatest breakthrough that has happened in these past maybe 20, 25 years, is that those walls are crumbling, that people have found now that we need to be integrated human beings that both know and think and also feel.
SIEGEL: And for a generation of American Jews, the music that evoked feeling was often the music of Debbie Friedman. She died in Orange County, California, of complications from pneumonia.
Friedman’s wisdom is even more powerful if you listen to the interview, with here music in the background, here. I apologize is, like me, your eyes start watering for an otherwise unexplainable reason.