Years ago I spent Shabbat at an orthodox yeshiva near Ashkelon, along the southern coast of Israel. The yeshiva was affiliated with Kibbutz Hadati, the religious kibbutz movement (a bit unusual, as most kibbutzim had their roots in labor Zionism, a distinctly secular movement). The singing at the yeshiva was wonderful throughout Shabbat—serious and rich, beautiful and harmonious. It was what I had come to know and expect from the musical ouvre of religious Zionism.
When it came time for havdalah on Saturday night, the students at the yeshiva (all young men) gathered in a circle to sing songs of farewell to Shabbat. And then they did the havdalah ceremony itself. And up rose the familiar tunes of, of all people, Debbie Friedman (sing along if you know it): “Yai dai, dai-dai-dai-dai dai dai dai, dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai dai dai, dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai daidai , dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai.” The melody soared, the bachurim (yeshiva students) embraced and swayed, and havdalah went on for a good long time, a last, longing embrace of Shabbat.
Later that night I was talking with one of the students. I asked him (in Hebrew) if he knew that the melody was written by an American Reform woman song leader. “No,” he said. “But what does that matter? It’s beautiful.”
I have found myself going back to this story over the weekend, as news spread on Friday of Debbie Friedman’s critical illness and then her death. I didn’t know Debbie, and as I didn’t grow up in the Reform movement, I haven’t been as inside her music as many of my friends and colleagues who did. But, remarkably, Debbie’s music has transcended denominational lines. At the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the Orthodox synagogue where I interned during rabbinical school, Rabbi Avi Weiss leads the kahal (congregation) in singing Debbie’s Mi she-Berach as they pray for healing. At the Jewish Baccalaurate Ceremony we have held for years at Northwestern, Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein of the Tannenbaum Chabad House and I join everyone in singing Debbie’s Lechi-Lach. And as my story from Israel demonstrates, Debbie’s havdalah tune is universal.
Debbie Friedman’s music brought people together. It opened a whole new world of liturgical possibilities for a generation. The Reform movement, and American Judaism, are richer for it. May her memory be for a blessing.
As all this was unfolding, of course, I was trying to digest the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The first word I got of the Tuscon shooting was from, of all places, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which sent out an email bulletin just after Shabbat, saying that Giffords, the first Jewish representative from Arizona, had been shot. We still have many questions: Was this solely the work of a very sick soul, or did the political climate have something to do with it? How did such a mentally unstable person acquire a semi-automatic weapon? And many others.
But for the moment, I find myself sitting with the contrast: On the one hand, a woman whose music transcends lines of division and denomination, whose byword is blessing and whose songs sing of healing; on the other, a crazy man’s hate-filled violence, whose acts have robbed families of loved ones and the public of courageous servants.
At school on Friday my son Jonah’s teachers said that Debbie was sick. Over Shabbat he couldn’t stop singing “Miriam’s Song,” Debbie’s composition about the singing of Miriam and the women of Israel after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21). It seems that Debbie held on long enough that the Torah portion we read during the week of her death is that very portion, Beshallach, which recounts the Israelites’ journey through the sea.
The Israelites’ task on the other side of the sea, which will become their eternal mission, is to weave together a sacred community in which God can live. The exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, all the lofty narratives and events of Jewish history, ultimately find their expression in the building of the Tabernacle: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham,” “Build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The shooting in Tucson is a reminder to us of how far we can stray from that vision, and a calling to do teshuva, to return to care, concern, empathy and civil disagreement. The life and music of Debbie Friedman show us what it can be to weave together such a community, to sing together, to pray together, to find healing and renewal.