Jewschool.com: Debbie Friedman and the Tragedy of the Closet

Originally published on Jewschool.com. This is unquestionably the most controversial piece I’ve ever written, and it provoked a lot of strong, emotional responses. I regret publishing it as close to Debbie Friedman’s death as I did; my only explanation is that I was feeling her loss emotionally as well. Many misread this post as a criticism of Debbie’s choices, but that was not my intention at all. It’s a critique of the society we live in that created a situation in which she made the choices she made. A couple months after this post, I had a long phone conversation with Debbie’s sister Cheryl, who I am so sorry to have hurt with my words. I am grateful that she reached out to me to try to understand what I was trying to say, and I think after our conversation ended, she did. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced such incredible openness of spirit as I did from Cheryl that day, and I hope that I can find such grace in the face of people I’m challenged by in my life.

When I heard that Debbie Friedman had passed away, I was sitting in a conference room at the San Francisco Federation, participating in a board meeting for Keshet, a nonprofit organization working for the full inclusion of GLBT Jews in Jewish Life. I learned of Debbie’s passing via a message posted on Twitter by a lesbian Jewish educator with whom I used to work. The news hit our meeting hard. We stopped for a moment of silence. After all, she was one of us. 

Sadly, Debbie Friedman was not a member of the Keshet board of directors. She was, however, a lesbian Jew. But reading the press asking for healing prayers during her recent illness, or the overwhelming displays of grief and affection in both the Jewish and mainstream press since her passing, you’d never know it.

I didn’t know Debbie personally. But like most liberal Jews my age who have been even the slightest bit involved with organized Judaism, I’ve been touched by her melodies. Most of those songs came to me second- or third-hand, learned at summer camp and USY events from song-leaders and enthusiastic youth leaders who taught their friends to sing “Not By Might” or her havdalah niggun as though they were as old and as central to Judaism as the Torah itself. Although I eventually became familiar with Debbie Friedman’s name, I still prefer to hear her songs shouted by enthusiastic teenagers over her considerably more polished renditions. And it wasn’t until I reached graduate school that I learned that the havdalah melody I had been singing since the fifth grade came from her wellspring of melody.

Debbie Friedman at a Rabbis for Human Rights Event in 2008I didn’t know Debbie personally. But as someone who’s been a leader in the Jewish GLBT world for a number of years, I’ve heard persistent stories about her life as a lesbian. It seems that Debbie’s sexuality was an open secret; everybody knew about it, but no one spoke of it. This made me angry. Was she ashamed? Did she fear for her career? From all accounts, Debbie was incredibly humble – is it possible that she didn’t realize how central and beloved she was to not only her Reform Movement, but to contemporary American Judaism as a whole? I can’t imagine a single synagogue refusing to sing her prayer for healing because the love of her life was a woman, but maybe Debbie could.

I don’t bear any ill-will towards Debbie for staying in the closet. But her life in the closet was double-barreled tragedy: how sad that Debbie could not live her life with wholeness, and how sad that so many queer kids were deprived such an important role model. How ironic that the tyranny of the closet overpowered the woman whose songs let us let go for a moment of what the world might think of us, just long enough to shout “Nutter butter peanut butter” or sway with our arms around our friends and not worry if we looked gay.

My friends who knew Debbie tell me that she had a life-partner. I don’t know her partner’s name, because all the press around Debbie’s illness and passing only asked for prayers and comfort on behalf of Debbie’s sister, family and friends. I hope this did not add to the unbearable pain and loss her partner must be experiencing now, but how could it not?

My friends who knew Debbie tell me that she struggled against the closet, that as recently as this year she expressed a desire to come out and a loss as to how to do so. It saddens me to think of her life ending, prematurely, with this business left unfinished. I hope whoever becomes the guardian of her legacy will follow through on this wish of Debbie’s, so that her life can be a blessing to future generations of GLBT Jews, and to all Jews.

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