Some thoughts about my cousin Debbie Friedman, 1951-2011

To the rest of the world, Debbie Friedman is the woman who changed the face of Jewish music in the second half of the twentieth century. To me, at least until the mid-1970s, she was just another of my thirteen much-older cousins, albeit the only one who shared my name.

When Sing Unto God was released in 1972, my father was the Jewish liturgical professional in the family, the rabbi at Temple Emanu-el, the Reform congregation in Utica, N.Y. When my youth group sang Debbie’s songs at our services, I assumed we were the only youth group doing so, and probably just because Aunt Freda had given us the album.

It didn’t occur to me that other people would buy the record, learn the songs on their own, and be moved by them. Or that someone in my family could have that kind of impact. Besides, my father was supposed to be the Jewish professional.

My father died in 1974. Not long after, Debbie recorded an album with songs from the Song of Songs. “Debbie wrote them in memory of Dad,” my mother told me: Arise my Love; Laugh at All My Dreams; Dodi Li, the phrase engraved on Mom and Dad’s wedding rings.  How neat, I remember thinking. That was nice of her.

And then I went to Kutz Camp (the national leadership training camp for the Reform movement), and heard hundreds of people I didn’t know singing songs my cousin had written in memory of the father who had disappeared from my life with no reasonable explanation.

I was fourteen and fifteen during those summers at Kutz. I made lifelong friends. I developed debilitating crushes on boys who had no interest in me. And I was woefully insecure around the popular girls, the ones who were so comfortable with the boys on whom I had crushes. I wanted those girls to be nice to me instead of snitty.  I wanted the boys to notice me.

I can’t remember the first song session at which I told someone “my cousin wrote that.” I’d like to think the first person I told was someone I knew was my friend, and I told her because I was proud. But I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t occurred to me that telling people Debbie was my cousin was a quick and easy way to get attention.

And so I used it. I used it for nearly two summers, until the day a camper approached me and my sister on the front porch at Kutz, dropped to her knees and made exaggerated gestures of supplication, all the while crying out, “You’re Debbie Friedman’s cousins! You’re Debbie Friedman’s cousins!”

That ended the bragging for me. I’d felt a little uncomfortable doing it in the first place, and the camper’s reaction confirmed my gut instinct that it wasn’t appropriate. My being related to Debbie had nothing to do with her music — unless you counted that Dad had inspired some of her songs.

My mother was the youngest of the five Chernoff children of Sangerfield, New York, and the first to lose a spouse. Between 1975 and 1983, her sister-in-law and three sisters became widows. My grandmother, Bubby (that’s her on the cover of Debbie’s You Shall Be a Blessing CD), was widowed for the second time.

As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s and 90s, Debbie became the constellation around which the former Chernoff women orbited. With no husbands or children at home, they were free to follow her. They were senior citizen groupies, attending as many concerts as they could. It was wonderful — except when Debbie’s schedule conflicted with my personal life and I had to remind my mother that she also had a daughter named Debby and I wanted to be her priority.

I saw Debbie a lot more from the mid-1970s on, perhaps because we had all those family funerals to attend (and, blessedly, our share of simchas), but also because she had a wonderful relationship with my mother and visited whenever she could.

One of my favorite memories is of a weekend in January 1990, when Debbie had concerts in New Jersey and New York. I drove in from Ithaca and shared a hotel suite with Mom, Debbie and Aunt Freda. I was also looking forward to seeing some friends from New Jersey. I’d given them the hotel phone number so we could set up a meeting time. The phone rang and Mom picked it up.

“No, this isn’t Debbie’s mother,” she said. “It’s her aunt.”

“Mom! You are Debby’s mother!” I said, but she’d already given the phone to Debbie Friedman, who was saying, “No, you want Debby Waldman.”  (To be fair to Mom, and to quote her defense, “It was Debbie Friedman’s room. I didn’t know you gave anyone the number.”)

My friends came over. They had no idea who Debbie Friedman was (one was Catholic, one grew up speaking in tongues at a Pentecostal church) but they hit it off because they loved playing Boggle as much as she did. We had a rollicking great series of games. That afternoon she was the cousin Debbie who had all the time in the world for me, the one I loved to be with.

As her star kept rising, I saw that Debbie less. There were so many demands on her time and mine (with a move to Canada, marriage, and kids). I was proud of her and all she was achieving, but sometimes I resented that her success meant we didn’t see each other as often. I thought she didn’t care about me. I conveniently forgot how generous she had been with me, writing a song and playing it beautifully at my wedding in 1992, entertaining me and my husband and our friends at her New York apartment, insisting I take voice lessons to strengthen my muscles when I was teaching in the late 1980s, introducing me to a book editor friend whose encouragement helped me to persevere with my writing.

Listening to the beautiful and moving tributes at Debbie’s horribly too-soon funeral, I realized something I probably should have years ago: she wanted to make time for everyone. She belonged to everyone, and wanted to give to everyone, and she did, until she had no more to give.

Debbie never set out to become famous. I believe her success surprised her as much as it did the rest of the family. We come from humble roots: our grandfather, Bill, who was known as Velvel when he emigrated from eastern Europe as a teenager in the early 1900s, started out as a peddler before becoming a farmer in central New York. Around town he was known as Billy the Jew.

Zayde died when I was two, but I’ve been told repeatedly about his playfulness and generosity. One of my favorite stories is about the time he came across a newlywed couple buying a heater for their car. They were en route from New York to Kentucky. Zayde recognized that they were Jewish and invited them to the farm for breakfast. After the meal they headed west, but were turned back in Ohio because a storm had forced massive road closures.

The next day, Friday, as they drove past the farm heading toward New York, Zayde was in the front yard, chopping wood. They honked the horn and waved. Zayde invited them in.

“We can’t stay,” the husband explained. “It’s my wife’s first Shabbos as a married woman, and she wants to get at least as far as Albany to light candles.”

“Never mind that,” Zayde said. “Stay and celebrate Shabbos with us.”

They did. The following June they returned with the wife’s younger brother, Gabe Friedman. He was 15. Freda was 14. They began corresponding. Five years later, they married. Debbie was their third daughter, their baby girl.

Hospitality, Jewishness, generosity, humor. These are the things that shaped all of the Chernoff  grandkids, but in Debbie the ingredients combined to make a superstar. Even after nearly 40 years, I had trouble reconciling the notion that my cousin was a beloved icon. She was my cousin. My funny, lively, loving, warm and sometimes irritating cousin. The closest my sister and I came to reverence was to refer to her as “our esteemed relative.”

Reconciling the public and private Debbies became harder when she took ill and news stories began appearing on the web, and harder still after she died and the tributes began pouring in. The world has lost a treasure. I read that somewhere. But our family — especially her mother, sisters, brother-in-law, and aunts —have lost someone even more special.

I last saw Debbie in July, just after she moved to California to be near my aunts and one of her sisters. My husband, our two children, and my daughter’s best friend spent a wonderful afternoon with her. “I haven’t had such a nice time with Debbie in ages,” I wrote in my journal. “She was relaxed and at peace and happy and it showed and it made her heaps of fun to be with.”

We talked about a picture book she wanted to write together. We talked about having my mother move from Massachusetts to California, something Debbie had been wanting for quite some time. “I want to take care of your mother,” she said. “She should be here with her sisters.”

I could see Debbie hanging out a shingle, Chernoff Sisters Assisted Living Facility, where she would fulfill her dream of taking care of the mother and aunts who had been so devoted to her all those years. Now in their 80s and 90s, they didn’t have the energy to follow her around the way they used to. This way she could have them in one place, and she would be there with them.

Given all the deaths we’ve had in our family — in addition to the men of the first and second generations, there were four male cousins who died well before their time — I thought I was good at grieving. But this loss stings in unexpected ways. I suppose it’s partly because it’s so public. But it’s also because Debbie was such a vital force in our family, despite her health problems. And it’s also because I long ago bought into the family mythology that our women would live forever.

I know Debbie will, through her music. Right now that doesn’t feel like enough, but when some of this pain subsides, it will be a blessing. It is a blessing. And so was she.

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3 Responses

  1. Dear Debby,

    I thank you for sharing some of your family’s history on the web. You are obviously a very special Debby as well. I grew up in Houston, and am one of many who was saddened by the events of the past few weeks, as Debbie was the music teacher at the Jewish day school I attended. I will not pretend to understand how difficult it must be to be grieving the loss of Debbie in your family, in the shadow of the thousands around the world, who felt she was part of their family. I can only tell you that I hope that your family will somehow make its way through the difficult days ahead, and please know that I am thinking of all of you, praying for comfort and healing for your family.

    • Dear Rebecca,
      Thank you for your lovely message. Your sentiment, that thousands around the world felt Debbie was part of their family, really sums things up. Maybe you have some memories you’d like to share, of when Debbie was your teacher in Houston. It’s been helpful for me to talk to other people about Debbie, and hear their stories about her, and I know that’s been helpful to my aunts and my mom and cousins, too.

  2. i would be honored to share memories with you…here goes:

    I remember she was always speaking Hebrew to all the other Hebrew-speaking teachers at the school, and I was always in awe of that. Her enthusiasm was truly remarkable, and I have a hard time believing that I am now a few years older than she was, when she was our teacher…how time does pass…

    I vividly recall her teaching us the songs of the Purim play, and then later finding them on cassette (do I ever date myself :-), feeling special having learned them from her prior to their being published. This day school was under the auspices of the Conservative movement, so they were not aware of the breadth of Debbie’s music, but since my mom grew up in the Reform movement, I had been exposed to her previous albums (now I am REALLY dating myself, but yes, they were albums).

    My mom remarried in December of 1980, and one of my fondest memories was her singing at their wedding in Houston. I have the negatives from the wedding, and among them, is a photo of Debbie and my parents. Debbie just truly looked happy to be part of it, which was, of course, part of her charm. I have been meaning to have the photos from the wedding printed, and will be sure to do it soon, so that if you would like a copy, I will be happy to send one for you, and anyone else that might enjoy seeing a very youthful Debbie in print.

    During the time that Debbie lived in Houston, she also started a wonderful Zimreyah program for children at the JCC, which I was part of…it was tremendous fun, though she was, of course, very serious about the kids doing an excellent job. I think there were easily 30 kids involved, maybe as many as 50, and Debbie handled everyone easily by herself, to my recollection. She was firm, but loving and funny.

    My mom was in the adult version of the choir, and Debbie let me be part of it since I was around…my mom recently told me that there was a JCC event and the adult choir sang for it. Apparently, the local TV press was there, and the main clip was of the choir singing, and the executive director of the JCC would have preferred that they interview some of the local leadership. Oh well!!!! Who could resist Debbie’s music??!!

    Last week, as I was looking for a book in my basement, I found a copy of Not By Might (the music). I had no recollection of this, but apparently, Debbie wrote me a beautiful note, which, needless to say, I will always treasure.

    I also happen to be married to a man whose uncle is also an uncle to a dear friend of Debbie’s from Houston (Amelia Kornfeld), who passed away earlier this week. To hear that Debbie made a special trip to visit her friend Amelia Kornfeld only weeks before she became ill herself, is truly heartwarming. Amelia and Debbie were both such energetic and creative spirits, and to lose such precious women in a short time frame, is beyond sad.

    I worked at a Reform Jewish Day School here in Atlanta, and she performed for its evening of honor in 1999 or 2000. I was teaching Judaics and Hebrew at the school, and what an amazing experience for me to help lead services with my former music teacher. I was beyond thrilled that once I introduced myself by my maiden name, having not seen one another in nearly 20 years, she remembered who I was. The fact that I had pursued a career in Jewish education was certainly in part, due, to Debbie herself, and I was so proud for her to see me as an adult.

    She greeted me with a warm smile and hug, despite her physical challenges, not believing her eyes that I had grown up. This too, is an experience that I will always remember. I hope that for the students that I have taught over the years, that I have just a few who remember me in a positive light.

    I am now working only part-time, preparing students for Bar/Bat Mitzvah at several local synagogues. The Sunday after her funeral, I was trying to figure out how I could share a little bit about my experiences of the past week with my students. I decided to take a few minutes from each lesson to share a little bit about Debbie’s music and her life, with each of my students and their parents. I explained that the one line from Lechi Lach about being a blessing, is really the reason that I tutor kids for their simcha. Learning to read from the Torah, chant the service, etc., these are all great things. But, I emphasized to them that as you think about the choices that will come your way in the years to come, and you can ask yourself “if I take this action, am I being a blessing?”…you will never go wrong if you think of life in these terms. This might be a little tough for a 12-13 year old student to remember, but at least I shared a little about Debbie and how they can, too, make their lives a blessing, as she did.
    The parents were so happy to have me give this type of advice to their students (we all know how kids tend to listen more to others than their parents), and it gave me a sense of peace to be able to share some of my past with them.

    Like so many others have said over the past few weeks, there are not enough words to express how grateful I am to have known her—her energy, strength and resilience were truly remarkable. I still live in Atlanta, and we are tentatively planning a Havdalah service in Debbie’s memory, and if there is anything that you may wish to say, or have a particular request, we would be honored to convey a message to the community of people in Atlanta who will gather for the evening in April.

    You spoke about having conveniently forgotten about the time she did give you at various points in your life…do not let the guilt stay very long—we all have regrets about having not been appreciative enough when someone we love is gone. I am sure she knew how much she meant to you, and I am sure she must have treasured her relationship with you as well. Be sure to pursue your writing the picture book that you spoke of in your blog, and although Debbie is not here to co-author it, I know she will be with you in spirit as you write it. I only hope that the Chernoff sisters and the rest of the family, will find a way to continue living, cherishing the memories, hoping they will not cause pain for too long. All of Debbie’s “friends” around the world, I am sure, pray for this to come to pass.

    I admire your courage to write about your experiences, and thank you for writing back to me as well. I hope my thoughts will bring some comfort to you, and of course, feel free to share them with anyone in your family.

    Rebecca in Atlanta

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