When I first walked into the synagogue here in New Orleans, after a year of nothing but work and heartache, it was the first time I'd been to a regular Shabbat service since well before high school.
I knew no one and took comfort in the rhythms and liturgy that came so easily to me after years of wrestling with the heritage I'd been raised in versus the world of the arts I'd so yearned to join for so long. The cantor took up his guitar after a moment of silent prayer, and I knew within the first few chords that I'd found a spiritual home. I started to sing along with the melody my music teacher from grade school had taught me, one she'd crafted as a round. I remembered she had been fond of rounds: one didn't have to be preoccupied with one's vocal range in a round. High voices could take up the second part while the low ones stayed with the first, a layering that created a moment much greater than the words and the melody, a true offering to God. Anyone could learn it and revel in it, and that Shabbat, I did. I found my voice again.
Who had given me the tools that had lain dormant within me for so long? In what was still a fairly paternalistic world in terms of who were the rabbis and cantors, the one who gave us the most in terms of memorable melodies, snippets of Jewish learning through song, some folk standards, and simply an overall sense of what ruach was supposed to be like was a woman, bringing it into our classroom once a week with her guitar, pulling out every performing trick in the book and then some to keep all of us engaged. We loved her. And she loved us back.
She died on Sunday, having branched out from our school to bring those feelings to a Jewish world that now mourns her. So many sang the Mi Sheibeirach she'd worked out of what was a fairly rote prayer said for the continued health of those who'd read from the Torah. Her words expanded on that prayer, her version becoming part of the Jewish liturgy for Reform (and some Conservative) congregations worldwide, but it couldn't stave off the pneumonia that took her life.
My mother asked me if I could find somewhere online one of the rounds of hers that she'd taught us in the first choir I'd ever been a member of. My teacher had founded the Zimriyah Choir at the local JCC, and the room in which she held rehearsals was filled largely with the kids I'd been through her grade school classes with. Here we were entering jaded preteen adolescence and bar/bat mitzvah preparations - at least, outside of that room, we were. Inside it, we were perfecting a round based on a niggun, a wordless melody built on bim bom, biri biri bom, biri biri bim bom, biri biri bom. It was a series of rounds that made up the Zimriyah's few concerts, in the largest Reform temple in the area. I wish it had continued for much longer than that.
The traditional thing to say when one of our community passes is zichron l'vrachah - may his/her memory be for a blessing.
But there will never be a problem with Debbie Friedman's memory being a blessing for me.
Taken much too soon.