Debbie Friedman and the Tragedy of the Closet

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.

65 Responses to “Debbie Friedman and the Tragedy of the Closet”

  1. Congratulations for outing her against her wishes. Whether you think she should have come out or not, it was her decision to make. Now that she has passed away that decision belongs to her family and partner, not a blogger who “didn’t know Debbie personally”.


    Avi · January 11th, 2011 at 12:15 am
  2. I am of Debbie Friedman’s age group, not yours, but while I am a straight male, I can understand her struggle. That’s because I first heard Debbie’s music as a college senior in the mid-1970s when one of my roommates (a couple of years older) played the first side of her “Not by Might” album over and over on his record player every Friday evening before shabbat. My roommate was Jewishly active, played the guitar, sang and had dated Debbie, but the relationship had not worked out — for reasons that, at the time, I’m sure he couldn’t imagine.

    You’re right that Debbie’s sexual orientation eventually became an open secret, but all of us are prisoners to some extent of our times. May her memory be for a blessing.


    Michael Millenson · January 11th, 2011 at 12:25 am
  3. I’ve followed your personal journey on this site, so I can understand your perspective, but I find your post incredibly condescending. It is any person’s right, whether in the public eye or not, role model or not, to decide what part of her life she wishes to make public and which to keep private, which parts of her identity to celebrate and which to keep in the background, and what she wants to stand for or keep as private convictions in her heart. As surely as it was right for you to come out publicly in a Jewish setting, she never found it right for her to make this public declaration of this particular aspect of herself. So? You assume she suffered for stifling herself, but was ever there a woman who so transparently poured so much of her heart and faith out in public? You sell her incredibly short to say she did not live her life with wholeness; it sure seems to me that she gave & received love *as she wished to* — how is that incomplete?

    The results of gay liberation over the course of Debbie’s too-short life are revolutionary, but the fact that she could have safely come out does not OBLIGATE her to have. Debbie revolutionized the way we all speak about and pray to G-d. If that was as far as she was prepared to take her message, that is a thousand times further than most of us can ever imagine having an effect. She may not have been the specific kind of role model you think she should have been, but anyone who devotes her life to spreading songs about G-d’s lovingkindness is doing so much more to create a safe world for succeeding generations to come out into.


    Victoria · January 11th, 2011 at 12:25 am
  4. Avi – You make it sound like it’s a disease.


    EV · January 11th, 2011 at 12:33 am
  5. Victoria — if the implicit message of her life is that in order to spread a message of God’s love, one has to hide one’s own love… that’s doing the opposite of creating safe space. There’s a reason we have so many cliches about actions speaking louder than words (or, if you prefer a Jewish version, Heschel opined that more than text-books we need text-people).

    Show me one straight leader of a similar stature who “kept their private life private” to the point of pretending they didn’t have a spouse.


    dlevy · January 11th, 2011 at 12:40 am
  6. It’s so sad that you’re so angry. Sad because Debbie never once hid the fact that she was a lesbian. I knew her personally and was significantly more saddened by her passing than whether or not she chose to keep her sexual life private, as so many people do, including not only homosexuals but heterosexuals as well. Instead of dwelling on your own ghosts of non-acceptance, be kind enough to be sensitive not just about your own feelings, but others as well. And no, I am not gay, but that does not make me any less tearful that Debbie is no longer with us.


    Ron · January 11th, 2011 at 12:55 am
  7. I don’t know whether Debbie Firedman was or was not a lesbian. Though in my experience if one has to say that about someone so well known, the answer is almost always yes. Heterosexuals tend to leave a public trail of their romantic life somehow. LGBT people often do not.

    But I can testify to this. Debbie Firedman’s music reach me first over an incredibly static-filled distant am signal very late one night as I drove. It took me more than an hour to get her name – and in those days before amazon and itunes, months to find her cds. Though I am a gentile, though I am queer, though I could barely understand most of the words, Debbie Friedman’s voice reached in and touched my heart. Debbie Friedman was a special channel of the Holy Spirit.

    If because of homophobia she suffered here on this earth the soul-torture that is the closet, may he loved ones be comforted by the miracle that was her life and may her music give us all the courage and strength to change the world so that others need never know that pain.


    kate · January 11th, 2011 at 1:13 am
  8. I knew Debbie very well for many years –more than 35–she didn’t deny being gay. And in fact she was an important lesbian role model for years for many of us and I knew her partners/spouses and your characterizations are unfair and unkind. She lived openly with her girlfriends. In fact there were many years of quiet work. The 70′s and 80′s and even early 90′s were different times. Many of us lesbians found Debbie to be the support for the work we did and we did amazing feminist work together. The world was different then and not everyone will be on the board of glbt organizations like you and I. When Debbie performed at Kol Ami just this last May –she came out on stage to all who were at the House of Blues.

    So please there is no tragedy of the closet. Only in her death at such a young age, her fragile health and the tragedy that we who loved her will not be able to laugh, sing with her, hear a new song or receive her warm authentic embrace and smile that made you feel like you were the only one in the room.


    Denise Eger · January 11th, 2011 at 2:28 am
  9. I’m a student of Debbie’s and came to know her quite well in the last months of her life. I’m also a child of a gay man and an intern at a primarly LGBT congregation in Los Angeles. I want to stress that Debbie was private about many things. The privacy she maintained around her sexuality is congruent with the privacy she maintained around most aspects of her personal life, including her health. While I understand the points being made, I want to suggest that while we encountered Debbie as a public figure, I think in many ways she yearned to maintain some privacy. And, while there may have been value in the public having certain knowledge about her, Debbie’s commitment to putting her music out while trying to keep her life less public is part of what made her so incredible. z”l


    JYG · January 11th, 2011 at 2:37 am
  10. It is my understanding that Debbie Friedman kept many aspects of her life private.


    Rosel · January 11th, 2011 at 2:53 am
  11. Let her rest in peace. Who cares what two consenting adults do behind closed doors. Her music is her legacy!!


    Angel · January 11th, 2011 at 3:08 am
  12. “if the implicit message of her life is that in order to spread a message of God’s love, one has to hide one’s own love…”

    Hide from whom?
    It is nobody’s obligation to share intimate information with the whole world. It is the right of an individual to share what they want, at the time they want, with those choose.

    The only exception I see is the Outing of clergy and law makers who publicly promote an anti-Gay agenda.

    @dlevy: I would like to hear from you as to why you feel you have the right to share information that Debbie may have preferred to keep private?
    Are you suggesting that we should all feel justified in outing public figures, against their wishes, just because we may know?


    Meir Eynaim · January 11th, 2011 at 7:11 am
  13. “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?”

    If it were me, I might want not want the moment of my partner’s passing to also be the moment of her coming out. I might not want to deal with public debate about her sexuality, whether from the right (does this make Debbie’s music unfit? Was she a “good jew”?) or the left (Should she have come out? Is she less of a role model?). Frankly, the shiva period is not the time for asking such questions–I find this post disrespectful.


    one lesbian jew · January 11th, 2011 at 11:26 am
  14. You arrogant, self-centered condescending child! How dare you make her death about you and your issues rather than celebrating her life. You did not know her, how she lived or what was important to her and have no right to pass judgment in this way. As someone who knew her for almost 30 years, I’m utterly appalled by your utter and callous disregard for her feelings because she didn’t do what you wanted her to do.

    You’re angry because she died before she could make a public statement of her life that would make you happy despite the fact that it’s none of your damned business? Deal with it, I’m deeply saddened that with her passing the world is a darker place and people such as yourself are already acting to exploit her passing for their own causes.


    SJ · January 11th, 2011 at 11:27 am
  15. The freedom born of the gay rights movement also included the freedom to live life as one chooses. Perhaps Friedman believed that her significance was her music, not her sexuality, and chose to present to the world the former, rather than the latter. We are obligated to respect her decision.


    Too Old to Jewschool Steve · January 11th, 2011 at 11:33 am
  16. The Jewish community seems to consider Debbie Friedman a figure of major spiritual enlightenment on a par with Reb Nachman. As such — aside from questions of whether we should treat homosexuality as an embarrassing social or congenital disease — details of her personal life are important for historical reasons alone. The only question is whether it is too soon, not whether her biographical data should be kept hidden.


    EV · January 11th, 2011 at 12:19 pm
  17. I agree with EV, but this feels too soon- and cheap on top of that.


    Josh · January 11th, 2011 at 12:42 pm
  18. Edit: not “seems to” but “considers.” I wrote “seems to” only because I’m not familiar with Debbie Friedman, so I’m reading the eulogies as something of a stranger.


    EV · January 11th, 2011 at 12:43 pm
  19. It was just pointed out to me that the New York Times mentioned Debbie’s sexuality in their obituary. I trust you’ll all be writing letters to the editor.


    dlevy · January 11th, 2011 at 1:21 pm
  20. I certainly empathize with dlevy’s frustrations and agree, in large part, with his hypotheses/analyses (which he poses in the form of questions) about why she was closeted. I do think that he could have shown a bit more care and respect for the Friedman family’s wish for privacy by at least waiting to publish this piece until after the funeral and after her family had sat shiva. This seems like the respectful thing to have done. In terms of mainstream media coverage of her death, it’s relevant to point out the following sentence in the NY Times obit that was published this morning: www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/arts/music/11friedman.html. “Many of her English lyrics concerned the empowerment of women and other disenfranchised groups, stemming, her associates said on Monday, from the quiet pride she took in her life as a gay woman.”


    Jordan · January 11th, 2011 at 1:25 pm
  21. @dlevy There’s a big difference between reporting her orientation (1 issue) and critiquing and/or judging her choice to keep her orientation private (another issue).


    one lesbian jew · January 11th, 2011 at 1:25 pm
  22. To be honest, I’ve never heard of Debbie Friedman until the Jewschool post earlier to pray for her health. It’s interesting that such a major force and personality in the lives of so many of you went completely unknown through my ten or so years of active Jewish communal life, or in the passive Jewish life that came before. The American Jewish community is a bigger place than I thought.


    Victor · January 11th, 2011 at 1:38 pm
  23. Shame on you for disrespecting Debbie Friedman’s privacy. She was a deeply kind and spiritual person and gave so much to Judaism and the world. I knew her from a very long time ago, but know from others that she was extraordinarily private about her personal life, whether it be health, relationships, etc. SHE should get to decide what she shares with others and now you’ve done it without her consent. Who cares what her sexuality was, everyone adored Debbie and she was accepted unconditionally by all who were touched by her songs and spirit. Who are YOU to be her voice when she can no longer have one? How disgusting, selfish and self-serving of you to betray such a beautiful soul the moment she left this earth. She deserves so much better.


    lesliem · January 11th, 2011 at 1:39 pm
  24. @lesliem – Please note the following sentence that was published in The New York Times obituary this morning: www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/arts/music/11friedman.html. “Many of her English lyrics concerned the empowerment of women and other disenfranchised groups, stemming, her associates said on Monday, from the quiet pride she took in her life as a gay woman.”


    Jordan · January 11th, 2011 at 1:46 pm
  25. @dlevy you wrote: “It was just pointed out to me that the New York Times mentioned Debbie’s sexuality in their obituary.”

    As in, you didn’t know that before you posted this piece. You’re trying to hide behind a technicality. Before I read your piece I had no idea Debbie was gay, nor did I care. Given the comments you are receiving, maybe a certain amount of self reflection, and then a public apology would be in order here.


    ayajewhuasca · January 11th, 2011 at 3:04 pm
  26. @ayajewhuasca, the obit was published after this blog post, so I don’t see your point on timing.

    As others have pointed out here and elsewhere, Debbie wasn’t really “in the closet” despite not speaking extensively about her life as a gay woman. I made no critique of her choices, only of the kind of society that makes those choices feel necessary.

    I particularly appreciate Rabbi Eger’s comments here. And all I wish is that those who don’t see that this post came from a place of love understand that looking for heroes and role-models is a life-saving act for GLBT people. While you, individually, may not care that a particular person is gay — someone out there who thinks they’re the only one or they can never reach their full potential because they are gay can look to examples like Debbie (and, I would add, like Rabbi Eger) and know that’s not true.


    dlevy · January 11th, 2011 at 3:35 pm
  27. blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/134584/


    Debra Nussbaum Cohen · January 11th, 2011 at 3:46 pm
  28. Yes, I appreciate your point about LGBTQ role models, and generally agree with it, and I also believe you when you say that you are coming at this from a place of love. But sometimes we can come from a place of love and with good intentions and still be wrong, and still cause pain. I believe the anger you feel directed at you here is the consensus that it was not your place to make this decision on Debbie’s behalf or on her family’s behalf.

    With respect to the timing issue, that was my point exactly: Your post was first. You did the initial outing, not the Times. If the Obit came first then maybe you’d be able to say that the issue was out in the open anyway, so there would be no harm in doing what you did. The fact that the Times published after you doesn’t absolve you of anything, so I fail to see why you raised it as a defense.


    ayajewhuasca · January 11th, 2011 at 4:04 pm
  29. I can understand the emotions here on all sides. This is very tough. I know people who knew Debbie personally and studied under her and who are devastated at her loss. If one is feeling that grief, then I can totally understand why they would read this and see it as an attack on Debbie and get angry. I can also understand the anger people feel at the idea of violating privacy.

    I am very sensitive to people having the right to disclose only what they want to about their private lives only when they want to and to whom. In fact, I think we have too much disclosure of things that should be private. Debbie apparently kept her sexuality private, and it was her right so to do.

    I agree with with the author, though, that it would have been a good thing if Debbie had had the opportunity to come out publicly in life. I did not know, nor did I have any indication, that she was a lesbian until this morning. Other commenters have said that the only people who should be outer are those who take antigay positions and actions. It is also important, though, for gay people who are role models like Debbie was to come out, both for the benefit of those struggling with their own sexuality and to show the world what GLBT people contribute.

    The person who said Debbie’s status as a lesbian is important for history is correct. We are still in a struggle for liberation and acceptance. But it is also true that it is very soon. Let her be buried with honor and let those who loved her grieve with dignity. I agree with the offer that it is a loss that she never had the opportunity to come out and that it is a tragedy if some external factors prevented her from doing so. I just think that the timing and perhaps wording of this piece were ill-advised.


    nieciedo · January 11th, 2011 at 4:09 pm
  30. My point was that, as I said in the initial post, her gay identity was an “open secret” if not totally open.


    dlevy · January 11th, 2011 at 4:12 pm
  31. I don’t doubt that. However, I had never had the privilege of meeting her and I did not know she was a lesbian until I read the Times this morning. I agree essentially with what you say here. It would have been great if she had been able to come out in life, but she chose for whatever reason(s) not to do so -which was her right. I agree though that it is a loss for everyone if there were some factors that prevented her from doing so, but the problem is that we don’t know what she thought and felt and why she made the choices she did. It can seem presumptuous and arrogant to try to read her mind after the fact.

    The reason I suggested it’s too soon is that she touched many people in very deep ways. These people’s hearts have been broken and their emotions are raw. It makes sense they would view anything that seems to challenge or criticize the person they loved as an attack, even if it was not an attack and even if the points were valid. It would have been better to give some space for thT grieving first.


    nieciedo · January 11th, 2011 at 4:33 pm
  32. Although I find the content of your post interesting and the topic important to discuss, the tone and timing is pretty insensitive considering that her funeral was today and many of those who DID know her have had a difficult day as we said goodbye to our friend and teacher. Its frankly, just too soon.

    that being said, as an out lesbian rabbi, Debbie was beyond supportive of me, affirmed and celebrated my choices and loved me for how God made me and for the life I have led.

    I did, I do and now that she’s gone, I’ll continue to do the same for her.


    kp · January 11th, 2011 at 4:49 pm
  33. I just read both David’s piece and the many responses it generated. I offer these thoughts respectfully and lovingly to David, my good friend and colleague, and to the many who posted responses.

    I didn’t grow up in the Reform movement, I spent most summers with my family in Israel, not at summer camp in the U.S., so I didn’t encounter Debbie Friedman’s music until college, and I never had the opportunity to meet her. Yet here I sit with tears streaming after listening to her cherished colleagues, teachers, students, and other loved ones speak about her at her funeral.

    There are no words to capture the transformative impact she had on Jewish life. Her open, accessible, and expansive approach to liturgy and Jewish music invited so many of us to connect with prayer and a sense of the divine. She revolutionized the way we relate to prayer and ritual melody, offering inclusive expression for all of us, LGBT and straight alike. I trust that we will soon hear new-old songs and melodies that those whom she inspired will compose in her spirit and in her memory.

    As some of the speakers at her funerals have referenced, Debbie Friedman clearly struggled in her life — with physical illness, with a sense of vulnerability, with the challenges of being a public figure. Those of us who were not intimately close with her cannot really know or understand these struggles, including whatever struggles she had around her sexual orientation. As someone who works every day for LGBT inclusion and equality in Jewish life and in the broader world, I share David’s sense of loss of the good that could have come from Debbie being fully out. Yet I feel that now is not the time to criticize or lament, even lovingly, the choices she did or did not make.

    Now is the time to honor the profound beauty and blessing of Debbie’s life and to give her loved ones the time and space for mourning.

    As I wrote above, I didn’t know Debbie, so I don’t know if this is true, but she sounds like someone who would have welcomed this kind of vigorous community dialogue at the right time. She sounds like someone who would have embraced the impulse beneath all our words: how to be our best, most courageous, most whole selves. There will be a time for a fuller, more robust discussion. For now, I offer my deep condolences to all who loved Debbie, I share the sorrow of all who were touched by her, and I pray that we all may find the words and actions to live out her song. May her memory be a blessing.

    Idit Klein, Executive Director, Keshet


    Idit Klein · January 11th, 2011 at 5:28 pm
  34. Astonishing. How on earth could thus post be made, either fot its content or timing. A few simple values like kavod hamet (honouring the dead) and comforting the bereaved must surely be more important. Not only is it crass, insensitive, and quite profoundly distasteful it is also irrelevant. Dlevy, might you in future take your grievances up with the living than the dead. Poor poor judgement on your part I think. May her memory always be for a blessing.


    Ben joseph · January 11th, 2011 at 6:03 pm
  35. dlevy, thanks for your thoughtful post and responses.

    those who are upset with dlevy for sharing his grief, i understand your desire to honor our friend and teacher with the privacy she desired. but i am upset that you would demand that dlevy hide his particular grief–related to debbie’s not-quite-closeted identity–as if the grief of LGBT people for their comrades and partners in the movement are somehow embarrassing or in fact reflect poorly on the grievers or those who have died.

    may we not mourn our sister, both our loss and her silence? and may we not rail against the oppression that silenced her?


    Rebecca Ennen · January 11th, 2011 at 6:18 pm
  36. More than 7000 folks were watching the memorial service online. Her death has established a kind of modern high water mark for spiritual celebrity in our community.
    I can’t help but wonder who else in the Reform movement or liberal Jewish world would elicit this kind of response were they to die.
    I’m a little proud to be a liberal Jew today, even though I don’t actually like DB’s music. The point is, this lesbian woman turns out to have been one of the pivots around which liberal Judaism turns. Good for her. Good for us. If only her humility and joy were more common among the formal title holders among our leaders.


    Jew Guevara · January 11th, 2011 at 6:34 pm
  37. Rebecca ennen, do me a favor there are plenty of ways for us all to express grief. This is far from the most appropriate. And could we please stop making judgements about the quality of life or wholeness or choices about someone who has just been buried. A time to be silent and a time to speak.


    Ben joseph · January 11th, 2011 at 6:46 pm
  38. Friends,
    Debbie’s funeral today was one of the most moving and connected moments of my life. And I experienced it from afar with 7000+ others who gathered around laptops with others or alone and mourned and cried together. Tamara Cohen gave one of the most profound, magnificent and soaring eulogies of all time among other profound rabbis and teachers, Jewish educators and family who poured out their loss through the poetry of Debbie’s life. Please honor her legacy on this day of international grief as we escort her soul to its place on high.


    Rabbi Riqi Kosovske · January 11th, 2011 at 10:12 pm
  39. I have sat here for the past 1/2 hour trying to figure out how to compose my response. Debbie’s mother, aunts and sisters are far too immersed in their grief (and don’t get involved in the world of blogging, facebook, etc) to respond. I feel the need to respond. First of all – my name is Elise Levine, I am Debbie’s cousin, I was at her bedside in the last hours of her life, reading Tehillim and praying the Viddui with close family members and friends. For all to speculate on whether there was a partner, whether that partner was purposely excluded etc. is shameful. Our family (and specifically Debbie’s mom and sister) would NEVER have excluded any significant person in Debbie’s life from her funeral. I am unclear as to who this “mystery” partner is – and why the need to bring this up. Our family is inclusionist.. in the first “family” five rows of the funeral service were lesbians, Catholics, Christians, Mexicans, Jews, people heavily tattooed and I am sure other “types” and this is just our immediate family. As someone who always went to great lengths to include those who appeared to be marginalized, I find it sad that people are already picking at someone’s blessed memory to find flaws. Was Debbie perfect? No – but I can tell you that if there was a partner – she would have been part of yesterday’s events and sitting in the front row with Frieda, Cheryl, Ann, Irlene and all of our cousins. If nothing else DLevys comments are a slap at our family for purportedly excluding someone from the funeral.


    Elise Levine · January 12th, 2011 at 1:23 pm
  40. If DLevy is so proud to be an activist and out, why didn’t DLevy identify itself more clearly? Young gays and lesbians need you as a role model. What is your profession, DLevy? Who is your employer? Where do you live? We have a right to know, don’t we?


    Roger · January 12th, 2011 at 2:48 pm
  41. The problems I have with this post — besides the issues of insensitive timing and what felt to me like a cavalier rush to presume one’s private intentions or motivations, all of which have been criticized well by earlier respondents — lie with the basic factual inaccuracy of the post’s focus and with its over-reliance on hearsay.

    David Levy concedes — especially following my colleague Denise Eger’s anecdote that Debbie “came out on stage” to all who were at a recent concert — that “Debbie wasn’t really ‘in the closet’ despite not speaking extensively about her life as a gay woman.” However, so much of the thrust of Levy’s post was about Debbie being “overpowered” by “the tyranny of the closet.” I fail to see how he could have written this piece at all — and use that kind of language — if he had understood the reality that was quite different than the picture he painted. After all, he uses the phrase, “the tragedy of the closet” in the title of his post — and as many have indicated here, the closet is not part of this tragedy at all.

    Had Levy gathered more reliable information before needing to couch all of his supposedly factual statements with prefaces like “My friends who knew Debbie tell me…,” then he would have had a very different story. The New York Times obituary cites a family spokesperson and then attributes the description of Debbie’s “quiet pride … as a gay woman” to “her associates.” David Levy is not the New York Times and surely did not speak to a family spokesperson or to those who could be identified in a responsible newspaper’s obituary as “her associates;” rather, he relied on hearsay. Perhaps blogging about public matters and other people by those who are not professional journalists should be undertaken with a lot more humility and caution.

    Also, as other respondents have emphasized, Debbie’s overall approach towards privacy and her general way of being in the world suggest that matters of personal disposition — much more than societal homophobia — are the explanations for Debbie Friedman’s not fulfilling David Levy’s vision of being a public spokesperson for the causes and concerns that she surely held dear. Again, I believe a stronger understanding of the subject he was choosing to discuss, namely Debbie herself, would have helped inform Levy’s choice to write this piece. Then, perhaps a more appropriate title would have been, “Debbie Friedman and the tragedy of wishing that all public figures would adopt a public posture that doesn’t fit their disposition,” or something like that. For Levy to have presumed that the scant, second-hand information he had was sufficient to write the post he published was quite irresponsible.

    The contrast to responsible journalism is even clearer in the follow-up to this post, where a more direct apology or retraction seems much more appropriate than Levy’s ongoing, equivocating defense of something that, had he obtained more reliable information in the first place, I doubt he would have chosen to write at all.


    Rick Brody · January 12th, 2011 at 4:24 pm
  42. While you may decry this post, there are others who, in the name of their ‘friendship’ of Debbie Friedman z’l, exploit her death.

    Organizations claiming Friedman as having championed their cause now ask for donations in her name when she never did alive and have not waited for her to be buried to do so.

    Dlevy raises raise valid if poorly timed concerns. Others have overtly exploited the moment. Which is worse?


    SG · January 12th, 2011 at 5:37 pm
  43. I highly encourage everyone to go to the link that dlevy posted to DF’s melody for the havdalah blessings and learn to sing it the way she wrote it (viz. the melody, the rhythm, and the tempo). Debbie Friedman was always very insistent on making sure her songs were sung the correct way, but somehow the transmission of this one went totally awry. I don’t want to single out any denominations by name, but I think the blame for this faulty transmission can be pinned on one that starts with a C.


    BZ · January 12th, 2011 at 7:59 pm
  44. I’m watching the funeral now (a day late), and someone just told a story of Debbie leading havdalah, starting this melody, then yelling “Stop! That’s not how I wrote it.” So I’m not making it up!


    BZ · January 12th, 2011 at 9:13 pm
  45. @ BZ, je t’<3. Seriously.


    TheWanderingJew · January 12th, 2011 at 11:21 pm
  46. Dlevy, I am a queer Jew who is mourning Debbie’s passing because she inspired me with her music and taught me a great deal about spiritual leadership. I would like to be sympathetic to your desire for vocal GLBT Jewish role models, but I must tell you that I am appalled that Debbie’s family got wind of your premature and ill-informed post during their shiva week. I hope you will offer them an apology.


    Yeilah · January 12th, 2011 at 11:37 pm
  47. What are the odds that Debbie’s family would have seen this post if Debra Nussbaum Cohen hadn’t blogged about it in the Forward?


    BZ · January 13th, 2011 at 10:01 am
  48. I just read your post, then all the impassioned comments, and then your post again. What I agree with in your post is the sense of loss that Debbie Friedman was never ‘out’ in terms of being a queer icon, for a movement that needs every hero and role model it can get. But I think I am persuaded by the comments that 1) not being a queer icon does not mean one is closeted; 2) without knowing her, you can’t really make any claims about her reasons for not becoming a queer icon. Without personal knowledge, your language about shame/fear/tyranny comes off as projections.


    See You at Jewbilee · January 13th, 2011 at 10:01 am
  49. folks,

    I’m at an absolute loss here. I read the post, then I read the comments, and there seems to be a complete and utter disconnect between them. One queer person’s exploration of Debbie (ZL), what she meant to him, to lots of others, and what she could’ve meant in other ways to larger Jewish society and society as a whole. He’s not calling her, or anyone else names. He sees a problem in this world (that I and a lot of people see), and it is against this backdrop that he considers her work and her life.

    Whether or not you agree with the timing of the post, or even the substance, the fact is that even in North America, in 2011, it’s not always okay or safe to be gay. Another thing that’s true is when people pass on, we think about them and the effect they’ve had on our lives. So if one is constantly forced to consider the injustice of A, why is it so surprising that when B happens, we think of it through the lense of A. The name calling, considering this, is stunning.

    Lastly, I did not know Debbie well. I met her once, briefly, five years ago. But I will say this: even if you found the subject matter of this piece to be false, wrongheaded or ill timed (and I’d disagree with you, most likely, but I can do that civilly), do you HONESTLY think that Debbie would want you spending your time calling dlevy “cavalier” “crass” “distasteful” and “arrogant, self-centered condescending child” ?? Even if you can’t see that this piece was written, as Rebecca noted and many of us can see, from a place of love and a place of grief, how could personal attacks like this honor the memory of the person you seem to think you’re defending?

    have some couth, people.


    Ruby K · January 13th, 2011 at 10:38 am
  50. Ms. Friedman was an artist who wanted broad appeal and enjoyed an enthusiastic following. If dlevy and other activists wish to create role models for gay and lesbian youth, let kol ami take in the homeless and help them reach financial independence. Then, he will truly be a great role model we can blog about after he dies.


    couth · January 13th, 2011 at 12:19 pm
  51. Nobody’s sexual orientation or bedroom behavior is newsworthy in itself, unless that person makes it newsworthy.

    What I do (or DF did) in the bedroom is nobody’s business. That goes for all of us, straight and gay.

    Had DF wanted to become an advocate for the Jewish LGBT community in her lifetime, she would have done so. That she didn’t should end the topic.

    Although not completely closeted, DF seems to have chosen to be modest. Modesty (tsnius) is a Jewish virtue. Lashon Hara is not.

    It’s ironic that this posting appears on a page that is branded with the “Jewish Bloggers for Responsible Speech Online.” The original poster should consider how responsible it was to claim a person’s memory and claim it as a political pawn.


    Ed Greenberg · January 13th, 2011 at 2:35 pm
  52. >>>I don’t bear any ill-will towards Debbie for staying in the closet<<<

    How very magnanimous of you. I’m so sorry that Debbie didn’t live up to your expectations of she should have lived her life.

    Debbie never lived any part of her life “in the closet”. So your only regrets here atr that you didn’t know about her geneder preference and the fact that she didn’t use her celebrity to further a political view as you would have liked.

    That’s an incredibly selfish view and absurd judgement to make about someone’s persoanl life.


    Michael · January 13th, 2011 at 2:37 pm
  53. I am responding first to BZ – actually I found the Jewschool blog independently. I was home sick yesterday – as many know the emotional can manifest in the physical and I had a bad cold and spent the day in bed just reading various obits/tributes/articles. As a matter of fact, Debra Nussbaum Cohen called my cousin Amy (who she is friends with) to alert her of MY response which was then read outloud to the family at the shiva house. I think this is the hardest part to grasp – to us – she was FAMILY – period. She would not ever be introduced to anyone as the Lesbian cousin anymore than I would be introduced as the fat, tattooed cousin. She as a public figure was of course, more subject to public speculation and scrutiny. Over the years I met various partners, had Seder, break-fast, etc. Nothing was a secret. However, as Debra Nussbaum Cohen put it, “Debbie was not in the closet. Neither did she ride floats at a gay pride parade. She was, quite simply, a private person. She did not shout from the rooftops. She responded to alienation and injustice through the music she wrote that changed the way we pray.”

    Not everyone is brave enough to be a torchbearer for their cause. However, that does not mean they are not out or living their lives with authenticity.

    My condolences go to Dlevy on the loss he is experiencing. My only upset is that with the internet and the ability for anyone to blog, report, etc. that he might have sought out the answers to his questions from people who could have provided him with facts, rather than promote more speculation.

    As I posted on my Facebook page – We should not feel such sadness at our loss, but to begin feeling the calling to be more like Debbie. Since Debbie’s light is gone we shouldn’t weep at its loss but rather resolve to bring it back through our own lives. This is what I choose to do… to be a blessing…


    Elise Levine · January 13th, 2011 at 3:21 pm
  54. @Elise: A lovely response. Thank you for your civility.


    KRG · January 13th, 2011 at 4:38 pm
  55. Elise-
    Ok, I stand corrected. My condolences to your family.


    BZ · January 13th, 2011 at 5:43 pm
  56. First of all, I agree with dlevy’s central point completely. It is immeasurably harder to be openly gay than to be openly straight (even as I write it, “openly straight” sounds ridiculous, because it is so obvious). As a result, some people choose not to be, and those people therefore never become the powerful LGBTQ role models they could have been. Young people – gay and straight – lose out on a fuller vision of the community in all its diversity of success and fulfillment. This inequality is real and even – as dlevy says – tragic.

    But there is the world as it should be, and then there is the world that we live in. Debbie Friedman grew up in a world where the role of women in Judaism – even liberal Judaism – was highly circumscribed, and in which participation in prayer for liberal Jews was nearly as limited. She also grew up in a world where the leadership – and even the existence – of LGBTQ people was rarely acknowledged. She could have sat quietly in a Reform temple, listening to the organ and the choir, and gone home with her husband and children and served cold cuts to guests. Plenty of other women did. We know and honor Debbie Friedman because she did not do these things: instead she picked up her guitar and sang, brought women’s voices into our understanding of what prayer and Judaism means, and led thousands – probably literally millions – of American Jews with her. This was undoubtedly a difficult, brave thing to do.

    The lesson I draw from Debbie Friedman’s life and work is that each of us is obligated to push back against injustice in the way we know how, and in the mode that suits us best. Debbie was strong, brave, and open as a woman and a liberal Jew reclaiming ownership of her Jewish life. She addressed those wrongs in the Jewish community head-on. She was not a champion for gay Jews in the same way, but no one can be expected to right every wrong. “You are not obligated to complete the work…”, after all, and no one could accuse Debbie Friedman of desisting from it.


    D · January 14th, 2011 at 11:01 am
  57. [...] NY Jewish Week has decided to enter the recent heated conversation about Debbie Friedman’s sexuality with this little gem from Jonathan [...]


    NY Jewish Week Crosses the Line | Jewschool · January 14th, 2011 at 1:09 pm
  58. Cousin Elise rocks. I’m the Amy to whom she refers to in her post and want to thank her publicly (she can expect a big hug when I see her next) – and Debra Nussbaum Cohen – for having the family’s back. Elise said it all. But I want to back her up and let BZ know that Debra’s post had nothing to do with my finding the one to which it referred, either.

    I saw DLevy’s post when we got back after the first night of shivah and thought “Oh, (four-letter word),” but didn’t have the whatever-it-took to deal with it at that point.

    Next, I saw Debra’s blog post.

    Then I checked my e-mail. Under the subject line “Is this inappropriate?” was an e-mail from my daughter in Canada with a link to the post. Debra’s blog post was up by then, Elise’s wasn’t yet.

    This is what I wrote Alex: “Bless Debra Nussbaum Cohen. She has Debbie’s back. Will talk later – just back from the funeral and shiva — it has been a VERY long day.”


    Amy Waldman · January 16th, 2011 at 6:38 pm
  59. as a jewish lesbian with ms, i could say she could have been more public about both being gay and having a neurological condition- i sure would have felt less alone, but if i put my ego aside, i know that debbie friedman was not using her life to make a statement, she was trying to bring all of us closer to joy and to god, and she connected with children in a way that many adults dont

    debbie friedman taught me my hebrew letters, and debbie friedman is the shma we sang at camp wise in the chapel in the woods, she is the shabbat song session and i comfort myself with her birkat havdalah when i cry,

    i will turn my mourning into dancing-even now, as i try to heal from a drop foot, and i will hear her in my heart every time i do

    …oh, and for the record, i knew she was gay but i did not she had the neurological condition…


    molly · January 17th, 2011 at 11:06 pm
  60. A little thought-experiment…imagine if a widely-beloved figure in American culture in general were “outed” as Jewish immediately after his or her death? Those close to the person would of course not be surprised. But I hope we can understand why it would be distasteful if, let’s say, some non-Jewish relatives and friends reacted with name-calling, suggesting how inappropriate and insensitive it was to refuse to respect the deceased’s “privacy” in not coming out publicly as a Jew, and how this was a time to remember and honor the person and not talk about his or her “Jewishness.” If Jews who had not known the deceased personally had said how much it would have meant to them growing up to know that this widely-admired person was Jewish, would we criticize them for not waiting long enough until after the person’s death, to mention this? That identifying publicly as an LGBT person continues to carry social risks and costs — even in the liberal Jewish community — is the thing centrally to be deplored.


    Diane · February 4th, 2011 at 2:09 pm
  61. [...] our hearts she left, filled with her beautiful music. And in her passing, we set off a debate over what her legacy [...]


    2011, what’s that? | Jewschool · January 8th, 2012 at 11:27 am
  62. I hope that Debbie Friedman pass away with peace in her heart…


    baju online · January 10th, 2012 at 7:57 am
  63. Normally I do not learn post on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very pressured me to take a look at and do it! Your writing style has been amazed me. Thank you, quite great article.


    sport · January 13th, 2012 at 6:30 pm
  64. She recorded more than 20 albums of songs in 2 languages, thats her legacy that will never dies.


    Pogrzeby Kraków · October 5th, 2012 at 11:29 am
  65. Ok what difference does it make if she was gay or not what matters is that she was a wonderful song writer and a wonderful Jewish singer I am so saddened by the news of her passing . I have loved all of her music and My children love her music as well. why should it matter if a person is gay or not if they are happy that’s all that matters. she was the best camp song leader to so many camps and she shall always be in our hearts. god bless and now haven has a true angel up there to carry on. Shabbat shalom. we need to teach our children weather a person is gay or not its what counts in there heart how they treat people I,m trying to teach my children it should not matter gay or not .


    Sharon Sausen Korell · November 30th, 2012 at 2:33 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik