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Debbie Friedman in Full

Controversy sprouts over late singer’s sexuality

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Debbie Friedman.(Jewish Journal)

At the beginning of this week, the blog Jewschool published a post by David Levy about the late singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman. It referred to the “open secret” that Friedman was a lesbian and adjudged her “life in the closet” a “tragedy”: “How sad,” Levy wrote, “that Debbie could not live her life with wholeness, and how sad that so many queer kids were deprived such an important role model.” Levy reported that he—who is active at Keshet, a nonprofit that seeks to open Judaism up to its GLBT adherents—had heard not only that Friedman was a lesbian but had a life-partner, and also that Friedman had long expressed a desire to come out; he closed by hoping that “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.”

The post was greeted with extreme anger by Debra Nussbaum Cohen at the Forward’s The Sisterhood blog. “I am disgusted by what someone who goes by “DLevy” has written,” she began (one click reveals that Levy was not, as Cohen implies, hiding behind anonymity). “The privacy and dignity with which [Friedman] lived her life—all aspects of her life—should be respected, not tossed aside to satisfy someone else’s prurient curiosity or politics.” The implication that Levy was driven by “prurient curiosity” is a bit much; the implication that revealing this aspect of Friedman’s life violated her life’s “dignity” is so astounding and at-odds with the rest of Cohen’s post that it seems fair to chalk it up to careless writing. So we’re left with Friedman’s “privacy” and Levy’s “politics.” Was Levy wrong about Friedman’s privacy? Is Cohen wrong on the politics? And, as long as I’m throwing myself into this: Was Friedman wrong about both?

“I’ve heard persistent stories about her life as a lesbian,” Levy testifies, while admitting, “I didn’t know Debbie personally.” He adds: “It seems that Debbie’s sexuality was an open secret; everybody knew about it, but no one spoke of it.” I wish Levy were basing his report that Friedman was “a lesbian Jew” on something with more foundation, although, of course, since she was not out, such a thing might not exist. If he were revealing this fact simply to satisfy, well, “prurient curiosity,” then I would definitely object. But he plainly isn’t—he plainly has a political point to make, about how much room there still is for progress in the Jewish community when it comes to including GLBT people, and about the good that might have been done had one such person made her status public. I think you could argue this one either way, although it is indisputable that, unlike typical “outings,” which are generally done to humiliate, Levy’s post was written out of great affection and good intentions; it also concerned someone who—not to put too fine a point on it—isn’t around to know about it.

By contrast, Cohen’s response was out of proportion to the offense, if offense there even was. “Debbie was not in the closet,” Cohen writes. “Neither did she ride floats at a gay pride parade.” Well, first, she was in some sort of closet (albeit a slightly larger one than those populated by non-celebrities or public figures); if not, there would not have been anything wrong or unusual with Levy announcing she was a lesbian. Cohen’s confusion on this point betrays her more fundamental refusal to see the implications of Friedman’s closetedness—and the potential to celebrate her as “a lesbian Jew.”

For in the end, it is no disrespect to Friedman’s memory to admit that, for those who care for GLBT rights, particularly in the Jewish community—where such people’s full personhood is not everywhere taken for granted—it would have been better had Friedman been publicly out. I ultimately can’t sign on to the notion, which would find its roots in so-called “first-wave feminism,” that Friedman had an obligation to come out. But it isn’t a stretch to acknowledge her right to her decision but also judge that it would have been best for the community, for certain values, and for other Jewish lesbians if she had declared herself one of them.

There is a final issue: Friedman’s life-partner, if she had one. Reading this exchange, I was reminded of the passing of another lesbian Jew, Susan Sontag: Many obituaries of the “quasi-closeted” Sontag (she didn’t much discuss her sexuality, but it was, as they say, an “open secret”), who died in 2004, failed to mention her bereaved life-partner (who happened to be the famous photographer Annie Leibovitz). When someone dies whose death is newsworthy, among the facts we also deem newsworthy are whether that person had a love of his or her life, and who that person is. My point isn’t that Friedman’s partner, if she had one, ought to be named. I just want to note that the reason we deem such facts newsworthy is because the love of someone’s life is one of the most important things about his or her life. I don’t see how it is offensive for Levy to express sadness that the love of Friedman’s life did not get her due, and that Friedman’s fans are not getting theirs; and to express hope that, one day soon, she and they will.

Debbie Friedman and the Tragedy of the Closet [Jewschool]
Questioning Debbie Friedman’s Private Life [The Sisterhood]
Related: Song and Prayer [Tablet Magazine]

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Shelley Lindauer says:

I think we should all allow Debbie’s memory to rest in peace. How she chose to live her life, define her sexuality, explain her motivations to others, is none of our business – particularly since she is no longer here to comment.

Let’s leave her impeccable, impressive and forever lasting legacy untouched by this sort of unneccessary and unimportant dialogue. Take a page from President Obama’s speech last night.

Lisa Kaiser says:

As a lesbian Jew, I see a number of issues here. If Debbie Frieman was gay, she certainly had the right to say whatever she wanted or did not want to say about her sexuality. For many reasons, it is still hard for gay people to be out. We cannot judge another person’s decision about whether to be out or not. If she was gay, it would have been nice if she were out. But none of us walked in her shoes, and we should not second guess her decision. We just need to respect even if we may not understand it.

And I agree that Levy’s comments ( I read his and Ms.Cohen’s as well), was made out of affection and good intentions. And I disgree with Ms. Cohen. Public knowledge of Debbie Fiemdan’s exuality would not have violated her dignity.

If Debbie Friedman was gay, it is sad if she felt she would not have been embraced by us in the same heart-felt way we embraced her her music.

Bunny Mitchell says:

Whys is her sexuality “important” to discuss. She made a tremendous and wonderful contribution to Jewish music….that is what is important.

3/4 Catholic 1/4 Jew says:

I hope that I am more than a some of my parts, particularly as viewed from the outside, by a passing stranger, with ‘prurient curiosity’.

Each of us has much freedom: to choose to explore, to choose to change, to choose to go public, to choose to go private, to choose to be complex, to be an open book, to be complicated, to be seemingly inconsistent. We are free to be as we be.

I only know Debbie Frieman, through her music, because my friends introduced her, to me as an artist, which she most certainly was. I am grateful for her music. Her sexuality is of no consequence to me. Honoring her art and her privacy is.

May she rest in peace in eternal light. G-d blessed us all with her talent. I know my life is richer for her having lived the life she did.

3/4 Catholic 1/4 Jew says:

Erratum: I apologize for the mistyped surname, Friedman, in my comment above. Typos happen. Outings happen. The music remains the same.

CVBruce says:

Hmm..

I guess I feel that if she wanted us to know about her private life, she would have told us. How is this aspect of her private live relevant to the contributions she made to all of us?

If you want to honor someone, honor them in the manner that they would choose to be honored, not in some manner that fits your personal views.

Just a guy.

As gay Jewish man who first came out of the closet at age 48 (I’m now 55), I can appreciate the numerous reasons some people elect to stay in the closet. It can take a special moment, event, love, spiritual catharsis of some kind to finally take that very dramatic, life changing step. Hopefully, the day will come in the no too distant future when “the closet” will be nothing historical phenomena.

In the meantime, Debbie Friedman’s life and legacy is something to be cherished and celebrated. Would I have taken pride in Debbie’s being an out of the closet personality? Of course. Am I ashamed or embarrassed that she may have kept or sexual orientation a secret? God forbid, not for a moment. Olav ha Shalom.

Friedman’s legacy was her music and her ability to inspire people through it. Why should her sexuality be the subject that becomes the concern of those who want to remember her? Had she wanted that sexuality to be the matter that took up her afterlife, she would have emphasized it before she died. She did not; we should not.

Just a semantic quibble here–it might be a first-wave gay rights sentiment that everyone has an obligation to come out; first-wave feminism, however, was mostly concerned with getting the vote, and maybe a bit with the temperance movement. (Second-wave feminism–the wave starting in the mid-late 60’s–took its time to deal with queer issues, cf the Lavender Menace.)

Seriously…who cares…her music is more than this..And if there is a partner she knows the love of having Debbie..Why should she feel less because she wasnt named,,or perhaps that is what they wanted.

Jordan says:

Thank you for this excellent, nuanced piece. I think your analysis is spot on and I very much appreciate that you’ve elevated the conversation.

Phillip says:

The New York Times obituary for Debbie Friedman, published on Jan. 11, 2011, referred to “the quiet pride she took in her life as a gay woman.”

You can’t get much more outed than the New York Times.

betsy teutsch says:

I was amazed that no one brought up that she, a female, transformed Reform Judaism. We only had our first female ordained rabbi in 1968 or so, just when she launched her career. No one was thinking GLBT then, it was an achievement for a female to be taken seriously.
As to her personal life, one of her former partners spoke beautifully at her funeral. Ha0mevin yavin. I think time moved ahead and for whatever reason, her cause was “those in need of healing”. Perhaps she felt if she came out in a public way it would distract from that essential spiritual message – though agreed, it was ironic to read it in the NYTimes. One wonders if she knew that would be shared – I presume so.

Yehudit says:

David Levy’s original post was a reflection on what it might have meant that such a respected and powerful figure as Debbie Friedman, who shared so much about her life publicly, seems to have been, according to some accounts, held back from living an “out” life. Furthermore, what message might it have sent to GLBTQ youth if she had been a role model for them? I don’t feel that he was critical of her or her choices, just wistful and commenting on where we are in history and where we’ve been and how far we have to go. People are way too quick to judge without reading carefully, it seems to me.

eliot spack says:

The earth at Debbie’s grave is still fresh and yet the current conversation about her sexuality seems to have produced a deflection of the REAL priority. Debbie chose to have her legacy be a message of spirituality and a commitment to teaching. Those of us who came to love and respect her will be forever warmed by the melodies of her voice and her soul. We feel enriched to have had her in our lives.

James LaFOrest says:

I can’t believe this is the discussion of her life, and not even a week after her passing. Shame.

I disagree with the previous commenter that Debbie chose much of her life publicly. She was an intensely private person, I believe. Debbie Friedman could have been a poster child for a lot of things. She could have worn her sexual preference on her sleeve; she could have made a big deal out of the fact that she fought pain and illness day after day.

She chose not to. She chose to focus on her music and being an inspiration to all of us in that way. I suggest we focus on it as well.

robin a. says:

does it matter whether ms. friedman was an “out” lesbian or a “closeted lesbian”? her music lives on for generations 2 come. I agree with the writer who said, “Take a lesson from Pres. Obama last night.”

Freda B Birnbaum says:

There is a difference between saying “I wish she had…” and “She should have…”. Often when people say “You need to X”, they mean, “I want you to do X.” People’s private lives are their own and others have no right to make them fodder for their own causes, no matter how worthy the causes may. Thank you, Debra Nussbaum Cohen, for your powerful article.

I don’t live on the Upper West Side and am out of most of the gossip loop there, but I was aware that she was gay from hints dropped here and there. So what? Her life wasn’t about that, it was about the music and the teaching. What a gift to the world she was. May she rest in peace.

Ira M. Salwen says:

The idea that someone who does something positive for community then becomes community property repulses me. Have our real lives become “Extra” or “Access Hollywood”? Debbie Friedman chose to keep her public life and private life separate. She had the right to do so. Her partner chooses to maintain privacy. She also has the right to do so.

Did Friedman feel that her sexual orientation would affect acceptance of her music in certain Jewish circles? If she did, she was probably right, but it does a disservice to her to even speculate. As to the Times having gotten approval to “out” her, somebody stuck on the Obituary Desk who dreams of being the next Woodward or Bernstein probably figured they would print this big “scoop”. Hey, she’s a public figure, right?

Let’s remember Debbie Friedman as someone who used her considerable gifts to bring to bring thousands, maybe millions, of people closer to God. You can’t ask for a better legacy than that.

Carrie H. says:

Everything about this article annoys me. As someone who has been on the periphery of the contemporary Jewish music world inhabited (and created) by Debbie Friedman since she became known in the seventies, it was no “secret”, “open” or otherwise, that she was gay. Anyone who knew her even a little knew that, and as several recent articles have noted, it clearly contributed to her songwriting and her career choice. Choosing what to incorporate as part of one’s professional identity is a completely different issue. As an example, neither my religion, my sexuality, nor my health conditions are part of my professional identity or brand.

Shalvah Dubin says:

Sadly I was waiting for this discussion to erupt. Why can’t we celebrate the immense contribution to Jewish music she made and be done with it? I don’t care about her personal life—I care about how her music touched me and my children.

bathsheba222 says:

Sexuality, should be a private thing, straight people dont run around throwing it other peoples faces. Gays and lesbians should take a page out of that book, mind your own damn business. It isnt anyones business what Debbie’s sexuality was, it has nothing to do with her music, or for that matter any of her public life. If we dont stop shoving sexuality into everyone’s faces our children will be damaged, whether we are straight or Gay. Some thing need to be private. Most of us dont give a damn what other people do in bed and we are tired of hearing about it.

As most people commenting seem not have read dlevy’s post, I present you with the link and suggest that you read it. Far from trivializing her in any way, it is a powerful testament to the inequalities that still face gay and lesbian people – Jews or not- in our society.

http://jewschool.com/2011/01/10/25159/debbie-friedman-and-the-tragedy-of-the-closet/

Deborah Lipstadt says:

Debbie Friedman was a good friend of over 25 years. She would be horrified at this conversation, not because she had anything to hide. She would be horrified because she live her life privately and did not want to be a poster child for anything but love of her tradition and her community.

She took, as the NY Times said, quiet pride in being a gay woman.

Before her body has even begun to return to the dust, you would proclaim to know how she should have lived her life have defiled it by attacking her.

This is a disgrace.

In the wake of too many suicides of young people who had internalized the message that being gay or lesbian was a sin or a shande or just wrong, it is sad that they have missed out on the possibility of such a positive role model. The problem is not that Debbie Friedman chose to be silent about who she was besides being a gifted songwriter; the problem is that given the prevailing culture her silence was ambiguous. We don’t know whether she was simply a very private person or whether she feared that her music would be questioned or even shunned if her sexuality were widely known.

Because Debbie Friedman’s music is so widely used in schools and camps, she has had an immense positive impact on generations of Jewish children. Dayenu. Could she have also saved a life or two along the way? Possibly. By saying this I don’t mean to disparage everything she contributed to the world. I’m just sad to think that her contributions may have been curtailed not only by her untimely death but also by a culture in which she could not publicly express the fullness of who she was.

Shmuel says:

Have people gone crazy? Why do liberals do this all the time? why force people to publicly declare their identities? It was her life, her choice…..why can’t that be respected?

I am an Orthodox Jew and I could care less what Debbie did in her private life. The fact that she stayed private about her sexuality is actually quite a Jewish thing – to be modest.

I think it is awful that people who are supposedly “pro-gay” submit people to this sort of gossipy, over the top sort of dissection of their lives. Shame on all who are doing this.

Chana Batya says:

It is a shande that the dead have all sorts of “well-meaning” busybodies interfering with their lives and deaths. As Dr. Lipstadt said, this is a disgrace and everyone joining in the “is she or isn’t she and why didn’t she tell me” discussion should mind their own business.

Let Debbie Friedman’s music live on and bring joy, unity and warmth to those who sing and share it.

Mickymse says:

I’m a bit puzzled by the “controversy” here… As David Levy said, Friedman’s orientation was an “open secret”; and others have pointed out that this has been mentioned in obituaries and her partner has been recognized.

Was Friedman an activist in the LGBT community? I suppose not. She was clearly a feminist icon in the Jewish community, at a time when it was of great importance.

I’m not aware that she tried to “hide” her life in recent years, so I don’t begrudge her choices — especially when she chose to do so much good work in the world.

I continue to be struck, on this blog as well as others, by the focus on her “sexuality.” David’s post was not about her sexuality — it was about her humanity. Obituaries of heterosexuals always list spouses and significant others. Kudos to the NY Times for mentioning she had a life partner as well.
It is not a sign of modesty to hide your love. No straight orthodox man or woman would do so. To demand the same from a gay woman is to impose shame on that individual, and that is not a characteristic Jewish behavior.
No, she was not a gay activist, no one has suggested she should have been. They only asked why she could not have been OUT rather than out, so the next generation would feel a little less ashamed and isolated.
As for talking about this so soon after her passing, I think she would be flattered that so many people care. And, after all, what happens at shiva calls anyway? Silence? I think not.

“Straights” are not asked to declare their orientation. We’re allowed to just live as we see fit. This is a disgrace to create a controversy about Friedman z’l. Let us bless her memory by singing her songs.

Polly, “straights” don’t need to declare their orientation. It is declared by default. You’re very fortunate that you’re allowed to “just live as you see fit.” Halevai we all were.

First, it was her business, not ours. Second, and more important, how come the comments on this issue are so much more intelligent, thoughtful, and well written than the comments I have seen on almost everything else in Tablet–and more numerous too? I think it tells us something about what people really have on their minds. Nothing wrong with that, but it shows that many of their so deeply felt political, ethnic, and other outpourings are really just posturing.

Holly Robinson says:

Celebrities do not have a private life.

Dave Henig says:

I am offended that the press and particularly this webzine choose to speculate on things that have no place in the public forum. Let’s honor Debbie’s memory through her music, not through sensational speculation.

kate Kinser says:

I got to know Debbie a bit throughout the 80’s and early 90’s at the yearly CAJE Conferences that Debbie always attended and at which she performed and presented marvelous workshops. If se had a partner at the time, her partner was with her and there were no secrets or closets, and actually, because of Debbie’s fame, people were much more aware of her personal choices of the heart than in regard to any other CAJE attendee. In the last few years I was under the impression that her continued physical challenges had made it more difficult for her to initiate or sustain new personal relationships of all types. Debbie was a great person of courage, talent and spiritual fire. That is the ikar.

Her “Mi Shebarach” remains a classic, especially in Reform observance.

Rabbi David Zaslow says:

Friends, the problem with this discussion is not the discussion but the timing. We are in a sacred period of time called Shiva where the soul does the deep work of cheshbon hanefesh, an inner inventory of all that went right and all that was not quite right in life. If we love the legacy of love, kindness, family loyalty, Yiddishkeit, music, and joy that Debbie brought into the world then our job is to hold sacred space for her here in this world. A bit of humility is appropriate from each of us. Believe me there will be Phd theses, articles, and books written about her life and work…but not this week. B’shalom!

Joel M. Friedman says:

I am a follower and friend of Debbie; her sexuality is not of any concern to me. The fact that her music touched my soul and her teachings led me to do what I always wanted to do. As a project in one of her classes she instructed us to write our own obituary. I went back to write and realized that I wanted to be remembered for the people I mentored and taught. I sold my private practice and went to work teaching full time. The reasoning was mine the inspiration belongs to Debbie. When I called her after a by-pass operation she chided me for not calling earlier to be included in her healing service. She was a remarkable role model and inspiration. I learned that healing and cure are two different entitiies. May her life be for a blessing- Amen

Dina Truman says:

Most people have intricate reasons for their actions or their declining to act in a certain way. Maybe Ms Friedman did not want controversy to detract from her music. Maybe she did not want disharmony in her family of origin. Maybe her partner wanted to be private…we will never know all the factors behind the way she chose to express herself or not. We will never know who her decisions would have affected had she chosen to be ‘out’ in a different manner.
The fact remains that her choices demand respect, for she was the one who had to make them, and live with them.
Who she loved and how she expressed it was just one of a million factors about her life…
Her music is a blessing to many, that is what she chose to focus upon, and it is enough.

The gift that we all received by inhabiting the plant whilst and after Debbie Friedman lived is something special.

Why do we have to pick her apart? Was her sweet contributions not enough?

Thank You Lord, she is an everlasting treasure.

Ellen Peck says:

Who cares, all I know that she was a very talented and awesome woman.

If a controversy has “sprouted,” surely it is because of articles like this one.

Adrienne Lassman says:

I concur exactly withProf. Deborah Lipstadt’s remarks which, as usual, were perfect and succinct. Olav ha shalom, the beautiful soul of Debbie Friedman.

Marc Grossberg says:

I believe Debbie Friedman’s first work as a professional in Jewish music was at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. She was beloved here and missed when she moved. She remained friends with many here. We recognized her immediately as someone special and continued to follow her career and admire her music and contribution to Jewish life.
Her sexuality was never a secret or an issue here. What’s the point?

Please. Please. Please. Take the conversation into your own soul and find out who you really are. I can’t believe that anyone would say, “… the love of Friedman’s life did not get her due,” as above. Find out who you love and who loves you back. It’s really work the try.

As a lesbian, I am so happy to know that Debbie Friedman was “family.” It lends a depth to her music and spirituality that I hadn’t seen before. The fact of her chronic illness was also unknown to me. How much more do I admire her, now that I’ve been told more abut her. She was a woman of strength whom Adonai used to bring us closer to community and to the eternal. Her name will be a blessing.

Dear Marc Grossberg and others,

That’s the whole point. If any straight married Jewish person dies, what will we see in the obituary or hear at the service? We will see and hear the names of the spouse of the deceased. We will not ask for it. The deceased will not ask for it. The spouse will not ask for it. The spouse will just be named. And no one will think twice about it.

David Levy thought she had a partner. That’s what he heard from people who knew Debbie Friedman. So, he commented on the state of Jewish community, where Debbie Friedman – the way he saw it – did not feel free to be completely open. And it seems – from their mutual acquaintances that she wanted to be. (Do go and read his article.)

Many here suggest that Debbie Friedman is being reduced to her sexuality. Well, I’m gay right now. I was gay yesterday. I am gay in the bedroom. But I am also gay in the kitchen. Even at my grandmother’s grave at a Jewish cemetery I don’t stop being gay. (Just like in all those places I don’t shed my Jewishness.) So, unlike someone can explain to me how being gay at the cemetery is inappropriate simply for the reason that that’s what I am, I can’t for the life of me understand what they mean…

Will someone write a book about Debbie Freidman’s life and the songs that we now sing?

Will there be a book about Debbie Friedman’s life and the songs we now sing?

Rabbi Ruth Wagner says:

I suspect very strongly that Ms. Friedmans life was as private as it was due to extreme predjudice within Judaism itself. Let’s not kid ourselves…Reform is far more lenient on this subject, and conservative is coming along as well, however there exist much prejudice among orthodox and many many others. My condolences to her family and to her life partner.

Im a massive fan already, man. Youve done a brilliant job creating sure that folks realize where youre coming from. And let me tell you, I get it. Fantastic stuff and I cant wait to read far more of your blogs. What youve got to say is essential and needs to be read.

I’ve said that least 2873895 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Debbie Friedman in Full

Controversy sprouts over late singer’s sexuality

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