I left out any mention of Debbie Friedman’s romantic history in my farewell piece. (Correction: Debbie Friedman was born in 1951, not 1952 as reported).
I spoke about this topic with Debbie enough times to know that she wasn’t interested in that aspect of her private life being discussed in print.
I knew about it, other writers knew about it, and respected her privacy. There was enough to write about her (and the same goes for Shlomo Carlebach, for that matter) without writing about her romantic partners, or getting into what she (or Shlomo) did or whom they called when they were lonely.
Did some closeted Jews feel that closeted lesbians would benefit from her talking about sex? Sure.
But Debbie said, there were enough people talking about sex. There weren’t enough people talking about God. And there certainly were not enough people who were talking and singing about God the way she did.
"People," she said, "are more uptight talking about God, more uptight about God language and God concepts, than they are about sex."
But now that The New York Times mentioned that she was gay in their obituary, and now that it’s being widely reported in print and over the Internet, in JTA and elsewhere, readers may be interested in this conversation I had with her in 2008.
It was part of a larger interview, and I never printed it until now, but with radical gays criticizing her for not coming out, I figure Debbie should have the chance to speak for herself. She was pro-choice, and her choice was to keep her private life private as long as she could, something to be shared only with lovers and friends.
She didn’t want articles about her to waste paragraphs about how much of a lesbian spokesman she should or should not be, instead of focusing on what she wanted to focus on — Jews, music, God and spirituality.
Let’s remember, by staying focused, Debbie Friedman almost single-handedly introduced intimate God-talk into modern Reform Judaism. Aside from Debbie, many in the Reform movement could only talk about God in terms of "tikkun olam," or "social justice," ideas that are more about justifying a person’s pre-existing political choices, a communal choice, more than about anyone’s personal relationship with God.
In terms of her death, she believed in an Afterlife, as traditionally understood, and wanted to talk about that, something that many Reform Jews are still uncomfortable with.
She figured enough people were speaking up for gays, lesbians, bi’s, and transgenders, especially in her wing of Judaism, while so few could speak about God.
Debbie Friedman: "They want me to come out. And I feel, hamayvin yaavin [those who know, know]. I’m out enough. I think I’ll ultimately be able to accomplish more just by living the way I’m living."
"A Jewish educator once told [my partner] not knowing she was my partner, ‘You know we’re not even allowed to use any of Debbie Friedman’s music in our congregation, the rabbi forbids it because she’s gay.’
"So if there’s that kind of crap going on, it just doesn’t pay for me to… Anything that’s going to happen, or needs to happen, will take itself where it needs to go. The same way my career has gone.”
JM: "You don’t want that one thing to define you."
DF: “No! That’s not who I am. I’m not ‘Debbie Friedman the lesbian.’"
JM: "But people in the current culture will do that to you."
DF: “Right. That’s what pisses me off about people who say, people need you to come out. I’m thinking, more than people need me to come out as a gay person, they need me to come out as a liturgist and a spiritualist. People are more uptight talking about God, more inhibited about God language and God concepts, than they are about sex.
"That concerns me more than anything, people’s spiritual inhibitions. That, there, is something that is really on my agenda. That people’s spiritual vocabulary is so limited, even as they’re so spiritually hungry without knowing how to nourish themselves."