Arts and Culture

Debating Debbie Friedman’s personal life

NEW YORK (JTA) — A debate among bloggers following Debbie Friedman’s death is raising questions about the obligation of gay and lesbian celebrities to be out front in discussing their sexual orientation.

The discussion began with a Jan. 10 post to Jewschool by David Levy lamenting what he described as the pioneering musician’s decision not to be public about her lesbianism. Just one day after the musician’s death, Levy noted that in virtually all of the public discussion and media coverage of the days leading up to her death, and in the posthumous writing about Friedman, there had been no mention of her life partner.

“I don’t bear any ill will towards Debbie for staying in the closet,” wrote Levy, the editor of and a board member of Keshet, a Boston-based nonprofit working for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews in Jewish life. “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?”

The post stood in stark contrast to the countless tributes to Friedman, who transformed Jewish worship in hundreds of North American synagogues, if not thousands, with her sing-along style of folk-inspired music that brought prayer home to liberal Jews who had never felt its power.

It also drew a scorching response from Debra Nussbaum Cohen on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog.

“I’ve been asked to respond to this, or else never would have discussed it publicly, because Debbie would not have wanted her personal life bandied about,” Nussbaum Cohen wrote.

In the days before Friedman’s death, as the musician was hospitalized in Southern California with pneumonia, Nussbaum Cohen authored a post urging people to pray for Friedman. And in an “appreciation” following Friedman’s passing, Nussbaum Cohen became the first to report that Friedman had suffered for more than two decades from dyskinesia, a neurological movement disorder.

But Nussbaum Cohen drew the line at the discussion on Jewschool, suggesting that it violated Friedman’s privacy and insisting it was off base in the assertion that Friedman had hidden her sexual orientation.

“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,” Nussbaum Cohen wrote. “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.”

Nussbaum Cohen added that “Debbie lived her life with authenticity and dignity, all the more remarkable because of the challenges she endured.”

Another reporter-blogger, Marc Tracey of Tablet, waded into the debate.

“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,” Tracey wrote. “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.’ ”

Tracey insisted that “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,” Tracey wrote. “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.”