‘Hamilton’ lyrics hit home for me & my sister: who tells our cousin’s story?

On Halloween, Sweetheart and I saw “Hamilton,” which is finally touring.

It would probably be more accurate to say that I finally saw “Hamilton” and Sweetheart came along for the ride. He knows I wouldn’t have spent gobs of money and dragged him out on a work night if I hadn’t been pretty certain he’d love it – which he did. Also, as he pointed out, he knows the songs, given that the soundtrack has been on regular rotation in my car for the past several years. 

The next day, my sister emailed a link to a story about our cousin, Debbie Friedman (z”l) with a one-line message: “Check this out.”

Maybe because I’d just seen it, (or maybe it would have hit me at some later point) the moment in “Hamilton” when George Washington grants Alexander’s wish for his own command popped into my head. Washington’s words to Hamilton felt personal in a way they hadn’t the night before. 

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known/When I was young and dreamed of glory/You have no control/Who lives, who dies who tells your story.

It wasn’t the first lines. Debbie didn’t dream of glory – she was talented enough and lucky enough to fall into her life’s work. But the part about having no control over who tells your story really resonated. 

One quote, from a singer interviewed in the story, recounted Aunt Freda (Debbie’s mother) talking about attending one of her daughter’s early performances with Uncle Gabe.

“Her husband was squeezing Freda by the arm when Debbie was singing, and he kept saying, ‘We’re gonna get excommunicated.’ ”

I’d never heard that before, but it sounded right: I remember Debbie telling me when she had three albums out that Uncle Gabe was still asking her when she was going to get a real job.

Aunt Freda, Uncle Gabe and Debbie (all z”l) across the street from our house in 1974, two years after Uncle Gabe expressed fear that they would be “excommunicated” and two years before he asked Debbie when she was going to get “a real job.” The picture was taken by our uncle (Aunt Freda’s brother), and I vaguely remember the photo session. My sister and I were 13 and 14. The Friedmans were in town because our father had recently died.

The quote I did have trouble with came from another of the singers, who waxed effusive about how supportive Debbie was: “She taught me to integrate my queer side with my Jewish side….She was queering Judaism that whole time. She really did that. And she was also protective of me in ways that she knew that I was going to have some challenges as an LGBT person in the mainstream world. So we had conversations around that. She just was a consciousness-raising person.”

Part of my issue with it was being pretty sure that Debbie would be embarrassed and horrified about having someone describe her influence that way. The other was about my own stuff.

My sister and I had very different relationships with Debbie in her lifetime. Debby’s was considerably less complicated than mine, for reasons we didn’t fully understand while Debbie was alive. I remain eternally grateful that before she died, things simplified. Because of a writing project I’m working on, I am in the midst of my own journey processing actions I took and decisions I made based on what I wanted – and didn’t get – from her, in large part because of the way her view of me affected intra-family dynamics. My sister was the first person in our family to understand that and become an open ally. So it’s still second nature to reality-check my own perceptions and feelings with her when it comes to anything Debbie. 

My sister’s response was an all-caps sentence expressing agreement. She noted that Debbie probably wouldn’t have known to use “queer” as a verb. (Debbie was a stickler for language. )

“But as you said, what do we know?” Debby wrote. 

“Debbie’s dead and gone and people can and will co-opt her memory and their experiences with her in whatever way makes them comfortable and surely she knew that was happening, even when she was alive.”

She also noted that Debbie wasn’t writing for any particular constituency, rather, “she was writing songs for Jewish people like herself, who were looking for a way to learn more about their Judaism, to feel more at home with their Judaism, to understand it and make it their own.” 

Debby concluded with the observation that if Debbie had helped that singer to integrate her queer side with her Jewish side, that was more about her than it was about Debbie. With that in mind, I knew how happy it would have made Debbie to know she’d helped make that woman’s life better. Rereading the quote again, I realized the problematic part was the remark that Debbie had been “queering Judaism.” 

As journalists, my sister and I have both done our fair share of interviews. I’d interviewed Debbie once for our local Jewish paper in advance of a concert. In that formal conversation, Debbie told me that she was setting liturgy to music. Music was the vehicle she used to bring the liturgy to life. Those aren’t her exact words, but that was the gist. Another reason has to do with something I realized the night after Debbie’s funeral, when a blogger declared Debbie not out enough for his taste and accused us, her family, of shutting her partner out of the obituary. (Had the occasion not been so tragic, we would have laughed about it. There was no partner; Debbie was single when she died.)

Aside from her own bent toward privacy, none of us were raised to be overt about our sexuality or orientation, or to make an issue of anyone else’s. There was the bit of a jolt in the early 1980s when Debbie’s marriage broke up and she introduced us to her new partner, a woman. We treated her partners the way we treated everyone else’s. If we liked them, we embraced them to their faces and praised them behind their backs. If we didn’t, we embraced them to their faces and slagged them behind their backs.

News stories in Debbie’s lifetime referred to her as “the Jewish Joan Baez.” In death, I wrote my sister, she appeared to be on her way to becoming “Lesbian Judy Garland.”

Debby laughed at that, although she did observe that our mother Irlene, the “cool aunt” of Debbie’s childhood who’d been like a second mom to Debbie and her sisters (until they moved out of town), would be mad at us for talking like this.

The discussion turned back to a more serious examination of the story and our respective feelings about it. Mom, I wrote, would have been mortified on Debbie’s behalf, as we were. The bright side, I added, was that the writer had spelled her name right and that she and others were listening to and loving her songs. We agreed that, as family members, we have a different perspective than people who had known her in other contexts and those who knew her only through her work.

Debby did give me props for one thing though.

“I love your Irlene Waldman Look at the Cup Half Full attitude. You learned well, my child!”

2 thoughts on “‘Hamilton’ lyrics hit home for me & my sister: who tells our cousin’s story?

  1. If we liked them, we embraced them to their faces and praised them behind their backs. If we didn’t, we embraced them to their faces and slagged them behind their backs….Hahahahahah

    Like

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