I was 11 years old when Debbie Friedman’s first album, Sing Unto God, turned up in our mailbox in 1972. Aunt Freda sent it from Minneapolis, where she and my uncle and older cousins had moved before I was born.Aunt Freda was my cousin Debbie’s mom, and she wanted my mom, her younger sister, to have the record. She also sent copies to Aunt Bessie, Aunt Ann, and Uncle Doodle, her older siblings. And to her widowed mother, Bubby.It never occurred to me that whoever made the album had produced more copies than that. I figured it was a family thing, like birthday cake or a home movie, shared among people you knew.When the youth group at my Reform temple in Utica, New York, began singing Debbie’s songs at Saturday morning services, I figured it was because Dad, the rabbi, had taught them. When I discovered that every youth group in our region sang the songs, I assumed it was because our youth group had taught them.In 1974, the year my father died, Debbie released her second album, Not By Might. The following summer, when I was 14, Mom sent me to camp. I did not want to go. Dad’s death had made me very clingy.Nothing at camp was familiar, which heightened my anxiety. And then, at the first song session, a shocking and marvelous thing happened: The song leaders, those gods of Jewish summer camp, stood in front of the hundreds of campers and rabbis in the dining hall and, along with standards like “Dona” and “Henei Mah Tov,” they led the room in one after another of Debbie’s songs.A dining room full of strangers surrounded me, harmonizing to “Sing Unto God,” swaying to “Im Tirzu,” and clapping out the staccato rhythm to “Not By Might.” That weekend I discovered that Debbie’s melodies for “Sh’ma” and “Thou Shalt Love” were staples at Shabbat services, further evidence that her influence extended beyond the Venn diagram of my family and those in central New York who knew us.Because Debbie had grown up far away and was nearly 10 years older, I didn’t know her well in those days. We shared a first name, but little else. I could count on two hands the number of times I’d seen her. Still, she was family. The naches I felt hearing strangers sing her songs was a surprisingly effective cure for homesickness.Awash with pride at a song session during my first week at camp, I turned to the new friend next to me and whispered, “My cousin wrote that.” It was a way of claiming a piece of family fame, making my world feel smaller, making myself feel more at home.From the vantage point of nearly a half century, I believe it was also a way to reclaim my identity as someone special. I had grown up thinking of myself as the rabbi’s daughter, an identity that evaporated after Dad’s funeral, when a new rabbi with a daughter of his own took over what I’d thought of as my father’s pulpit. Being Debbie Friedman’s cousin wasn’t going to bring Dad back but it filled a hole I hadn’t realized opened up after he died.I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the attention that came my way because of another accident of birth. The less appealing aspects presented themselves the following summer, when Mom sent my sister Amy and me to camp together.Because Amy had been there two years earlier and I the year before, some people were aware of the family connection. We had barely made it into the main lobby with our suitcases and guitars the first day when a girl we’d never seen dropped to her knees, blocking our path. A crowd gathered, mesmerized by the sight of a shrieking girl kissing her fellow campers’ feet, stopping occasionally to yell, “Debbie Friedman’s cousins! Debbie Friedman’s cousins!”The experience was sufficiently mortifying to prevent either Amy or me from volunteering the relationship at camp again.During the next decade, Debbie’s accomplishments multiplied. Simultaneously, male relatives began dying. Intellectually I knew there was no correlation but in my adolescent brain the trajectories were inextricably intertwined: Between 1974 and 1983, Mom, her three sisters, and her sister-in-law were widowed. Bubby was widowed a second time. Two male cousins also died.These developments had several consequences. First, I began to believe that the men in our family were cursed and the women were indestructible. Second, with no husbands to hold them back and Debbie’s fame on the rise, Mom and her sisters were free to attend as many concerts as they wished. Only Aunt Adele, Uncle Doodle’s widow, remarried. She did not join her sisters-in-law on the road. With a new husband, she had neither the time nor inclination.I saw Debbie more frequently in those years, sometimes from the front row at a concert, sometimes at her home or family gatherings. She hosted me on my first trip to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988, picking me up at the airport and treating me to dinner in Beverly Hills before bringing me back to her house overlooking the city.I was working as a features writer at the New Haven Register then, and my editor had arranged for me to travel home on Greyhound. She wanted a series of articles about who would ride a bus from Los Angeles to New Haven (the answer: my boyfriend and me). The day before I left, Debbie insisted on taking me to Sam’s Club to ensure that I had enough food to last the multiday ordeal. That’s how I wound up with a 2-foot canister of pretzels and a box of additional supplies that barely fit into the overhead bin.One weekend in early 1990, Debbie had gigs in northern New Jersey and New York City. Aunt Freda was flying in. Mom was driving down. “Why don’t you come?” she suggested. “Debbie booked a suite. There’s enough room.”I let my New Jersey friends know I was going to be in the area. On Saturday afternoon, the phone rang in the suite. Mom picked it up. “No, this isn’t Debbie’s mother,” I heard her say. “This is her aunt.”She handed the phone to Debbie.\nI was flabbergasted. “Mom!” I reprimanded her. “You are Debby’s mother. I’m Debby!”Mom was about to defend herself when Debbie handed me the phone. “It’s for you,” she said.My mother’s excuse, which I browbeat out of her after the phone call, was this: “It’s Debbie’s hotel room. I didn’t expect you to get a phone call.”I let her off the hook, though I never let her forget it. It was the most tangible example to date of the way Debbie’s fame had changed her context in the family. She had become the sun around which Mom and my aunts orbited. And yet, I still didn’t grasp the extent of her impact on the larger Jewish world. Maybe it was because I was no longer as immersed as I’d been as a high school youth group leader.More likely, it’s because it was impossible for me to see her as anything other than what she had always been: the much older cousin who looked out for me, referred to our hometown as “Uterus” instead of “Utica,” and brought me and my sister toe socks when she came to visit us there after Dad died. Not long after, inspired by Mom and Dad’s wedding rings, she composed a series of songs from Song of Songs: “Arise My Love,” “Dodi Li,” “Laugh at All My Dreams,” “Kumi Lach.” My sister told me a few years ago that Debbie called Mom every year on Dad’s yahrzeit.Debbie’s wedding gift to me and my husband, David, was a song, “Set Me for a Seal.” She sang it at the ceremony.Because she was passionate about all things related to medical science, she was fascinated with David, a biochemist. The feeling was mutual. Her health issues are what inspired him to become a leading researcher in the field of metabolomics.I missed Debbie’s Carnegie Hall debut in January 1996 because I was eight months pregnant with my first child. The next day I talked to her when I called her apartment looking for Mom. Mom was out, so I told Debbie and Aunt Freda my bad news: I had developed pregnancy-induced hypertension. The baby wasn’t due till early February, but the doctor was threatening to induce me within the week.Mom was about to fly to the Bahamas to visit friends before coming to Canada to be with me. When Debbie heard how scared I was, she said, “Don’t you worry. I’m going to make sure your mother cancels that trip and gets to Edmonton right away.”Two days later, Mom was at my side. Less than a week later, my daughter was born. When Debbie played Carnegie Hall again in the fall of 1998, I sat in the family section, kvelling and clapping, my daughter on my mother’s lap and my 10-month-old son on mine. After the concert, Debbie introduced me to a friend, a book editor whose encouragement has been invaluable, and whose friendship I treasure even more because of how I came to know her.About eight years ago, I attended an Orthodox bat mitzvah in Edmonton, the city where I’ve lived since 1992. When the rabbi led the congregation in Debbie’s Havdalah melody, I was taken by surprise. I knew her songs were sung at Conservative temples and even in churches, but I hadn’t expected to hear them in this setting.The same pride I’d experienced at camp all those years ago washed over me, the same pride that still washes over me when I hear her music.When Debbie died on Jan. 9, 2011, people were shocked because it seemed so sudden. Even though I’d known since earlier in the week that she was critically ill, I was shocked, too. I still believed the women in our family were indestructible. They hadn’t proved me wrong: Only Bubby predeceased Debbie, at 92.Debbie’s death was a painful reminder of how fragile life is, that none of us is indestructible. But our spirit can live on, as can the gifts we leave behind. Debbie’s gifts to me included unconditional love and support. Her gift to the world was her music. That is a blessing. So was she.