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Song and Prayer

The musician Debbie Friedman, who died Sunday, helped inaugurate liberal Judaism’s sing-along style of worship and awaken her listeners to an inclusive, progressive, and accessible strain of spirituality

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Debbie Friedman performing for the Union for Reform Judaism in 2005. (Michael Fox)

Just after the Union for Reform Judaism confirmed last Sunday that singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman had died at age 59 of pneumonia in a hospital in Orange County, California, an outpouring of grief lit up Jewish websites and blogs and filled messages on social media sites, expressing gratitude toward a woman whom many said had changed their lives, bringing them a new sense of Jewish spirituality.

Most of these people had never met Debbie Friedman. Many had never even seen her perform live. They had only heard her music on recordings or sung her compositions in synagogue. Yet they grieved as if they had lost a close friend.

More than perhaps any other Jewish musician of the past 40 years, Friedman reached listeners in an extremely personal and intimate way. She helped pioneer the participatory, sing-along style of musical worship that now characterizes liberal congregations across North America. She also awakened listeners to a particular strain of Jewish spirituality—inclusive, progressive, and above all accessible—that they had either sought in vain, or could not articulate clearly enough to pursue alone.

In the late 1960s, when Friedman first began writing and performing, musical change had begun to infiltrate the nation’s synagogues. A new generation of rabbis, eager to reach young congregants who were alienated by traditional Hebrew prayer and nusach, or liturgical music, began commissioning services that borrowed from folk, rock, and jazz. At the same time, the rapidly expanding Reform summer-camp movement offered a forum for young Jewish musicians with a taste for socially conscious folksong to experiment with material that owed more to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan than it did to traditional hazzanut, or cantorial performance.

Born in 1951 in Utica, New York, and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Friedman’s own tastes ran to Judy Collins and Peter, Paul, and Mary. From an early age, she said she yearned for a more vibrant alternative to what she once described to the New York Times as the “dull and passive” services of the Reform and Conservative synagogues her family attended.

She picked up the guitar while working at a Zionist summer camp in Wisconsin, and she soon began writing and sharing her own music at Reform synagogues and camps. Her peers and partners included Michael Isaacson, who helped invent the Jewish camp song and folk service at Camp Kutz before embarking on a distinguished career as a composer of both liturgical and commercial music, and Jeff Klepper, who studied songwriting with Friedman at Kutz in 1969 and who, along with Dan Freelander, founded the popular folk duo Kol B’Seder.

By the early 1970s, these and other participants in the burgeoning American nusach movement were exerting an influence well beyond summer-camp circles. Their use of mixed Hebrew and English lyrics, pseudo-folk melodies, and simple guitar accompaniment, along with their emphasis on participatory unison singing, began to filter into Reform synagogues, gradually displacing the more formal format of a cantor accompanied by a choir and organ that had previously been favored.

But like her predecessor and Hasidic analog, Shlomo Carlebach, Friedman possessed a personal warmth and charisma that set her apart and earned her a particularly devoted following. She also continued to break new ground throughout her career. A lifelong feminist who aspired to the goal of kol isha for col isha, the voice of woman for every woman, she was an early proponent of using gender-neutral language, and her own experience with recurring, and often debilitating, illness from the late 1980s onwards led her to pioneer the music-driven healing services that have become a staple in many communities. Her setting of the “Mi Shebarach” has been adopted as a communal prayer for healing by congregations across the country, just as her havdala melody is now the standard in most Reform synagogues (even though many who sing it don’t know its provenance).

Still, Friedman’s legacy is not entirely unmixed. Even as illustrious a collaborator as Isaacson now laments the extent to which the simple folk style that he and Friedman helped popularize has elbowed more traditional, and often classically influenced, liturgical music off the stage, leaving many younger congregants ignorant of their larger musical heritage. (Ironically, in 2007, Friedman—who had neither cantorial training nor a college degree—was appointed to the faculty of the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she taught both rabbinical and cantorial students.) And there are those who remain skeptical of the New Agey, “kumbaya” quality that adheres to so many of the guitar-wielding song-leaders who have followed in her footsteps.

Yet Friedman herself never inspired anything but gratitude and devotion among those who knew her or her music. Indeed, she seems to have lived the lyrics to one of her most popular songs, “Lechi lach,” a song that now seems a fitting tribute to a woman who was both a guide and a blessing to the many people whose lives she touched.

Lechi lach to a land that I will show you
Lech l’cha to a place you do not know
Lechi lach on your journey I will bless you
And you shall be a blessing, you shall be a blessing
You shall be a blessing lechi lach

Lechi lach and I shall make your name great
Lech l’cha and all shall praise your name
Lechi lach to the place that I will show you
Li-simchat chayim, li-simchat chayim
Li-simchat chayim lechi lach.

And you shall be a blessing, you shall be a blessing
You shall be a blessing lechi lach.

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Joanne Cantor says:

I was one of the lucky ones to have attended a Women’s Seder in Hartford CT led by Debbie Friedman on March 2, 2010. There were nearly 1000 women in attendence from all different synagogues. Her music and presence trascended the celebration. I was so moved to see all of us together reform, conservative and orthodox enjoying this brilliant woman. Debbie Friedman will be so missed-this music icon. She has left us her treasure-her music for future generations to enjoy. e

Wow, just read this and am sad. She was a pioneer and I loved the recordings that we all learned at the camp in Great Barrington MA in the early 80s. I loved those songs, they brought a relatability to the service experience, and I hope her music lives on for a very long time. Sad to see her go, and from Pneumonia…very sorry….

Very sad. This was an excellent, very fair, appreciation of her legacy.

Rivkah says:

Many synagogues i’ve attended use her lovely songs, which add so much to the Kabbalat Shabbat. I also saw her in concert at Brooklyn College several years ago. Her presence will be missed; her melodies live on…

Judy West Hollywood says:

Debbie was not only writing folk songs, she was creating liturgy. Each generation of Jews adapts the melody of prayer based on what is the music of the day from Medieval times through to Rock. They become classics in later generations. Scores of younger musicians whom Debbie encouraged continue her endeavors. Having worked with Debbie for three years on a daily basis some twenty years ago, I have only one word for her and that is “genius.”

judy blatt says:

Being of the same generation as Debbie , I related to her music with a sense of awe and thankfulness…finally, here is someone who gets “us.” I speak for many women who shall cherish her kavanah, her ruach and her her talent for always.

Michael Gerard says:

I really appreciate this piece… Thank you for bringing to light some of the important early influences on Debbie. It’s probably not possible to name everyone but this piece is the first I’ve seen that even attempts to make the connections. I’d add Cantor Ray Smolover (“Edge of Freedom – a Folk/Rock Service For Shabbat” Bell Records 6021 – circa 1968?) and also inlcude Louis Dobin. Especially important was your mention of Michael Issacson. Again – thank you.

Yehudit says:

Friedman’s contribution to Jewish music and to Reform worship is rich and undeniable. That being said, the way that the leadership of the reform movement seized upon her popularity and lifted her up as the “voice of Reform Judaism” was somewhat facile. Jewish music is so varied and its heritage is enriched by contributions from Friedman, which are prodigious and significant, but she was not the be-all and end-all. Reform Jewish worship is multi-dimensional and worship that only includes the “camp-style” music that Friedman brought to the synagogue is as restricting as a painters palette that only features one color.

Make no mistake, Friedman, with her auto-didacticism and inability to read music, was impressive in her ability to invent lovely melodies that appealed to a tremendous number of people, myself included. There is no overstating her influence on contemporary Jewish music and liturgy. It is a tragedy she died so young and with so much left to share. Zecher Tzadikah Livracha.

Nicely done, and this is from someone who knows eulogies…The Eulogizer column @ jta.org

Rob Braun says:

I have always loved her stuff and play and sing it on a regular basis-almost every week. Being from Minnesota, her death is a particularly hard loss to us locally both among Jews and Christians who loved her music.

A.L. Bell says:

Jan. 14, 2011, is Shabbat Shirah — the Shabbat when Jews commemorate the occasion after the escape from Egypt when Miriam led the Israelites in song.

“Real superb info can be found on web blog”

Phyllis Halpern says:

What a great loss! I have been to many concerts (2 at my synagogue) and even met Debbie several years ago. For many, many years we have used parts of her CD The Journey Begins at our Passover Seders. What meaning they will have this year!!

justicegirl says:

It would have been nice if Tablet provided a link to her music…

I’ve said that least 664798 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Congratulations! Your website is awesome.

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Song and Prayer

The musician Debbie Friedman, who died Sunday, helped inaugurate liberal Judaism’s sing-along style of worship and awaken her listeners to an inclusive, progressive, and accessible strain of spirituality

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