Wednesday, January 19th, 2011...1:55 pm

American Judaism’s sweet singer

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Debbie Friedman, a St. Paul native, set Jewish texts to her unique brand of catchy folk-inspired music

By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor

The Forward said her music allowed all “to feel connected with sacred prayer even if they knew no Hebrew or were unfamiliar with the prayerbook.” The Jerusalem Post called her “a phenomenon.”

But to Jews in Minnesota, Debbie Friedman was a neighbor, a friend.


Friedman, a popular singer and songwriter who is widely credited with reinvigorating music in synagogues, died Jan. 9 in Southern California, where she had been hospitalized with pneumonia. She was 59.

“Debbie Friedman was an extraordinary treasure of our movement, and one of its most influential voices,” Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), said in a statement. “Twenty-five years ago, North American Jews had forgotten how to sing. Debbie reminded us how to sing, she taught us how to sing. She gave us the vehicles that enabled us to sing. What happens in the synagogues of Reform Judaism today — the voices of song — are in large measure due to the insight, brilliance and influence of Debbie Friedman.”

Debbie Friedman returned to her hometown in June 2007, for an enthusiastically received concert at Temple of Aaron Synagogue. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)Debbie Friedman returned to her hometown in June 2007, for an enthusiastically received concert at Temple of Aaron Synagogue. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

Friedman was born in Utica, N.Y., but raised in Minnesota from the age of five. She graduated from St. Paul’s Highland Park High School in 1969, and was inducted into its Hall of Fame 30 years later.

In the early 1970s, Friedman was a camp counselor and song leader at the URJ’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisc. It was there that she began creating her own style of Jewish music, combining Jewish folk songs, Yiddish theater song, and the folk and folk rock sound of Peter, Paul and Mary and fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan with classic Jewish liturgical music.

With no formal musical training, Friedman wrote new compositions for communal prayers.

“These songs, which typically featured clear, pretty melodies with abundant opportunities for soaring harmonies, proved popular enough that they have often left their original home in camps and youth services,” Max Sparber wrote in his remembrance of Friedman for “Friedman’s compositions found themselves part of mainstream services, which is quite unusual for new pieces of music.”

Friedman’s music is now widely used in Reform congregations, as well as in many Conservative shuls.

“She put an indelible stamp on modern Jewish music,” Sparber wrote, “and she managed to become the soundtrack to the young Jewish experience.”

Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, which Friedman attended as a youth, told the Star Tribune that when he took 11th graders on trips to New York, Friedman invited them to her apartment for a Saturday service.

“She wanted to show her love for Judaism and her approachability,” he said.

Musician Mark Bloom said Friedman was always “warm and supportive” to him over the years.

“Debbie Friedman created the pathway, the road to all that is American contemporary music,” Bloom told the AJW. “I say that as a jazzman and composer/arranger who often presses a greater musical depth in this genre, but she is the one who opened the doorway. It’s taken me many years to appreciate the accessibility of her work on an artistic level.”

Bloom last saw Friedman when the two collaborated on a musical service at the 2008 URJ Biennial in Toronto.

“Her brightness and charismatic manner touched everyone as only Debbie Friedman could,” Bloom said. “She literally retaught the American Jewish community, and the whole world for that matter, to ‘sing unto God.’”

In 2007, Friedman was appointed to the faculty at the School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s cantorial school. That same year, she received the first Alexander M. Schindler Award for Distinguished Leadership from the URJ.

Writing at the time, JTA’s Sue Fishkoff said Friedman’s appointment was “akin to official sanction of her folk-inspired, sing-along musical style, which has slowly but firmly embedded itself in Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative congregations nationwide.”

“Friedman’s appointment can be seen as part of a general shift in American Jewish worship away from grand operatic performances by cantor and choir and toward greater congregational participation,” Fishkoff wrote.

Fishkoff noted that some cantors felt Friedman threatened traditional nusach, or Jewish liturgical tradition, but Friedman disagreed.

“The issue is whether we’re reaching people and helping them pray,” Friedman told JTA. “Whatever we can do to facilitate their worship experience and spiritual self-exploration, we’re obligated to do.”

On her Web site, Friedman wrote that her music was an opportunity for people to find prayer during difficult times.

“From the beginning of my career, I’ve tried to help people see how prayer can be a source of comfort in both good times and bad,” she said. “I want to help people to begin their day with an open heart; to learn to pray in a comfortable, non-threatening way. Maybe they’ll first experience it as music, but over time they may learn the prayers. In this time of tremendous uncertainty, when so many are feeling anxious and stressed, the comfort and sense of peace that prayer brings is a wonderful thing.”

Friedman is best known for “Mi Shebeirach,” a prayer for healing that is sung in many North American congregations. The song was sung in synagogues nationwide when news spread of her hospitalization.

Friedman recorded more than 20 albums (including Miracles and Wonders, Renewal of Spirit, You Shall Be a Blessing and The Water in the Well), which together have sold half a million copies, according to the Forward. She performed hundreds of concerts around the world. Prior to her death, Friedman’s Web site noted that her music was performed in synagogues around the world more than that of any other living composer.

“By creating a whole new genre of Jewish music, Debbie was able to reintroduce authentic Jewish spirituality,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, URJ vice president and a longtime friend and fellow songwriter. “She wrote melodies that spoke to us, spoke to our intellect, spoke to our emotions.”

Friedman is survived by her mother, Freda Friedman, Laguna Hills, Calif., and sisters Cheryl, Laguna Hills, and Barbara Egli, Maple Grove. A funeral service was held in California.

(American Jewish World, 1.21.11)

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