Friday, January 27, 2023
Debbie Friedman: On her 12th yahrtzeit – Reflections & Recollections on the lasting impact and legacy of her music.
Debbie Friedman, born February 23, 1951 and died January 9, 2011, was a singer-songwriter of Jewish liturgical music. She was born in Utica, New York, and then moved with her family to Minnesota at age 5. She is best known for her setting of “Mi Shebeirach”, the prayer for healing, which is chanted in dozens of congregations across America. According to her website, Friedman’s music is performed in synagogues around the world more than that of any other modern Jewish composer. Debbie Friedman was a feminist. Orthodox Jewish feminist Blu Greenberg commented that while Ms. Friedman’s music impacted most on Reform and Conservative liturgy, “she had a large impact [in] Modern Orthodox shuls, women’s tefillah [prayer], and Orthodox feminist circles…. She was a religious bard and angel for the entire community.”
Debbie wrote many of her early songs as a song leader at the overnight camp Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, in the early 1970s. Between 1971 and 2010 she recorded 22 albums. Her music was inspired by great folk icons, like Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and several others. She drew much of her material from the siddur and the Torah, and the entire Tanach, or Hebrew Bible. She set ancient texts to modern, accessible, singable melodies. Debbie wrote fantastic, catchy, fun songs to mark the holidays. Some of her most well-known songs include “The Aleph Bet Song”, “Miriam’s Song”, “L’chi Lach,” “Not by Might” and “I am a Latke”. Ms. Friedman’s compositions encompass not only modern settings of traditional Hebrew liturgy but also songs for which she wrote original English lyrics, like, “Let’s Plant a Tree for Tu Bishvat.” Regularly sung by congregants in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and some Modern Orthodox synagogues her songs were widely credited with having revitalized worship for an entire generation of American Jews at the close of the 20th century.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the rabbinical school at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, said that Friedman “had an impact that transcended all the labels dividing Jewish life. . .You can measure her reach by the [way] virtually everyone uses her havdalah melody, often without realizing it. You can measure her impact by the fact that there is a rich profession of contemporary Jewish music when none existed outside the cantorate before her.”
Cantor Rosalie Boxt, a cantor in Maryland, said she believes Friedman’s gift was to “give ‘voice’ to new and more modern texts and experiences, as well as the fact that she opened the door and gave permission to clergy and congregants alike to express themselves fully. Debbie lifted the veil that muffled our liturgy, and she took away many of the inhibitors that were barriers to a richer, more personalized way of davening, one that just felt more intimate and spiritual all at once. Her music in many ways has become the tapestry of our people, tells the story of a generation of Jews – through the joy of the State of Israel, of Torah texts that teach values of justice and honor, and tefilot that express our longing for God,” Boxt said. “Her melodies bring texts to life about women, about hope, about joy and about healing in ways few had done before her. The reason so many around the world feel close to Debbie, and call her ‘friend’ is because she, in leading worship or performance, gives us permission to feel deeply. She gives fully of herself and has opened a door for many to share their deepest hurts or their purest joy. She asks people to be open to their truest hearts, to their longing for the Divine, and for the need we have for love and friendship and for each other. There is no pretense with Debbie, and her music and spirit have created a growth in expression in Jewish music, liturgical and non[-liturgical], that speaks to a Jewish community that wants to be fully engaged in prayer, in song, and in learning. Debbie helps me grow as a cantor and a woman. She continues to inspire me and so many others with her music, her strength, her commitment to Torah and to the Jewish people of all backgrounds and experiences.”
Friedman had suffered since the 1990s from a neurological illness, with effects apparently similar to multiple sclerosis. There were times when this illness kept her from performing, but she always persevered. Debbie’s life’s work, as well as the challenges and setbacks she faced in living with illness, were the focus of a 2004 documentary film about her calle, “A Journey of Spirit,” produced by Ann Coppel, which followed her from 1997 to 2002. In 2007, Friedman was appointed to the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music in New York (now called the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music) where she instructed both rabbinic and cantorial students. Her appointment was striking for two reasons: first, because she was a largely self-taught musician who did not know how to read music, and second, because her work — inclusive, progressive and strongly feminist — was perceived as a threat to established cantorial tradition when she began her career in the early 1970s. In Debbie’s own words: “One night I went to synagogue, and realized, sitting there, I was bored,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I realized the rabbi was talking, the choir was singing and nobody was doing anything. There was no participation.” Sometime after that, Debbie composed an original melody, and as an experiment, she set to it the text of the “V’ahavta,” “I sang it with some high school kids, who sang it arm in arm, crying and singing,” Ms. Friedman told Lilith magazine in 1995. “They were looking for a spiritual avenue of their own.”
Debbie Friedman‘s first album, “Sing Unto God,” a collection of Sabbath songs, was released in 1972, followed by the albums, “Not by Might,” (Chanukah songs, as well as the Torah service) and “Ani Ma’amin” (Jewish love songs). While some rabbis and cantors welcomed her music as a democratizing force, others saw it as a subversive breach of time-honored tradition, in which the cantor was always male and usually vocally imposing, and the congregants merely passive listeners. Ms. Friedman’s music, on the contrary, emphasized congregational participation – both in religious services and in concerts.
My first exposure to Debbie Friedman and her music was at a live performance in the early 1970’s. I had already been playing the folk guitar since the age of 9 – unlike Debbie, a self-taught musician, my parents sent me to formal music lessons. By 6th grade, I was studying classical guitar at Washington University with an instructor there; a couple of years into those lessons, I noticed that she was going to be on campus, in concert at the Hillel House. I jumped at the opportunity to hear her, attending the concert with my parents – who always supported going to live performances of talented folk artists. I was overwhelmed by her, the power of her music, the ease I (and the entire audience) had singing it. I remember rushing to the table at intermission to buy her albums. I listened to these recordings (on a turntable, of course) ad nauseum, until I had warped the records from overuse. I memorized the lyrics, and sat for hours picking out her guitar patterns, strums, and introductions – just as I had with my Joni Mitchell records. I remember recording my voice singing her melodies on a cassette tape, and harmonizing with myself – just like Debbie did on her records.
Five years later, I graduated from high school, and I went off to Cincinnati to study classical guitar in the Conservatory there. While in college, I began my own career in Jewish music education. I worked in a few different Reform congregations, where the music of Debbie Friedman was achieving great popularity. We sang “Not by Might, not by power,” at the top of our lungs, clapping to the rhythm (as Debbie often taught it in concert) of, “I want to be in A-Me-Ri-Ca!” from West Side Story. I attended a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin, Camp Herzl – a place where Debbie Friedman had been employed! – and learned her Zionist anthem, “Im Tirtzu,” “If you will it, it need not be a dream!”
I had the opportunity to see Debbie Friedman many times in concert over the years, and her power to mesmerize an audience only grew with the years. Through her own battles with a chronic illness, her message of healing through song and prayer resonated with audiences all over the country. Wherever she performed or taught, she was able to create community – people standing arm in arm, singing her songs with all their power, with all their might. I was fortunate to see her on stage, as well as leading her beloved community chorus, at the annual CAJE conventions – twice on Long Island at Hofstra University, and once at the University of Vermont in Burlington. People were hungry for community and connection, and they found both with Debbie. In 2001, nearly 30 years after the first time I heard her, I heard Debbie introduce her new songs (not even released at the time), melodies to the prayer Hashkivenu, and the words of the Haftarah for Shabbat Shira, “Arise Devorah.” Again, I was mesmerized. What worked? Why was her music so powerful? For several reasons, I think. She based her songs on traditional Jewish texts – a common bond for Jews everywhere. She wrote melodies that were both beautiful and singable for large audiences, and melodies that fit the lyrics. And when she sang them, simply accompanied on her own acoustic guitar, Debbie encouraged people to join in, without the aid of songsheets or power point presentations. People learned her songs instantly.
After years of being disdained by the Cantorate, she was finally embraced for her profound and lasting contributions to American Jewish music. Cantors had held her music in low regard – it brought folk music sounds into the sanctuary, replacing traditional nusach, and traditional chazzanut – and more than that, her music afforded women an opportunity to be heard from the bima, legitimately, beautifully, spiritually, in an inclusive and empowering way not experienced before.
For me, I have used her music successfully for years – in teaching children Torah, holidays, and Ahavat Yisrael (the love of the Jewish people, and the love of Eretz Yisrael), and on the bima, in welcoming the congregation into prayer and connection with the Divine. May the music of Debbie Friedman be ours to cherish and sing for many generations to come. Please keep her song and her vision alive.
Cantor Carol Chesler