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Judi's Journal 01-28-2011

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Debbie Friedman: her musical legacy

By Judi Siegal

The Jewish world lost a great songwriter-singer when Debbie Friedman died recently. According to a recent article in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, she died Jan. 9, 2011, in Southern California where she had moved from NYC to be closer to family. She was 59. She had more than 20 albums to her name and performed for synagogues, churches, and summer camps and most notably at Carnegie Hall. In 2007, she was called to an appointment to the faculty of the Reform movement’s cantorial school, an act that gave credibility to her folksy musical style that has been a “standard” for liberal and Conservative movement congregations across the country. She was most noted for her “Mi Shebeirach” healing prayer as well as other songs she wrote during her career, which spanned from the 1970s until the present day.

I was a great fan of Debbie’s music and her death, to me, represents a great loss to the Jewish world. Her signature style was reminiscent of the folksong era of the 1960s and her music spoke to you as if she were talking directly to you. “You turned my mourning into singing” is a wonderful example of the Friedman genre. She clearly sang about human emotions and this tune with its repetitive lilting melody, expresses what we all feel when overcoming a major crisis in our lives. Her music put these feelings into a Jewish context but they were very universal in message.

Her songs were easy to sing and often were written to accompany Jewish ritual activities. “We light these lights,” originally written for Chanukah, could also be used for lighting the Sabbath candles. She had an easy, engaging style, not like the operatic voiced cantors of a more formal nature. Her songs encouraged congregational singing and this led to popular songs being introduced into the synagogue service. These songs have become so standard; most people do not realize they are popular songs. She often blended key Hebrew phrases with English so that people that knew little Hebrew could get the flavor of the Jewish prayer and be able to sing along. Since many of her songs were written for use in summer Jewish camps, they lent themselves to adaptation to the synagogue because of their repetitive nature and ease of melody.

Debbie also was instrumental in Jewish women’s rights. When she was starting her career, women were just starting to gain distinction and recognition in the more liberal branches of Judaism. In the 1970s, the Conservative movement gave women the right to be counted as part of a minyan, a religious quorum, while the Reconstructionist and Reform movements allowed women to become rabbis and cantors. The Conservative movement also began to ordain female rabbis and with this historical background, songs about women became popular through the use of Debbie’s music. She gave women a voice and sang of Deborah, the matriarchs and Miriam.

I first encountered Debbie in 1995 when I was teaching in a Jewish religious school in Connecticut. At the time, she was our featured performer at our annual teachers’ convention. I remember her singing “Mi Shebeirach” and being very moved by her performance. I later learned that she had written the song for herself as she was recovering from serious illness at the time. She sang to us her Alelph-Bet Song and it became an instant hit and we left the sanctuary humming the catchy tune for learning the Hebrew alphabet. It was a tune I used throughout my years of teaching and I bet there are some students out there that still remember my teaching it to them.

As time went on, I encountered more of Debbie’s music in the various venues I was active in. I sang her version of The Shema (Hear oh Israel) in synagogue choir and “Osseh Shalom” as a women’s choral piece. I also introduced her music to my students when I was song leader for the upper grades. Most recently, I have sung her song “Tifilat HaDerech” as part of our Torah dedication ceremony at Congregation Beth Israel of Ocala and we regularly use her “Mi Shebeirach” prayer as part of our liturgy for spiritual healings well as her “Osseh Shalom,” a prayer for peace. Ironically, Beth Israel offered her prayer “Mi Shebeirach” shortly before she died.

Debbie Friedman will be sorely missed but her legacy lives on in the songs she leaves behind.