Musician Debbie Friedman died on Sunday, January 9, 2011, of pneumonia at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo near Los Angeles at age 59 after years of battling a neurological disorder. Fatigue from her schedule and underlying condition may have contributed to the illness, a family member told reporters. ReadTheSpirit covers the best in religion and Debbie Friedman certainly was among the very best of her generation. Because she was still young and had touched lives in congregations nationwide, millions mourn her passing. This weekend, many Jewish congregations nationwide are planning tributes to Friedman.
TODAY, we are publishing tributes to Debbie from a wide range of voices. Then, please come back FRIDAY: Jewish Lights has given permission for us to publish Debbie’s stirring, “I Am Jewish.”
Debbie Friedman’s Own Summary of Her Career
Friedman herself issued this short biographical note that is quoted in hundreds of news stories and blog posts, this week. Here are highlights from the original Friedman text:
Over the course of her 35-year career, American Jewish composer, singer, and recording artist Debbie Friedman released over 20 albums (selling in excess of 500,000 units) and performed in sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall and in hundreds of cities around the world. Debbie is credited with creating a new genre of contemporary, accessible Jewish music. From the beginning of her career, she has taken the prayers, teachings and melodies of the Ancient Jewish Texts and set them to contemporary music. Debbie’s songs have universal appeal in part, because they speak to each listener in an intimate and personal way. One of the most famous, Mi-Shebeirach (the prayer for healing), is sung in synagogues and churches across the nation. Indeed, by the end of her life, Debbie’s music was performed in more synagogues around the world than any other living composer. An overview of her 35 year career is encapsulated on the CD Songs of the Spirit: Debbie Friedman Anthology.
Twenty-five years ago, North American Jews had forgotten how to sing. Debbie reminded us how to sing.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism
Friedman was an early pioneer for gender-sensitive language, unafraid to use feminine forms of the Divine or alter masculine-only text references years before the liberal streams deemed it acceptable. She took Miriam as her prophetess, raising her voice to the unknown Jewish women throughout time, whose wisdom and patience she felt formed the bedrock of Jewish community.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency obituary
Regularly sung by congregants in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and some Modern Orthodox synagogues as well as in some Christian churches, Ms. Friedman’s songs are widely credited with having revitalized worship for a generation of postwar American Jews. To an extent, her work also made its way into the mainstream marketplace. Her music appears on the video “Barney in Concert,” on which the purple dinosaur sings her setting of the Hebrew alphabet for children; her lyrics have been featured on a line of Hallmark cards.
New York Times obituary
The woman who changed the sound of the synagogue has died. … To Boomer-era American Jews such as myself, Friedman, was the bridge that connected the Old World to the New. The Jewish cantorial tradition, beautiful as it may be, was long rooted in a sound—seemingly part Middle Eastern and part operatic—that didn’t always speak to a generation raised on rock, pop, folk and soul.
Charles Passy writing in The Wall Street Journal
Among her best-known compositions is “Mi Shebeirach,” the Jewish prayer for healing. … The song was performed at a Tucson temple Sunday for Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, critically wounded during a shooting rampage the day before, as well as at healing services for Friedman after she became ill last week.
Los Angeles Times obituary
Debbie Friedman’s music is so fully integrated into synagogue liturgy, that in many congregations it is considered “traditional.” As a rabbinical student at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 1990s, I remember Debbie Friedman leading a healing service that infused our souls with spiritual energy. Prayer services at the seminary during those years were often described as sterile, following the liturgical rote with little spontaneity. Debbie came to the seminary to teach us how to lead a healing service. She concluded with a rousing rendition of “Hallelujah” that had students, faculty and guests singing and dancing around the synagogue. Her version of the “Mi Shebeirach” has inspired Jews all over the world to make a communal prayer for healing a staple of every Shabbat service. Her “Alef-Bet” song is how my three children learned the Hebrew Alphabet. I have watched so many brides walk down the aisle to her “Lechi Lach.” “Miriam’s Song” has become the theme song at every gathering of Jewish women, especially at the yearly Passover seders for women that Debbie led in New York City. And hundreds of thousands of current and former Jewish campers only know Debbie Friedman’s version of havdallah, the prayers ending the Jewish Sabbath. As a camp rabbi, I can’t imagine what our summer would sound like without Debbie Friedman’s gifts. This summer, whether I’m sitting around a campfire or standing in a circle for havdallah, I will give thanks to God for giving us Debbie Friedman.
Rabbi Jason Miller of Tamarack Camps and Congregation T’chiyah in Michigan
Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach has become a very important and meaningful part of how I experience Judaism. The prayer is recited at every worship services at Temple Beth El. Her prayer inspired me to lead a healing service at Hechman, a senior citizen residence. The beautiful words and melody of Debbie’s prayer helped us not only bring payers of healing to residents and community members who were ill, but “helped us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.”
Interfaith peace activist Brenda Rosenberg
Every time Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach is sung at Temple Israel, the reform synagogue in West Bloomfield of which I am a member, it touches me deeply and I feel very spiritual and connected to God. Debbie Friedman came to Detroit a number of years ago, and her packed concert was absolutely incredible.
Gail Katz, head of WISDOM women
I’ve met Debbie numerous times and she and I had something in common: We both were born in Minnesota. She was in her teens when she started writing music, and could not read a note of music. Though her music was first played and sung in the Reform temples, the Conservative movement began using her music, too. You might almost say she was the Jewish Amy Grant. Temple Israel in Michigan is doing a tribute to her this Friday night and I’m sure congregations all over the world are doing the same.
Musician Elaine Greenberg, an activist on behalf of cancer patients and survivors
Debbie Friedman inspired and moved multiple generations—helping us to give voice musically to the innermost prayers of our heart. Her songs not only celebrated the joy of Jewish living but gave us the gift of heartfelt prayers for facing uncertain times, offering strength to those who are sick, and recognizing the power and vision of our youngsters. She will be missed greatly but her legacy will live on without end. I had the honor of meeting her several times and will never forget the powerful seminars she offered when I was as a Rabbinical student both at American Jewish University and at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her enthusiasm and precious spirit was a gift to the entire Jewish world. May her memory be for a blessing.
Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff of Congregation Shaarey Zedek
NOTE: Shaarey Zedek, a historic Conservative congregation in Michigan, will devote a portion of Saturday’s service on January 15 to songs of Debbie Friedman, honoring her legacy.
I was a young teen singing in my synagogue choir when Debbie Friedman’s Not By Might—Not By Power (1974) was released. It was a time when many young Jews in my world were beginning to challenge traditional liturgy and engage in communal activism. As I became involved in the Soviet Jewry Movement and Jewish feminism, her lyrics helped me translate my thoughts into meaningful words. Her folk-like music helped me stay connected to the synagogue because her music was incorporated into our services. I often felt like I was in camp with all of the wonderful supportive memories of being among friends who cared about Judaism and God like me. Through the years I have always felt that I grew up as she grew up. She continued to think about God (God’s miracles, blessings and challenges), prayer, the Jewish people, Israel and the world at large—it seemed almost on a daily basis. From time to time, I had the opportunity to enjoy her music “live” and each and every time, she would share bits and pieces of her life—her ups and her downs. She will be missed. May her memory be a blessing.
Sharona Shapiro, a longtime Jewish activist, advocate for diversity and Director of Community Development for Detroit Medical Center/Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com)