An eternal song: Debbie Friedman’s remarkable life and work

For Rabbi Howard Ruben, it was classic Debbie Friedman.

In the summer of 1975, as eager young staffers with Saratoga’s Camp Swig, Ruben and Friedman had the job of picking up new campers at San Jose Airport.

“Within two or three minutes, she’d have the guitar out and have them singing in the airport,” recalled Ruben, who today serves as head of school at San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay. “Soon the airport was filled with campers singing, being led by Debbie.”

Debbie Friedman

Getting people to sing was the easy part for Friedman, a renowned performer and arguably the most influential writer of Jewish music of the last 50 years. The hard part was struggling with chronic illness. It never slowed her down, but it did finally claim her life.

Friedman died of pneumonia Jan. 9 in a hospital in Orange County. She was 59.

Friedman influenced a new generation of liberal rabbis and cantors, who came of age with her music and have brought it with them into their congregations. She transformed Jewish worship in hundreds, if not thousands of synagogues, particularly in the Reform movement, with her sing-along style of folk-inspired liturgical music.

“Were it not for Debbie, Reform and Progressive Jews would not have discovered the connection between prayers and healing,” read the eulogy sent out by the World Union for Progressive Judaism. “While Reform worship was once characterized by organs and choirs, Debbie taught us to sing as communities and congregations … she opened our hearts and souls to the joy of communal song.”

Those songs included “And You Shall Be a Blessing,” “Sing Unto God” and “Not by Might,” as well as her settings of prayers such as Mi Shebeirach, the Havdallah liturgy and the Ve’ahavta (“Thou Shalt Love”). Today they are sung in Jewish camps and congregations around the world, often by people who don’t realize their provenance.

“The issue is whether we’re reaching people and helping them pray,” Friedman said in 2007. “Whatever we can do to facilitate their worship experience and spiritual self-exploration, we’re obligated to do.”

Born in Utica, N.Y., Friedman started out as a song leader at the Reform movement’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union (OSRU) summer camp in Wisconsin in the early 1970s. There she began setting Jewish liturgy to original contemporary melodies, a notion that had hardly been tried before.

Debbie Friedman performs one of her spirited Jewish folk songs.

Her first album, “Sing Unto God,” was released in 1972, followed by 19 more over the next three decades.

As she developed her style, Friedman looked to expand her scope. Because OSRU directors had a close relationship with Camp Swig, Friedman’s next stop was Saratoga in 1975.

That’s where Ruben first met the singer.

“It was very easy to relate to her,” he said. “She appeared as an energy force. She also was Jewishly passionate, so she wanted to take her talents and skills and apply them to drawing people closer to the Jewish world.”

Ruben remembered how Friedman once stayed up all night writing and recording. Before the sun came up she had written and demoed her rendition of V’shamru — with four-part harmony.

Deborah Newbrun, Bay Area director of Hazon and former executive director of Camp Tawonga, met Friedman on a retreat in the early 1990s. The two clicked, and together with Rabbi Stuart Kelman, formerly of Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom, they formed Ma’ayan Tefilah (Fountain of Prayer) to teach Jewish educators ways to deepen their spirituality.

“In the beginning I was completely in awe,” remembered Newbrun. “When I watched her write or saw what she was producing, I thought more than anyone I know, she made a connection to Judaism that speaks to me.”

Kelman, who delivered a eulogy at Friedman’s funeral Jan. 11 in Santa Ana, first met the singer at a conference of the Center for Advancement of Jewish Education. They attended many more together, and toured the country with Ma’ayan Tefilah.

“We did an enormous amount of teaching, all about liturgy,” Kelman said. “I would do some primary teaching and she would add all kinds of personal reflections. When we turned to music, whatever the text was trying to do, she was able to convey in her music that message, and push the depths of the liturgical text.”

Kelman and Friedman remained friends. She attended the first congregational retreat for Netivot Shalom, and when the congregation began to build a new synagogue on University Avenue, Kelman asked Friedman if she would set a Torah verse to music: “And you shall build me a sanctuary and I will reside in it.”

It became the theme song for the synagogue.

Despite the popularity of her music, Friedman was an outsider in the Jewish musical establishment for most of her life. She had no cantorial training, and she long faced resistance from cantors, rabbis and others who considered her music inappropriate in synagogue.

“Musically, she was untrained. Her genius was intuitive and expressive,” said Cantor Jeff Klepper, a friend and fellow musician who met Friedman at the Reform movement’s Camp Kutz in 1969. “She could see the musical talent in others and knew how to bring it out. She understood prayer and was able to teach it in a way you could understand.”

In 1996 Friedman celebrated the 25th anniversary of her musical career with a concert at Carnegie Hall. She performed in hundreds of cities in the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel, and appeared before national conventions and conferences for major Jewish organizations.

She also served as cantorial soloist for three years at the New Reform Congregation in Los Angeles.

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.

Cantor Roslyn Barak of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El met Friedman in 1993 at a Union for Reform Judaism biennial, and liked her immediately.

“She managed to translate the emotion of our prayers into a language American Jews could understand,” Barak said. “She had a gift for taking the essence of the prayers, and crafting songs we could all sing together, and they would touch us.”

Newbrun remembers Friedman as a humble, warm and engaging woman. The two lived in the same building in New York City for a time, and Newbrun had plenty of chances to see Friedman’s kindness in action.

“She thought about the pain of the world,” Newbrun said. “If she saw a beggar on street, she handed him a $5 bill. She never passed a beggar she didn’t hand money to.”

She also remembers Friedman as a cauldron of creativity. Once while hiking in the mountains with friends, a hailstorm broke out, dropping grape-size hailstones as everyone ran for cover.

Newbrun says one hiker spoke aloud the Jewish blessing for hail and other natural weather occurrences. On the spot, Friedman composed a tune for the prayer and taught it to the gathering.

“She would say, ‘It’s not me. I’m a conduit,’” Newbrum added. “She would never take credit.”

In 2007, Friedman was tapped to teach at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music, a position that confirmed her place in American Jewish musical history and gave her the formal approbation her fans felt she always had deserved.

“Her gifts were not always accepted with grace by the musical establishment, but the Jewish community voted with their voices and made her songs part of the mainstream of Jewish worship,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Despite her difficulties with the establishment, Friedman was a frequent stage performer much in demand at Jewish events worldwide.

“I saw her last year at a benefit for Shalom Bayit [a Bay Area Jewish organization that addresses domestic violence] at Emanu-El,” Barak recalled. “We just hung out. She was in fragile health at the time, but I marveled at her courage and strength, that she could stand on a stage with a guitar and sing with such spirit.”

That benefit last March was Friedman’s final Bay Area appearance. Friedman’s old friend Howard Ruben wonders how much more she could have done had she lived.

“It wasn’t about performance, it was about elevating spirits,” he said of Friedman’s mission. “She had a capacity to see through to the spirit of everybody she encountered. She managed to create more life and energy than most of us are ever able to imagine without limitations.”

Just two weeks before her death, Friedman gave her last live performance, at the University of Warwick in England for the 30th anniversary of Jewish learning organization Limmud. As usual, she gave it her all, said those who saw her perform.

A note Friedman posted on her website captured the spirit that so many found inspiring in her.

“Remember,” she wrote, “out of what emerges from life’s painful challenges will come our healing. And ultimately, our greatest healing will come when we use our suffering to heal another’s pain — ‘to release another from their confinement.’”

JTA editor Ami Eden contributed to this report.

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