Debbie Friedman: Singing Unto God

A Jewish musical phenomenon

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This article first appeared in Reform Judaism Magazine Summer 2002, Vol. 30, No. 4, and is reprinted with permission.  

Debbie Friedman's user-friendly liturgical compositions are sung in Reform congregations across North America, and her Mi Sheberach has helped countless individuals derive strength from singing in solidarity. What are the sources of her inspiration?Debbie Friedman

A New Musical Tradition

Amidst the Hudson Valley's astonishing fall foliage, the Tarrytown Music Hall in suburban New York buzzes with excitement. Temple Beth Abraham's centennial celebration concert is about to begin. As Debbie Friedman and her band start to play, almost the entire audience joins in song. The rabbi, cantor, and some 50 children ascend the stage; the others dance a hora around the hall, weaving in and out of the aisles. Debbie does that to people.

If you are not familiar with Debbie Friedman by name, chances are you know her music. For more than 25 years, Debbie's melodies have become part of the Reform repertoire, and thousands of Reform leaders have enjoyed her concerts at the Movement's Biennial conventions. Her melodies have "stood the test of time," says Rabbi Allan Smith, director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations Youth Division. [The UAHC is the congregational organization of the Reform movement.] "She has given us a gift, a way to express our deepest feelings for our loved ones and our community. Her gift allows us to reach for the heavens. She is a ministering angel singing unto God."

Debbie is one of the best-selling artists of contemporary Jewish music, having recorded 20 albums, which have sold well over 200,000 copies. Her tapes and CDs for children, which teach Hebrew concepts and the holidays, are known by youngsters nationwide; Barney, the purple dinosaur, has performed her "Alef Bet" song on TV. In 1998, the Forward named her as one of the hundred most influential American Jews.

Debbie's pleasing folk-style settings of the V'ahavta (a prayer that is part of the Shema), the Mi Sheberach (a prayer for the ill), and many other prayers are singer-friendly, allowing for more interactive worship. "My objective is to involve people in the experience," she says. "I try to make prayer user friendly. Because the music is in a familiar genre, people are able to make the connection between the music and the text. The real power is in the poetry of the liturgy, how moving and stirring it can be, connecting us to our deepest and most precious ideas, hopes, and fears."

On some of her recent recordings, Debbie's voice has a Judy Collins quality, and the orchestration is lush. Most of her music, however, can be readily played by guitar strumming camp song leaders.

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Hank Bordowitz

Hank Bordowitz, corresponding secretary of the Reform Temple of Suffern, N.Y., is the author of Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival.