Debbie Friedman: Singing Unto God

A Jewish musical phenomenon

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The Early Years

Debbie learned to love Judaism from her bubbe (grandmother) and zadie (grandfather), traditional Jews who lived upstairs in a two-family house in Utica, N.Y. When she was five years old, her father, a kosher butcher, decided to move the family to St. Paul, Minn. There, the Friedmans joined a Reform congregation and sent Debbie and her two older sisters to a Conservative Hebrew school.

She first picked up a guitar at the age of 16, inspired by Barbara Gutkin, one of her fellow counselors at Herzl Camp in Wisconsin. At home, she continued to teach herself how to play, mostly by listening to "Peter, Paul and Mary" records. "It was really funny when I first performed with Peter Yarrow professionally," she recalls. "It was as if we'd always played together, because I'd learned how to play by listening to him."

In 1968, she began song-leading for her synagogue's youth group, which led to her attending a song-leader workshop at the UAHC Kutz Camp Institute in Warwick, N.Y. Three years later, she wrote her first song, a setting of the V'ahavta. "I taught it to a group of kids who were doing a creative service with James Taylor, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins music," she recalls. "Not only did they sing the V'ahavta, they stood arm in arm. They were moved; they were crying. Here was something in a genre to which they could relate."

In 1972, Debbie recorded her first album, Sing Unto God, a compilation of Shabbat songs featuring a high school choir. "I had planned to make a demo tape," she recalls, "but when I found out it would cost only $500 more to make 1,000 LPs, I thought, why not? They sold like hotcakes at camp. That's how it started. It was a fluke."

A year later she moved to Chicago, where she taught religious school, directed a youth group, and sometimes led services. Soon she was playing occasional concerts. Several years later, she was hired as a "cantorial soloist" (not a cantor, as she didn't have the for-mal training) in California. She taught day school, continued the concert circuit, and made recordings to sell at her shows. As people brought the melodies and settings from her performances into their synagogues, her reputation grew.

A Career

In 1988, Debbie signed a recording contract with Sounds Write Productions, headed by Randee Friedman (no relation), whose husband Dick had attended Hebrew school with Debbie. Randee and Dick used to play Debbie's music at weddings and other simchas (happy occasions, such as a wedding or a bat mitzvah ceremony). "I liked it so much," Randee recalls, "but it wasn't available. One day I telephoned Debbie and said, 'Can I buy a bunch of your records? People heard I had Debbie's recordings and wanted to buy them, so I started selling them." Randee produced Debbie's sixth original album, You Shall Be A Blessing, and Sounds Write re-released her earlier albums.

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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.