The death of Debbie Friedman on January 9, at the age of 59, came as a shock to her legions of fans; few knew that the singer-songwriter who modernized Jewish liturgical music had long suffered from a mysterious neurological disease.
Her “Mi Sheberach,” based on the traditional prayer for healing, came out of her personal need to be healed without being cured. It has gone on to almost single-handedly revive Reform Judaism’s use of the prayer, with congregants saying aloud the names of those in need of healing.
Playing her guitar, a lover of liturgy and prayer, Debbie Friedman never learned to read music but produced 20 albums. Modest about her accomplishments, in 1996, “when Debbie was honored by The Covenant Foundation as a teacher, she was profoundly moved,” writes board chair Eli Evans on the Covenant website. She upended the cantorial tradition, penetrating Reform, Conservative, and even a few modern Orthodox services with her folk-pop religious music. And she got Reform Jews to sing. Even more amazing, in 2007, Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUCJIR) hired her to teach at the New York campus of its School of Sacred Music. She was so happy, Evans continues, teaching these cantorial students “about the magic and potential of music in their work.”
One strong woman, Friedman in “Miriam’s Song” joyously depicts the biblical Miriam leading the women on their timbrels after the Red Sea parts.
As Lilith blogger Emma Gray put it: “Debbie Friedman’s music managed to call Jewish women to action; to remind us that we could and should take ownership over our religious identities.”
Friedman preferred to keep her identity as a lesbian private, not wanting it to distract from her music.
A few weeks after her death, the memorial celebration for Debbie Friedman in the Moorish splendor of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue was probably the way she would have liked it—participatory. A giant screen displayed the words of her songs and the crowd of well over a thousand sang, wholeheartedly. People remembered her with love and humor. One long-time friend recounted how she would say, “I can’t believe I’m Debbie Friedman.”
When HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson made the stunning announcement that the School of Sacred Music was being renamed the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, one of the speakers appreciatively responded, “Debbie’s probably looking down and laughing.”