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How Debbie Friedman’s Once Controversial Music Became Canonical

The Jewish world lost a great light with the untimely death of Debbie Friedman on January 9. She was an inspiration to multiple generations of song-leaders and Jewish musicians, congregants, campers, students, friends, rabbis, cantors and educators. Her impact on Jewish music and worship has been so widely felt across the Jewish spectrum, across movements, across generations and across oceans that it leaves a massive, gaping, black hole —dense with energy and aching with potential.

Debbie’s music provided the soundtrack to my childhood, whether it was her “Alef Bet” in Hebrew school, “Im Tirzu” and “Not By Might” at camp, or “Miriam’s Song” and “T’fillat HaDerech” at NFTY conventions. I sang Debbie’s “L’chi Lach” at my confirmation, at my high school graduation and again at my college baccalaureate. She was a personal mentor to me at a crucial period in my life when I was “coming up” in the song-leading world, and helped me land my first job when I moved from California to New York to work as a freelance Jewish musician in the years before cantorial school.

She was my inspiration in so many ways — as a composer, song-leader, educator, performer and spiritual presence. Debbie taught me that leading a group in song is a privilege. That prayer is song, and song is prayer, no matter what the context. She taught me that leading a song session means holding the energy of a group’s spiritual path. That it is not about the leader, but the group. That is was ok to erase yourself from the center of attention. That spreading the energy from leader to group actually intensifies our connections to one another. That we can strengthen each other through song. That each person’s truth is valid and important, and needs to be heard with compassion.

There are literally thousands, perhaps millions, of people who feel the same way, who are, like me, having trouble putting into words what Debbie Friedman has meant to us because it has become like breathing. Of course the shaliach tzibur (service leader) is not a performer. Of course participatory singing leads to spiritual engagement. Of course people need to understand the Hebrew words they sing. Of course people need to connect viscerally and emotionally with our ancient texts, and of course we sometimes need to re-interpret our prayers to make sense to us today.

But not all this was true even 25 years ago. What Debbie initially brought to the Jewish world was very controversial. Folk influences like Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez had no place in the synagogue. Guitars? No. Organs? Yes. Participatory singing? No. Choirs? Yes. The very idea of congregational singing in mainstream American synagogue was not widely embraced. Group singing was what you did at summer camp, around a campfire, or what people sang at anti-war rallies, or rock concerts. Singing as a group was not a holy experience; rather, passive listening and letting the words or the cantor’s artistry “wash over you” was valued in our synagogues.

Debbie understood that more and more congregants in late 20th-century America were losing touch with the meaning and the immediacy of tefillah — having experienced it first hand at her home synagogue in St. Paul, Minn. She took it upon herself to change this reality by composing music that spoke to her own soul — music that illustrated the tefillah and made it accessible, relevant, and meaningful. According to Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism and half of the Jewish music duo Kol b’Seder, Debbie was the first composer to incorporate Hebrew and English into her music (see: “Mi Shebeirach,” “L’chi Lach,” and the list goes on).

She initially came from a place of pure emotion — a self-taught musician who did not read music, the daughter of a kosher butcher who spent six months on an Israeli kibbutz after high school instead of attending college. She could not have foreseen that one day she would sell out a concert in Carnegie Hall, the packed house standing together, singing and swaying as if in prayer. As a young camp song-leader, had Debbie imagined she would one day be on the faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, teaching such courses as “Music as Midrash” and coaching future cantors on song-leading technique? Her own experience with chronic illness propelled her to the center of the Jewish healing movement, and her “Mi Shebeirach” remains a heartbreakingly beautiful testament to the power of prayer to mend souls and bodies. The music of her more than 19 albums has inspired Jewish life and worship in the most remote communities across the globe. Her music, once perceived as a threat to nusach and traditional cantorial art, is now considered “traditional” in many circles.

We lost her too soon, but her spirit lives on in everyone whose lives she touched. I have a mental image of Debbie telling one of her many stories while effortlessly changing a guitar string, the whole time crunching a Ricola cough drop. I will remember her smiles of pride and satisfaction as a group sang along with her. Her seriousness and her goofiness. Her intensity and her insight. Her disarming vulnerability. Her fast fingers on the strings of her beloved Martin guitar.

Like the title character of her buoyant musical midrash “Miriam’s Song,” she was a woman touched with spirit, ever dancing toward the light.

Joanna Selznick Dulkin is the Hazzan at Shaare Zedek Synagogue in St. Louis, Mo.

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