The death of folk singer and liturgist Debbie Friedman Jan. 9 has sent shock waves through local synagogues, where rabbis, cantors, and lay people remembered a musician who transformed the modern synagogue liturgy.
“Her loss is really a loss for all people in the Jewish world,” Rabbi Deborah Bravo of Temple Emanu-El in Edison told NJJN in a phone interview from California, where she had gone to attend Friedman’s Jan. 11 funeral. “She was an incredible music icon who touched so many people on so many different levels all around the world in so many ways. Her loss is a loss for the greater Jewish world and for people on an individual level.”
Bravo had known Friedman for 25 years, and her husband, David, served as Friedman’s piano and keyboard accompanist. Friedman also served as “hazzan” at their wedding and is the godmother of the couple’s son.
Friedman performed in an April concert at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen backed by the Hebrew school choir, said Hazzan Sheldon Levin, who also had a longtime friendship with Friedman.
Her music, he said, appealed to a wide range of ages and spirituality. “Some of her music was specifically for Hebrew school-age children such as the ‘Alef-Bet’ song, and others were Bible stories such as ‘Miriam’s Song,’ or Jewish spirituality like the ‘613 Mitzvot’ or about the Jewish holidays. Right now my Hebrew school kids are singing ‘Plant a Tree for Tu B’Shevat.’ The kids love singing that song.”
Cantor Bruce Rockman of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick called Friedman “one of the greatest Jewish singers of our time”; he was, he said, “devastated” by the news of her death.
“Both she and Shlomo Carlebach will define Jewish music more than anyone else for generations,” said Rockman. “She got people in touch with their Jewish spirituality and Jewish roots more than any other person. In my mind she is a Jewish prophet. It was an overwhelming burden, but one she embraced.”
He recalled that in December 2009 she played a “standing room only” concert at his synagogue.
“People had heard her music but after the concert they really felt they knew her music,” said Rockman. “People around here felt the deepest sense of loss but we will always have that legacy of hearing her.”