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 folksy settings of common prayers are so deeply enmeshed in many services that people who have never heard of her may nonetheless hum her familiar melodies.
Cantor Arthur Katlin of Adath Israel Congregation, the Conservative synagogue in Lawrenceville, studied with Friedman in the early 1980s and remained close to her through the years. He said he knew how fragile her health was and the strength it took for her to keep going even at times when others might have balked.
“Her music came from her heart,” he said. “It was home-grown, a truly personal expression from her heart and soul, but it was created with an intelligence and intellect, and a solid scholarly knowledge of Hebrew texts and Jewish prayer.”
Friedman, the cantor said, helped inspire the Jewish camp music movement, now a growing field with 30 or 40 nationally recognized musicians and song leaders. In recent years, she also won growing respect from cantorial colleagues and educators across the Jewish spectrum. “She was an amazing artist,” he said, “a tour de force.”
Rabbi Stuart Pollack of Har Sinai Temple, the Reform congregation in Pennington, said that though he can’t sing well himself, he was profoundly appreciative of Friedman’s genius. “Once in a generation you get someone like her,” he said. “She was a gentle soul, but the simplicity and sing-ability of her music changed Jewish liturgy and tradition for all denominations. It made the pulpit more user-friendly, and created a connectedness that carried over into our sense of community, and study, and work.”
For example, he said, her rendition of “Mi Shebeirach” brought a whole new level of shared involvement in praying for the ill.
In the same way that the Beatles changed pop music, Pollack said, Friedman “had an influence that will last way into the future; there’s no going back to the way things were before her.”
As is done in so many synagogues, at the Conservative Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro, Pa., Friedman’s music is frequently used in services and for children’s events and holiday programs, said Cantor Paul Frimark. Friedman herself performed at a concert at the temple about 10 years ago. “Since her music was so popular, at one point she actually had to ask people not to sing along,” he recalled, “so that she could perform a song the way she wanted to.”
Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum of String of Pearls Congregation, the Reconstructionist synagogue based in Princeton, met Friedman at numerous conferences and found the musician “very warm — as everyone did.”
She pointed out that Friedman didn’t think of herself as a performer but rather as a song leader. “She enlarged the world of Jewish music,” Kirshbaum said. “She helped bring group singing back to the Jewish people and helped create an atmosphere that encouraged Jewish people not just to be sung to but also to sing.”