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Debbie Friedman

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Debbie Friedman
Background information
Birth nameDeborah Lynn Friedman
Born(1951-02-23)February 23, 1951
Utica, New York
DiedJanuary 9, 2011(2011-01-09) (aged 59)
Mission Viejo, California
GenresMusic-Jewish Liturgy
Occupation(s)Jewish songwriter/songleader
Years active1971–2011

Deborah Lynn Friedman (February 23, 1951 – January 9, 2011)[1][2][3][4] was an American singer-songwriter of Jewish religious music, a feminist, and lover of music. She was an early pioneer of gender-sensitive language: using the feminine forms of the Divine or altering masculine-only text references in the Jewish Liturgy to include feminine language.

She is best known for her setting of "Mi Shebeirach" the prayer for Healing,[4] which is used by hundreds of congregations across America.[2] Her songs are used in Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish congregations. [5] It demonstrates her popularity within Jewish religious communities and her imprint on the Jewish Liturgy.

Orthodox Jewish feminist Blu Greenberg noted: "she had a large impact [in] Modern Orthodox shuls, women’s tefillah [prayer], the Orthodox feminist circles.... She was a religious bard and angel for the entire community."[5][6] According to Cantor Harold Messinger of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, PA, “Debbie was the first, and every contemporary hazzan, song leader, and layperson who values these concepts is in her debt.”[7]


The daughter of Freda and Gabriel Friedman, Debbie was born in Utica, New York in 1951. From age five, she was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she received choral training with her high school’s chamber choir and song-leading lessons with her NoFTY youth group.[8][9][10] She wrote many of her early songs as a song leader at the overnight camp Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, in the early 1970s. Between 1971 and 2010, she recorded 22 albums.[11] Her work was inspired by such diverse sources as Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary and a number of other folk music artists. Friedman employed both English and Hebrew lyrics and wrote for all ages. Some of her songs are "The Aleph Bet Song," "Miriam's Song," and the songs "Not By Might" and "I Am A Latke." She also performed in synagogues and concert halls.[11]

In the fall of 1972, Friedman moved to Chicago, which provided her with a significant platform in the nation’s fourth-largest Jewish population.[10] Friedman was commissioned by Chicago’s Temple Sinai following her experience as a song leader at the overnight camp Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute; in fact, Chicago Sinai Rabbi Samuel Karff was so “captivated” by her charisma, and impressed with her abilities, that he invited Friedman to join his congregation as an artist in residence that fall.[10] While Friedman was being commissioned by Chicago Sinai, she produced three large-scale works between 1972 and 1975 that reflected liberal Judaism’s demographic and liturgical transitions.[10] Friedman was able to raise her profile in a community that would soon connect her to a nascent but powerful national movement for Jewish educational reform. Ultimately Friedman’s activity in Chicago laid the groundwork for the attention and praise she went on to receive later on.[10]

Friedman suffered since the 1990s from a neurological condition,[4] with effects apparently similar to multiple sclerosis.[12] The story of her music, as well as the challenges she faced in living with illness, were featured in a 2004 documentary film about Friedman called A Journey of Spirit, produced by Ann Coppel, which followed her from 1997 to 2002.[13][14]

In 2007, Friedman accepted an appointment to the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's School of Sacred Music in New York (now called the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music) where she instructed both rabbinic and cantorial students.[15]

In 2010, she was named to the Forward 50 after the release of her 22nd album As You Go On Your Way: Shacharit – The Morning Prayers.[11]

Friedman was a lesbian, but did not talk about it in public. Her obituary in The New York Times was the first place her sexual identity was publicized.[16]

Death and legacy[edit]

She was admitted to a Mission Viejo, California Hospital in January 2011, where she died January 9, 2011, from pneumonia.[17]

Rabbi David Ellenson, then-President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, announced on January 27, 2011, that the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's School of Sacred Music would be renamed the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. On December 7, 2011, it was officially renamed as such.[18][19]

In 2014, the book Sing Unto God: The Debbie Friedman Anthology was published; it features "every song she wrote and recorded (plus more than 30 songs previously unavailable) in lead sheet format, with complete lyrics, melody line, guitar chords, Hebrew, transliteration, and English translation."[20]

Despite the central role that music played in her career and life, Friedman’s family (including her mother, two sisters, and brother-in-law) argued that Friedman herself may have found the collection problematic in some ways.[21] Friedman was ambivalent with the written form (but a strong proponent of oral transmission because she considered it to be more immediate and human); however in the introduction of her anthology, Friedman’s family nonetheless recognized the centrality of textual representation of the music she created as crucial for keeping her memory and legacy alive in a durable form.[21] Below is an excerpt of the introduction that her family wrote for this anthology:

On her good days, Debbie was self-effacing. If she could know about this project, she would be embarrassed. She would say, "No one will want it."

Debbie’s music is the narrative of her personal journey. It is the story that should not be lost. Her music was raw. Her intimate relationship with liturgy, Tanach [Hebrew Bible], and modern and ancient texts is revealed in her interpretations and melodies. She found a home for the texts and her lyrics in the music she created. Every nuance of her music and lyrics gave voice to her love for Judaism, her love for others, her joy and pain—they gave voice to the person that Debbie was and wanted to be.

Notwithstanding Debbie’s feelings, we believe people will want this anthology. We believe people will want to hold onto and perpetuate Debbie’s message. Over the years, there will be variations on her compositions. That will be inevitable. But Debbie’s gift is reflected in the uniqueness of her melodies, original lyrics, and chosen texts. The purpose of this project is to provide people with her original works as she created them. (Eglash 2013, p. viii)[21] Friedman ultimately wanted to strengthen Jewish life by leveraging her unique philosophy of music as an immediate spiritual experience.[10]

Among her music that remains the most sung in North American Jewish communities include her Mi Shebeirach (co-written with her partner Drorah Setel),[22][23] "Miriam's Song" and her Havdalah melody.[24] Throughout her remarkable career of songleading and writing, Friedman always sought to empower Jewish communities to bring their own voices and experiences to Jewish worship in an evolving and constantly changing period for the religion.[10]


Studio albums[edit]

  • Sing Unto God (1972)
  • Not by Might Not by Power (1974)
  • Ani Ma-Amin (1976)
  • If Not Now, When? (1980)
  • ...And The Youth Shall See Visions (1981)
  • And You Shall Be a Blessing.... (1989)
  • Debbie Friedman: Live at the Del (1990)
  • The World of Your Dreams (1993)
  • Miracles & Wonders (1995)
  • Shirim Al Galgalim: Songs on Wheels (1995)
  • Shanah Tovah: A Good Year (1996)
  • Renewal of Spirit (1997)
  • The Journey Continues: Ma'yan Passover Haggadah In Song (1997)
  • It's You (1998)
  • The Alef Bet (2001)
  • The Water in the Well (2001)
  • Light These Lights: Debbie Friedman Sings Chanukah Songs For The Whole Family (2003)
  • One People (2006)
  • As You Go On Your Way: Shacharit – The Morning Prayers (2008)

Live albums[edit]

  • Debbie Friedman: Live at the Del (1990)
  • At Carnegie Hall (1996)


  • In The Beginning (1994)
  • Songs of the Spirit - The Debbie Friedman Anthology (2005)


  • Friedman was a 1969 alumna of Highland Park High School in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 1999.[25] She was also an honorary member of the American Conference of Cantors.
  • During her time in Chicago, Friedman sought to deepen her Judaic knowledge through formal study and enrolled in Spertus Institute (formerly Chicago College of Jewish Studies), a non-denominational, Jewish institution of higher learning that, recently accredited, became the hub of Jewish studies for several Chicago-area college campuses.[10]


  1. ^ Cohen, Debra Nussbaum, Debbie Friedman, Beloved Jewish Composer and Performer, Dead at 59, The Jewish Daily Forward, January 9, 2011
  2. ^ a b Horn, Jordana, Beloved US Jewish songwriter, Debbie Friedman, dies, The Jerusalem Post, January 9, 2011
  3. ^ Woo, Elaine, Debbie Friedman, self-taught Jewish folk singer, dies at 59, Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2011
  4. ^ a b c Fox, Margalit, Debbie Friedman, Singer of Jewish Music, Dies at 59, The New York Times, January 11, 2011
  5. ^ a b "Beloved Singer Debbie Friedman Dead at 59". The Advocate. January 1, 2011. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  6. ^ "Debbie Friedman's Gift". The Jewish Week. January 1, 2011.
  7. ^ Fishkoff, Sue (January 14, 2011). ""Debbie Friedman, inspiration to thousands, dies at 59"". Jewish Standard.
  8. ^ Sparber, Max (January 10, 2011). "Debbie Friedman, Minnesota-raised Jewish songwriter, dies". MinnPost. When we think of one Jewish songwriter from Minnesota who changed everything, we usually think of Bob Dylan.
  9. ^ Sermer, Tanya (2016). "Jewish Spiritual Healing, Mi Shebeirach, and the Legacy of Debbie Friedman". In Kingsbury, Paul; Andrews, Gavin J.; Kearns, Robin (eds.). Soundscapes of Wellbeing in Popular Music. Routledge. p. 78. ISBN 9781317052364. Deborah Lynn Friedman (1951–2011) was born in Utica, New York, and lived most of her childhood in St. Paul, Minnesota.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Cohen, Judah (January 2017). "Higher Education: Debbie Friedman in Chicago". Journal of Jewish Identities. 1 (10): 7–26. doi:10.1353/jji.2017.0002. S2CID 152195620 – via Project MUSE.
  11. ^ a b c "Forward 50, 2010". The Jewish Daily Forward. October 26, 2010. Retrieved February 8, 2011.
  12. ^ Theiner, Manny (May 1, 2008). "Jewish folk-singer Debbie Friedman performs at Temple Sinai". Pittsburgh City Paper. Retrieved September 23, 2008.
  13. ^ Coppel, Ann (2002). "A Journey of Spirit". Ann Coppel Productions. Retrieved September 23, 2008.
  14. ^ Klug, Lisa Alcalay (December 12, 2004). "Debbie Friedman's Spiritual Undertaking". The Jerusalem Post. Archived from the original on February 12, 2005.
  15. ^ Fishkoff, Sue (July 1, 2007). "Camp fire to academy: Popular singer teaches Reform cantors". JTA.org. Retrieved September 23, 2008.
  16. ^ Route 17 (November 2, 2013). "Debbie Friedman Talks About Being Gay". The Jewish Week. Archived from the original on January 3, 2015. Retrieved December 4, 2013.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ Debbie Friedman, Jewish songwriter and performer, dies, JTA, January 9, 2011.
  18. ^ "Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music Renaming at HUC-JIR/New York". Huc.edu. December 7, 2011. Archived from the original on September 20, 2020. Retrieved December 4, 2013.
  19. ^ "Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Dedicates Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music". Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. November 1, 2011. Retrieved November 19, 2018.
  20. ^ "URJ Books And Music :: Music – Song Books, Folios and Instrumental :: Sing Unto God: The Debbie Friedman Anthology". Urjbooksandmusic.com. December 1, 2013. Archived from the original on February 15, 2015. Retrieved February 14, 2015.
  21. ^ a b c Cohen, Judah (November 26, 2014). "Sing Unto God: Debbie Friedman and the Changing Sound of Jewish Liturgical Music". Contemporary Jewry. 35: 13–34. doi:10.1007/s12397-014-9127-9. S2CID 255577523 – via SpringerLink.
  22. ^ "Healing". The Life and Legacy of Debbie Friedman. Archived from the original on February 3, 2021.
  23. ^ "Debbie Friedman's Healing Prayer". The Forward. January 19, 2011.
  24. ^ "About Debbie". The Life and Legacy of Debbie Friedman. Archived from the original on April 13, 2015. Retrieved April 12, 2015.
  25. ^ World class education in a nurturing urban environment. "Highland Park High School Hall of Fame". Highlandsr.spps.org. Retrieved December 4, 2013.

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