Debbie Friedman, a singer and songwriter whose work — which
married traditional Jewish texts to contemporary folk-infused melodies — is
credited with helping give ancient liturgy broad appeal to late-20th-century
worshippers, died on Sunday in Mission Viejo, Calif. She was 59 and lived in
Laguna Woods, Calif.
cause was complications of pneumonia, said Jerry Kaye, a family spokesman. Ms.
Friedman, who continued performing in public until the end of her life, had been
ill for the past two decades with a chronic, often debilitating and never
definitively diagnosed neurological condition.
One of the brightest stars of the Jewish music world, Ms. Friedman was called
“the Joan Baez of Jewish song,” as the Jewish newspaper The Forward wrote in
1995. She was known for her clear, strong voice and for the intense spiritual
conviction with which she sang as she accompanied herself on the guitar.
She recorded more than 20 albums, which together have sold half a million
copies. Among them are “Miracles & Wonders,” “Renewal of Spirit,” “You Shall Be
a Blessing” and “The Water in the Well.”
Ms. Friedman’s compositions encompass not only modern settings of traditional
Hebrew liturgy but also songs for which she wrote original English lyrics.
Regularly sung by congregants in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and
some Modern Orthodox synagogues (as well as in some Christian churches), they
are widely credited with having revitalized worship for a generation of postwar
To an extent, her work also made its way into the mainstream marketplace. Her
music appears on the video “Barney in Concert,” on which the purple dinosaur
sings her setting of the Hebrew alphabet for children; her lyrics have been
featured on a line of Hallmark cards. In live performance, Ms. Friedman sang on
some of the world’s most storied concert stages, including Carnegie Hall.
In 2007, Ms. Friedman joined the faculty of the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, where she taught Reform
rabbinical and cantorial students; she later taught at Hebrew Union College’s
Los Angeles campus.
Her appointment was striking for two reasons: first, because she was a largely
self-taught musician who did not know how to read music, and second, because her
work — inclusive, progressive and strongly feminist — was perceived as a threat
to established cantorial tradition when she began her career in the early 1970s.
Deborah Lynn Friedman was born on Feb. 23, 1951, in Utica, N.Y., to parents who
belonged variously to Conservative and Reform synagogues. When she was a child,
the family moved to Minnesota, and she grew up in St. Paul.
As a teenager, she was enraptured both by Jewish and folk music; she taught
herself to play the guitar from the records of Peter, Paul and Mary, and her
music would be likened to theirs.
After high school, Ms. Friedman worked briefly on an Israeli kibbutz before
returning to the United States.
“One night I went to synagogue, and realized, sitting there, I was bored,” she
told The Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I realized the rabbi was talking, the choir
was singing and nobody was doing anything. There was no participation.”
Not long afterward, an original melody came to her, and as an experiment, she
set to it the words of “V’ahavta,” a prayer drawn from Deuteronomy that commands
Jews to love God.
“I sang it with some high school kids, who sang it arm in arm, crying and
singing,” Ms. Friedman told Lilith magazine in 1995. “They were looking for a
spiritual avenue of their own.”
With that, Ms. Friedman had found her calling; her first album, “Sing Unto God,”
a collection of Sabbath songs, was released in 1972.
While some rabbis and cantors welcomed her music as a democratizing force,
others saw it as a subversive breach of time-honored tradition, in which the
cantor was typically white-haired, always male and usually vocally imposing and
the congregants were passive listeners.
By contrast, Ms. Friedman’s music emphasized audience participation. (At her
concerts, she encouraged audience members to sing along; many also danced in the
aisles.) It centered on themes like healing, a concern that stemmed partly from
her years of chronic illness. (Her most famous song is a setting of “Mi
Shebeirach,” a Hebrew prayer for the sick.)
Many of her English lyrics concerned the empowerment of women and other
disenfranchised groups, stemming, her associates said on Monday, from the quiet
pride she took in her life as a gay woman.
Ms. Friedman is survived by her mother, Freda, and two sisters, Cheryl Friedman
and Barbara Egli.
She was the subject of a documentary film, “A Journey of Spirit,” which followed
her from 1997 to 2002.
If Ms. Friedman never attained the vast crossover success of Amy Grant, the
Christian pop singer with whom she was often compared, it did not seem to bother
her. In an interview with The Palm Beach Post in 2004, Ms. Friedman recounted
her response to a music-industry executive who accused her of being just a big
fish in a small pond.
“I’m not a fish,” Ms. Friedman replied.