Sunday, 9 January 2011

She Changed The Way We Pray

I am a songleader. I have been been labeled a cantorial soloist, a teacher of music, a singer of Jewish liturgy-but ultimately I am songleader. I stand in front of my congregation, my community--guitar strapped onto my shoulder, and I facilitate prayer and spiritual awakening through music. I have always wanted to be a songleader ever since I heard my first Debbie Friedman song.

I was a young girl sitting in a religious school class in the early '70s when our music teacher taught us Debbie's Im Tirtzu as a way to facilitate some lesson about the birth of the state of Israel. I was hooked. Finally, here was music to which I could relate. Here was music that spoke to my generation and allowed us to find meaning in prayer. I wanted more.

I purchased vinyl of all of Debbie's early recordings. I found meaning and spiritual awakening in her liturgical settings. I couldn't wait to share a new melody with everybody around me. I knew that in order to properly sing these songs I would need to learn to play guitar, and so I sat for hours trying to get the exact strum patterns and odd chord changes for Sing Unto God. Debbie Friedman's music was reaching out to me and my thirst for a connection to Judaism.

Every summer I would return from Goldman Union Camp, armed with my songbook and pages of chord charts for a whole slew of new Debbie Friedman songs, hoping against hope that I might introduce them into the mainstream services of my congregation. My songleading friends and I would sit for hours trying to re-create the sheer revelry of her Dodi Li or the magical beauty of her Mi Sheberach. It took a lot longer than I would have liked for Debbie's music to find its way out of the camps and into the synagogue, but I knew then as I do now, that we in the movement were witnessing a true renaissance of Jewish music. Debbie Friedman had helped to create and define a new North American nusach, and we knew it was just the beginning.

It is impossible to overstate Debbie's importance to our prayer, to our sense of spirituality, to our music, and to our Jewish lives. She was the first to overlay English meaning with Hebrew liturgy. When she sang "L'chi Lach", she gave you a true sense of its meaning.."to a land that I will show you." She reintroduced healing prayers and songs back into our liturgy. She changed the way that congregations sing. She invited all to participate and understood that there was meaning in the silences as well as the noisy ruach. She sang for adults, for children, with choirs and solo. Music was the way in which she communicated her Judaism to us, and I for one was her willing student. She was truly on the cutting edge, a true visionary.

I am a songleader in great part because of Debbie Friedman. I was drawn to her music, her energy and her voice like no other in my profession. I will miss her creativity, her spirituality, and her teachings. Her music will inspire many for generations to come.

Zichrona Livracha-May her memory always be a blessing.


  1. This was lovely Dawn. I'd never even heard of Debbie Friedman until I got to GUCI and you were one of my counselors! I was fortunate enough to see Debbie perform in Boca Raton with my mom and daughter, years ago. And even though my son never saw her, when I told him Debbie had died and I started listing all of the songs she wrote, he knew exactly the tunes. Debbie impacted those of us in Judaism in ways that few can. Thank you for your lovely post.

  2. Her passing away is very sad.

    Michelle B