Debbie Friedman, a Jewish Sister in Song

My book Sisters in Song, features Christian women or women from a Christian background.  There is a wonderful trove of songs by Jewish women, mostly modern, and I thank my friend, Kerry Hollander, for introducing me to them.  Here is one:

Debbie Friedman was born in Utica, New York in 1951, but moved to St. Paul, Minnesota when she was six.  After high school, she lived in Israel for six months.  In addition to her Jewish heritage, she was influenced by Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez.  Indeed, anyone hearing her music can easily detect this connection.  In 1970, she wrote “V’ahavta”, a paragraph of the Sh’ma which emotionally touched youth at a convention.  She recalled, “I was stunned when they suddenly put their arms around each other and there were tears rolling down their faces.  They were reclaiming this prayer, and it was ours in a musical language they were able to understand. . . .“   This was at the beginning of her writing career and no doubt inspired to to go further.  Many early songs were done as songleader for the Northern Federation of Temple Youth and Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute.    Her songs still reach many people of all types of Judaism and some Christians.   As an example, in 1997, she performed for the choir of a 4000 member Baptist Church in Houston with an adapted L’chi Lach.    This was after her first concert at Carnegie Hall in 1996 and the same year as her second concert.  A documentary of her life, A Journey of Spirit was produced in 2004.  From 2007 to 2011 she was on the faculty of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religions School of Sacred Music.  After her death in 2011 from pneumonia, exacerbated by a long-standing neurological illness, the school was renamed the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.  Perhaps her illness was the inspiration for many of her songs, for many of them are prayers for healing.  “Mi Shebeirach”, one of those prayers, has been used by hundreds of congregations and perhaps is her most famous song.

My favorite song, however, is “Lullaby”, generally followed by “The Angels’ Blessing”.  Like so many other women hymn writers, her songs are sometimes written for children.    “Lullaby” is unusually beautiful to me, an obvious  adult.  To those of us not acquainted with Jewish writers, a performance can be found on Youtube.   Of this song, she said, “Nothing could give me greater pleasure than knowing some of these songs could put a child to sleep and be calm.”