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Secrets of a Song Prophet

A Tribute to Debbie Friedman

I’ve known Debbie Friedman since our camp days at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, when she was a specialist and I was a counselor in training (CIT). Even then she was a pied piper, able to encourage even the non-singers in a group to participate energetically in a song session. On a field trip with the CITs to Chicago, she taught us her new song, “Sing Unto God.” Almost instantly we were singing this upbeat and engaging tune at the top of our lungs. Soon it became the OSRUI hit song for the summer of ’74.

Over the years I have often wondered how, within minutes, Debbie was able to transform a group of strangers into a sacred community. One day in 2007, while walking with her at Hava Nashira, the annual song leader’s conference at OSRUI, I asked her straight out: “What is your secret?” Characteristically, she deflected the question by asking one about me.

Her “secret,” I’ve come to believe, can be attributed to four masterful skills.

Imprinting on the Soul 

Debbie had the gift of melody, the seemingly innate ability to compose songs that quickly imprint themselves on listeners’ souls. In this way she was able to make learning Hebrew fun and entertaining for children and adults alike. Intrinsic to learning any new skill, especially a language such as Hebrew, is repetition. Knowing this intuitively, Debbie repeated groupings of three or four Hebrew letters at a time in her Aleph Bet Song, which makes it almost impossible to stop humming the melody—and remembering the Hebrew lyric accompaniment—after the song is over. 

Fluent in Hebrew, a language she loved, Debbie also helped many North American Jews to increase their Hebrew vocabulary by combining Hebrew and English texts in her compositions and making use of catchy, short Hebrew phrases. Her song L’chi Lach, for example, is both a reference to the Torah portion about Abraham and Sarah leaving the land of their birth, responding to God’s command to “go forth” toward an unknown destination, as well as a d’rash (lesson) on the concept of moving forward in the pursuit of a life filled with blessing. As the song continues, Debbie turns the act of blessing into a state of being with the simple turn of phrase, “And you shall be a blessing.” This musical midrash(biblical interpretation) is internalized by the listener with each repetition of the lyric. In Devorah’s Song, the refrain Uri Uri Dabri Shir and then the English translation, “Arise, arise, and sing a song,” exhorts us to stand up, to pay attention to the celebration, and sing like there is no tomorrow. 

Charismatic Communication 

Debbie knew how to measure the mood and needs of those assembled before her. Attuned to her audience, she sometimes led the crowd to a sorrowful place, and sometimes to a place of joy. “She could be totally spontaneous, totally in touch with the energy in the room,” says Rabbi Jonathan Blake, who worked on the pulpit with Debbie at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. “While leading services, she would change on a dime if she felt a certain selection in the cue list didn’t fit the feeling she wanted to capture. About these spur-of-the-moment decisions she was almost always right.” 

She also used her guitar to connect with people. It was almost an extension of her body and soul. Just as a ventriloquist relies upon a “dummy partner,” when Debbie could no longer belt out an energetic song, her voice too tired to project, the energy flowing through her fingers carried on the rhythmic drive. When she sought tones of softness and gentle flow, she would caress the strings of her instrument with sweetness and love, communicating a shift inward. All the while, the open display of emotion on her face, in her voice, and in her guitar playing exuded the message: Join me. Sing with me in this sacred space suspended in time. Let’s sing our way into that higher place beyond our earthly selves. 

Solace through Song 

Having lived with a sometimes debilitating disease for about the last 25 years of her life, Debbie was well aware of the toll illness takes on individuals and their loved ones. Rising above her own pain, she taught that healing could be found in prayer and in community through an abundant faith in the ultimate source of being. Her Mi Shebeirach song (“Mi Shebeirach avoteinu / M’kor habracha l‘imoteinu / May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us, / Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing / And let us say: Amen...”) provided a safe setting for congregants to publicly express their feelings of pain and sorrow when dear friends, family members, or they themselves were in need of healing. In concert or in worship, Debbie offered a carefully placed moment to collectively reveal the vulnerability which often secretly resides in our hearts, and to cathartically release some of the heaviness and pain from within. 

Before Debbie, the recital of Mi Shebeirach during worship was not a common component of Reform liturgical practice. But after more than 30 years of its being sung at services in both Reform summer camps and synagogues, Debbie’s Mi Shebeirach has become part of many, if not most, Reform services. It has also been codified for the first time in a Movement prayerbook - Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur (CCAR Press). 

Pioneering Feminism 

A pioneering feminist at a time when women (including myself) were first becoming cantors in our Movement, Debbie changed traditional Jewish texts to reflect more egalitarian language and a more accessible God. “Shall all men live in peace” (from the prophet Zechariah) became “Shall we all live in peace”; “Thou shall love the Lord thy God” became “You shall love Adonai your God.” She unveiled the feminine name of God—Shechinah—in such lyrics as “All around us is Shechinah.” She also composed new music and lyrics for the Maayan Women’s Hagaddah, which reclaimed the rightful place of women in the telling of the Passover story.

Debbie’s profound contributions to Reform Judaism were first officially recognized in 1999, when she was inducted as an honorary member of the American Conference of Cantors. In 2007 she was appointed to the HUC-JIR faculty and awarded the Maurice Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award at the URJ Biennial. And on January 31, 2011, only 18 days after her death, HUC-JIR announced that its cantorial school would henceforth be called the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

I believe Debbie Friedman’s true legacy will be her songs, which changed the direction and scope of American Jewish music. Her gifts of melody, her deep reservoir of personal charisma, her ability to play an audience like an instrument, and her abiding comfort and connection in the world of the sacred have made her a song prophet of our times.