January 14th, 2011
12:55 PM ET
Debbie Friedman, who gave Jewish music a modern folk sound, died this week due to complications from pneumonia. She was 59.
The immensely popular singer/songwriter was eulogized Tuesday as an artist who brought blessings to “not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of people.”
Rabbi Heidi Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, California, also read a statement from Friedman's sister, Cheryl Friedman.
"Debbie made each person in the congregation or audience know that she was singing to her, to him," the statement said. "In a crowd of hundreds or even thousands, she infused people with a desire to be better people."
A self-taught guitarist - Friedman was reportedly inspired by the music of the Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary - she recorded more than 20 albums.
"Our first impulse will be to sing her songs, to sing them over and over and wipe away the tears that stream down our cheeks as we remember when we heard her singing them. And we are right to do so," Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College, said at her funeral. “But there are songs of hers that we will never sing, no matter how magnificent our voices … we will never sing as well as she did.”
Friedman changed Jewish music by introducing a folk style of song into many synagogues, where traditional music had dominated. Her songs “brought prayer home to liberal Jews who had never felt its power,” wrote Sus Fishkoff of JTA.
The LA Times reported that Friedman’s music “met considerable resistance at first,” but that eventually she led synagogues in music even though she was not an ordained cantor.
Recently she had taught music and was artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union.
“With students our Deborah did not judge, she listened and spoke gently to try to understand the neshama of each one and to help bring it forth,” Levy said.
Levy said that the students watched Friedman play, realizing the guitar was a partner in song.
“They watched her cradle it, embrace it, climb inside it, to bring forth all of God’s rich sounds …” he said.
On her website, Friedman said once that she tried to bring prayer to people and people to prayer through music.
“I want to help people to begin their day with an open heart; to learn to pray in a comfortable, non-threatening way. Maybe, they’ll first experience it as music but, over time, they may learn the prayers,” she said.
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