By Spirit Alone: Remembering Debbie Friedman

Singer, songwriter, composer, professor, and educator, Debbie Friedman (1951–2011).

Photo by Limmud.

Tonight I drove home to Boston with Debbie Friedman's memorial service streaming live on my phone. As the familiar, memorable melodies surged through the static, my mind kept returning to two experiences that, to me, represent her great impact on contemporary Judaism.

The first took place about 15 years ago, when I was staffing a summer teen trip to Israel. We spent an entire afternoon debating the details of how to do havdalah, the service that marks the end of Shabbat. This group of Americans from all over the denominational and geographical map could agree on almost nothing -- whether women could lead, which versions of the liturgy to use, who should hold what ritual items, what to use as the fragrant spice -- except, that is, that we should use what most of them referred to as "the traditional tune," by which they meant Debbie Friedman's melody.

This taught me two important lessons about ritual: that resonant music can overcome almost all divisive social moments, and that ritual change -- though it seems so hard to enact -- can be integrated so quickly. In less than one generation, a tune written by a woman became the standard, no longer even recognized as something innovative or new.

The second experience happened as I was working on JWA's online exhibit, Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, to which Debbie Friedman contributed (along with 74 other Jewish feminists). The exhibit includes an excerpt (which I watched more times than you can imagine) from a documentary about Friedman called "A Journey of Spirit." At the end of the clip, a chorus of elementary school kids sing "Miriam's Song," which celebrates how Miriam the Prophet led the Israelite women in dancing and singing with their timbrels after the miracle at the Sea of Reeds.

Aside from the almost unbearable adorableness of the little kids singing, what blew me away about this clip was realizing that for these kids, Miriam is probably what they will remember most about the story of the splitting of the sea (aside from, you know, the whole miracle thing). Debbie Friedman brought Miriam (among many other biblical women) to life, made her someone camps full of kids get up and dance about. She gave us back our heroines and gave us new ways to celebrate them.

Of course, she also did a lot more. Debbie brought the prayer for healing, Mishebeirach, back into daily use in synagogues across America and she practically created the notion of a "healing service." She gave many people who were totally alienated from Judaism new ways to access Jewish spirituality. She was incredibly generous with herself and her music, writing so many songs to mark important moments (including a song for JWA's event at the 2004 Lion of Judah convention commemorating the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America). She emphasized the value of every voice and the power of song to help us express ourselves and become our best selves, as she wrote for JWA's exhibit: "The more our voices are heard in song,the more we become our lyrics, our prayers, and our convictions." The woman who wrote the song that asks God to "help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing" herself modeled for us all what that looks like.

Listening to her music tonight, I came across "Mourning into Dancing," a beautiful interpretation of Psalm 30 that you can view below. Now is the time for mourning, but I am certain that Debbie's music will inspire years of dancing to come.

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As we are all mourning the loss of Debbie Friedman, I am reminded of just how far her spirit reached. While visiting the Abayudaya - the Jews of Uganda - I was amazed to hear them start singing Debbie's Havdalah melody as we made Havdalah on a hill in rural Nabugoye, outside of Mbale, Uganda. ( Rabbi Gershom Sizomu brought the melody back to Uganda from California, I think. Debbie, you truly reached the four corners of the earth with your amazing creativity and musical inspiration. May you be carried on the wings of the Shechinah.

Beautifully done, Judith! Debbie Friedman sang, and the Jewish people were healed. Who will heal our hearts today? Her voice, her melodies will bless us as we go on our way...

I met Debbie Friedman at one of my first CAJE conferences when I participated in her chorus. After singing with her for the first practice, I went up to her, also very star-struck, and told her how meaningful and spiritual singing with her had made my stay at the conference. Her response was "No, all of YOU make my life and music more meaningful and spritual. Thank you!!!" - that was the kind of person she was and how she will always be remembered by me.

Beautiful tribute Judith. Debbie taught me to be a NFTY songleader in 1970 at Camp Kutz, Warwick NY. I remember her as the only one besides me with a 12-string guitar. I never saw her again until she was our High Holiday Hazzanit in Santa Fe in 2002. When I reminded her of the connection she threw her arms around me like a long lost brother. When she sang MiShebeirach to us in the kahal "just for us" I wept along with 300 other people who felt like her personal friends. That is the moment I remembered again as her own song was sung back to her last shabbat. I hope that she had the satisfaction of knowing--really getting-- while she was still alive, how much she had touched people's lives. Her memory is such a blessing.

It was almost 40 years ago that I met Debbie for the first time. Barely a child herself, she was hired to be our youth group advisor. It was just at the beginning - Sing Unto God had just come out, and to say that it was an exciting time to be a teenager in the Reform movement is a gross understatement. I had an opportunity to reflect on all that while I was davening with our 7th graders this morning. She changed the way we pray, the way we think about public worship, and she gave us our voices.

A beautiful remembrance, Judith. I actually met Debbie in person at that 2004 Lion of Judah conference - I was supposed to show her around the performance space and make her feel comfortable, but of course I was starstruck, and, for one of the few times in my life, at a total loss for words - I think it was she who ended up calming me down! She had such an incredible impact on Jewish music and practice, and of course did her best to make sure that both historic and current women's voices were heard, literally.

Such a sad weekend...

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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "By Spirit Alone: Remembering Debbie Friedman." 10 January 2011. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 29, 2024) <>.