Legendary Jewish singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman dies at 59

Rachel Kaye

Staff Writer

Debbie Friedman, legendary singer, songwriter, and recording artist, died in an Orange County hospital on Sunday, January 9 after being hospitalized for several days due to pneumonia.

Born in Utica, New York, Friedman began writing music as a song leader at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, an overnight camp that she was involved with.

Friedman 1Friedman created Jewish religious music and recorded more than 19 albums between the years of 1971 and 2010.

Friedman’s motivation to compose folk music came from various folk artists such as Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

The first song she wrote was based on the prayer of V’ahaftah and was released in her first album, Sing Unto God, in 1972.

During the ’70s and ’80s, Friedman traveled all over America and served as a congregational cantor and teacher.

In 1996, Friedman debuted in concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. She went on to perform at various venues, such as synagogues, churches, and schools all around the world.

“For a few years, I had the sublime privilege of growing up in a congregation where Debbie Friedman served as cantor. I felt transported not only by the power of her music but also by the sincerity of her soul. Her music connected us to God as the source of life’s fullness,” Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, rabbinic director, said.

Friedman’s most successful song is her rendition of Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing, which is sung in reform, conservative, and orthodox congregations all across America.

She wrote both Hebrew and English songs for all ages, including “The Aleph Bet Song”, “Miriam’s Song”, and “I am a Latkeh”. These songs impacted the youth by making prayer more enjoyable for the younger generation.

In 2007, she was invited to join the faculty of a reform cantorial school, reflecting the mainstream acceptance of her style of music.

A Journey of Sprit, a documentary film produced by Ann Coppel in 2004, addressed Friedman’s horrendous battle against a neurological condition, as well as the incredible story of her musical path and the effect it has had on so many individuals.

Friedman inspired and influenced many, both within and outside the Milken community.

“Her melodies for prayer would transform a service from something dry and perfunctory to something joyous and fun. She would take prayers that have been around forever that were rote and made them so contagious,” Ms. Elizabeth Kattler, Jewish studies teacher, said.

May Debbie Friedman rest in peace, and may her incredible musical legacy live on forever.


Debbie Friedman performing “Mi Shebeirach” at LimmudLA 2008.

Read Noa Kattler Kupetz’s personal reflection: https://milkenroar.com/blog/2011/01/28/reflecting-on-debbie-friedmans-legacy/

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