Text size

Debbie Friedman was a character of unbelievable proportions. She changed the face of Jewish worship and Jewish life. With no formal musical training, Debbie, who died on Sunday at age 59, created compositions that have become liturgical standards. Her first album, "Sing Unto God," was followed by 19 others. It's estimated they sold more than half a million copies.

Her impact, however, defies quantification. She emerged on the scene in the early 1970s. Utterly bored with traditional Reform services - at that point there was no other kind - she wrote new settings for the Ve'ahavta and for selections from Psalms. Her work caught on like the proverbial wildfire. Young people returned from summer camps and youth group retreats fired up. This was music they could embrace. It was music that touched their souls. They stood up - she never asked them to - and put their arms around one another and sang their hearts out. Something spiritual was awakened in them. And their enthusiasm was met by almost an immediate pushback. Cantors and rabbis, threatened by this young wisp of a woman with her guitar and little formal Jewish learning, immediately began to denigrate and dismiss her work. It was "Judaism-lite," they argued. But the sheer power of Debbie's work would eventually leave them looking silly and out of touch.

There are many other talented men and women with guitars who have created new settings for Jewish liturgical pieces. None of them, with the exception of Shlomo Carlebach, who loved Debbie's work, has come close to having her impact. Why? What was it about her work that made her sui generis?

First of all, the music was never about Debbie. She was a modest person who, even when she was physically spent after a concert and had to rest, never turned aside those who needed to tell her what an impact she had on their lives. Many times after such an encounter she would turn to me and say, with wonderment in her voice and eyes, "Did you hear what they said? My music really helped them." She loved her tradition deeply and wanted to share that love with her audiences.

In truth, she did not have audiences in the traditional sense of the word. People bought tickets for a concert. But within the space of a few songs she transformed an audience into a community. She wanted those before her not just to listen to her. She wanted them to open up their hearts and let the tradition she so loved enter.

When she performed her signature creation, "Mi Sheberakh," she always asked her audience to wait so she could first pray for them. This is for you, she would say, and she meant it.

The impact of Debbie's work on the Jewish world is amazingly clear. Through pieces such as the "Mi Sheberakh," she reminded nontraditional Jews that it is acceptable - if not far more than that - to ask for hashgakha pratit, God's personal protection and intervention in one's life. This God she referred to was not just the creator of the world we hoped would bring peace and social justice. This was a God to whom we could turn and implore, "Don't hide your face from me, I'm asking for your help." This God, who "healed Miriam," could also heal us. But this God wanted something from us. God wanted us to "light these lights," to look around and see our blessings and to "give thanks for all that was good."

Debbie faced terrible physical difficulties. She once told me that her illness helped her understand that there could be refuah shelemah, full healing, even without one being returned to one's former state. "You learn to live with the pain," she said. "You grow from it and appreciate the world around you even more."

A born teacher, she meshed Hebrew text with English translations and, in so doing, gave people access to tradition. Hungry to learn, she kept expanding her knowledge of tradition. Late in her life, she found a new teacher who opened up the door to serious Torah learning even further, and her work took on even greater depth and complexity.

Though she was far better known in the nontraditional Jewish world, she managed to "infiltrate" the Orthodox world as well. Her setting for Havdalah could be heard at Chabad-organized gatherings. Orthodox couples marched down the aisle to the strains of her "Hodu." Jewish children in every brand of day school learned the aleph bet to Debbie's melody. Recently someone was wandering through Safed, and as they passed a small Orthodox shul where prayers were under way, they heard strains of Debbie's music emanating from the window.

I had the privilege of leading services with Debbie at retreats of the Wexner Heritage program. Never was she happier. Each year, we would make one session a "healing service." Participants would bring their cell phones and call friends in hospitals or friends who were suffering, and they would listen in and feel the healing power of Debbie's voice and words.

In one of her signature pieces, "You are the One (Reb Nachman's Prayer )," she wrote, "I sing my soul to you and give you all that's in my heart."

She gave us all that was in her heart and, on the week of Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, the God whom she adored took her back. One imagines that she is serenading the celestial beings, leading them in song, and making sure they get the music just right. They, in turn, are marveling at this wonderful being. Things will never be the same in the heavens above.

Deborah E. Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. Her latest book, "The Eichmann Trial," will be published in March by Schocken.