February 23, 1951, is the birthdate of Debbie Friedman, the musician and composer whose original melodies for traditional Jewish prayers and hymns are now staples in many American synagogues and summer camps. Despite little formal musical training, and suffering from a debilitating medical condition for the last two decades of her life, Friedman performed and taught up until her death in 2011.
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Deborah Lynn Friedman was born in Utica, New York, the third of four children of Freda and Gabriel Friedman. Gabriel was a kosher butcher, and Freda worked in food services.
When Debbie was six, the family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. There, though the family joined a Reform congregation, Debbie insisted on attending Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue, and also on walking to Shabbat services each week.
She picked up a guitar for the first time at age 16, while working as a babysitter at Camp Herzl in Wisconsin, and taught herself to play by listening to records by Peter, Paul & Mary and others. The following summer, she led songs at a youth retreat run by the Reform movement, which then sent her to a song-leading workshop.
Friedman graduated from Highland Park High School in St. Paul in 1969. After six months in Israel, living on a kibbutz, she returned to Minnesota and worked in a department store.
When a musician gets bored
One Friday evening, while sitting at Shabbat services at her family’s synagogue, Mt. Zion Temple, she realized she was a spectator rather than a participant, and that she was bored. She resolved to write new melodies for the entire Friday evening Reform service.
The first original music Friedman wrote was a new setting for the “Ve’ahavta” prayer, with words from Deuteronomy 6, recited twice daily. That melody, she said, came to her while she was riding a bus from New Jersey into Manhattan, on her way to visit her grandmother.
As she continued working on her formidable project, Friedman would try out her compositions with the choir she had once belonged to, and now led, at her former high school in St. Paul. When the entire service was ready to be unveiled, Mt. Zion Temple agreed to serve as the venue for its premiere. The following year, in 1972, a recording of the service, called “Sing unto God,” was released. Friedman was all of 21, and it was her first album.
An unconventional career as the first woman to compose music – and sometimes words as well – for Jewish liturgy began to take off.
Initially, Friedman’s biggest impact was at summer camps, where young people responded enthusiastically to her compositions. Eventually, though, synagogues began to adopt her prayers, with even some Orthodox congregations among them.
After Friedman composed what may be her most well-known melody, for the “Mi Sheberakh” prayer, which calls on God’s blessings, in 1986 it became a staple at Jewish healing services. Two years later, after taking a combination of drugs that had been improperly prescribed, she began to suffer from a neurological disorder called paroxysmal dyskinesia.
Coupled with several other medical problems, this led to much pain and frequent spells during which she was unable to work or perform.
Friedman told journalist Debra Nussbaum Cohen in 2009, “My life is like a juggling act. I try to stay healthy enough to do all the things I want to do, and abide by my body’s limitations.”
Among her many positions, Friedman served as a cantor at the New Reform Synagogue in Los Angeles, and taught at the cantorial school of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Friedman was candid about her illness, and the courage with which she confronted her own suffering only made her more beloved by her fans. She was less forthcoming about being a lesbian, something that only became public after her death, when The New York Times reported that fact it in its obituary for her.
Debbie Friedman gave what ended up being her last performances at the Limmud U.K. conference in late December 2010. She returned to the U.S. suffering from pneumonia, and died on January 9, 2011.