(RNS) Debbie Friedman, a composer and singer whose modern melodies updated the music in synagogue services worldwide, died of pneumonia Sunday (Jan. 9). She was 59.
With her guitar, Friedman became famous for a folksy style that blended Hebrew and English, and encouraged the audience—whether in the concert hall or the synagogue—to sing along.
“She revolutionized Jewish music in our time,” said Barry Holtz, dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“She took the sound of 1960’s and 1970’s American folk and pop, and made a connection with Jewish tradition that broke down the distance between the cantor and the people in the pews.”
Friedman recorded more than 20 albums of music for adults and children, but is most famous for her version of the prayer for healing, “Mi Sheberach,” which is sung in hundreds of synagogues every week. Though most closely associated with Reform Judaism, scores of Conservative synagogues have also made her songs a regular part of prayer services.
Deborah Lynn Friedman was born in Utica, N.Y., and moved with her family to Minnesota when was 5. Raised in the Reform tradition in St. Paul, she honed her musical skills at Jewish summer camps.
In her music, Friedman married ancient texts with catchy melodies, and taught about the spiritual uplift inherent in communal singing. She is also credited with bringing a more prominent role to women in leading Jewish prayer and services. Among her songs, both liturgical and popular are: “Miriam’s Song,” “The Angel’s Blessing,” and “I am a Latke.”
In 2007, she began teaching at the School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. This summer, she moved to California to live closer to her mother and sister. Friedman was admitted to an Orange County Hospital earlier this month.