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Then there was Debbie Friedman: locals react to her passing

Debbie Friedman, troubadour of the Reform movement.MELODIES entwined with memories as Denver’s Jewish musicians and clergy reminisced about Debbie Friedman, who died Sunday, Jan. 9, at age 59.

Friedman’s music revolutionized prayer and worship within the Reform movement.

“Debbie was amazing,” local Jewish musician and friend Steve Brodsky told the Intermountain Jewish News.

“She grew up in the 1960s listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan,” he says. “She was one of the first, if not the first musician, to take that style and apply it to Jewish liturgy.”

Brodsky, whose friendship with the singer dates back at least 20 years, first met her in 1990 at a Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) conference at Ohio State University.


“I’d been a musician and Jewish song leader since I was a teenager,” he says, “and I was well aware of her music.


“I watched her perform at the conference and played on stage with her. She was very friendly — and not at all egotistical.

“In fact, Debbie was so unassuming that she was almost a little embarrassed about being the biggest star in the small galaxy of Jewish music.”

Brodsky, who also works for Sounds Write Productions, a division of URJ that publishes Friedman’s music, recalls a breakfast he shared with the mega celebrity in Oconomowoc, Wis. Read the IJN eulogy

“We were at Hava Nashira,” an annual training workshop for budding Jewish musicians Friedman co-founded in 1992, he says.

“She invited me to breakfast, and as we tried to eat, a constant flow of people stopped by the table when they saw her: ‘Excuse me, but I just want to tell you how much I love your music’ or ‘Your Mi Shebeirach was so important to me when my mother was sick.’

“And she kept apologizing to me, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’

“Debbie would look everyone in the eye, give them a big hug, and  encourage them to make their own music and take it out in the world.”

In 1989, when Friedman set the traditional Jewish prayer for healing to music, she revived the spirit of Reform Judaism, Brodsky says.

“The Mi Shebeirach was almost completely unknown in our movement until Debbie introduced it,” he says. “Reform Judaism had cut out so much liturgy, and the prayer for healing was one of the pieces that got lost.”

Friedman’s stirring musical interpretation “was a watershed moment for us,” Brodsky says.

“Because of her, the conversation in the Reform movement shifted from talking about G-d, to talking to G-d.”

Several area congregations will offer musical tributes to Friedman this Friday, Jan. 14, on Shabbat Shirah — the Sabbath of Song.

IN the 1990s, Cantor Robbi Sherwin of B’nai Butte in Crested Butte, Colo., was a face in the crowd when she unexpectedly encountered Debbie Friedman at a CAJE conference. Read the full obituary

“I was at an informal late night gathering, just another songwriter trying to find my voice,” Sherwin says. “I didn’t even know she was standing there.

“She came up to me and asked, ‘Who are you and what is that song you just sang?’

“As I literally shook in my shoes, I said, ‘I wrote it.’

“ ‘Girlfriend,’ she told me, ‘you are going places.’”

Friedman was “a pioneer who really opened the doors for all of us,” Sherwin says. “Without her, I wouldn’t be the recording artist, musician and cantor I am today.

“She was particularly dedicated to helping Jewish women express their spiritual yearnings and commitment to Judaism through song,” she adds.

Friedman stayed in touch with Sherwin over the years and “was a source of constant support,” she says.

“It was always hard to shake the fact that she was the Debbie Friedman, but her status as a pioneer and a legend never dissuaded her from helping us find our own voice in Jewish music.

“She left us young,” Sherwin says, “but with a phenomenal legacy.”

Bryan Zive, cantorial soloist at Temple Sinai, credits Friedman’s music for “initially drawing me to my spiritual self. She taught me to love my culture, my religion, my Judaism.”

Zive introduced himself to Friedman at a small concert held in a Malibu home in 2001, “right when I began to develop a love for Jewish music.

“I was mesmerized by her performance, her soul, and I introduced myself.”

Two years later, he encountered her at a Hava Nashira workshop.

“She said, ‘Bryan, it’s great to see you,’” Zive remembers. “I hadn’t seen her for two years but she knew who I was.”

As Zive’s music evolved, Friedman praised and encouraged the young musician.

The last time he saw her was at a conference in Wisconsin about two months ago.

“She didn’t look ill,” he says. “She was quirky, hysterically funny, soulful, sarcastic. People were just magnetized by her.

“If you didn’t know who she was, you’d think Debbie Friedman was just another normal person. Her humility was astronomical.”

Temple Emanuel Senior Rabbi Joe Black, a popular singer in the Jewish world, maintained a close professional and personal relationship with Friedman.

He attended her Jan. 11 funeral service in California and was unable to respond to the IJN by press time.

PRIOR to joining the HEA in 1993, Cantor Martin Goldstein was the cantor at a Conservative synagogue in Dobbs Ferry, NY.

“Our small synagogue was surrounded by Reform temples,” he says.

Despite the geographical proximity, Reform music did not rub off on Goldstein.

“Debbie Friedman’s music is not a part of the Conservative movement,” he says. “We are more into musaf and prayer.

“Also, Debbie pushed her sound with a guitar, and you don’t play instruments in a traditional synagogue.”

But in 2008, Friedman spoke at a full-day session of the Cantors’ Assembly, the Conservative movement’s cantorial body.

“Her whole lecture was about how her music can be applied in Conservative synagogues,” Goldstein says. “She said, ‘I know a lot of you think I got away from traditional nusach. I didn’t. I realized that Jews who don’t come to synagogue often could still have a Jewish experience with meaning.’

“And I thought, this is the direction we all have to go in.”

During daylight savings time, the HEA holds Kabbalat Shabbat services with instruments and singing in advance of regular Shabbat services.

“We owe a lot to Debbie Friedman for opening our eyes to that kind of Jewish music,” he says.

Although Goldstein admits that Friedman’s folk-based music “is not my favorite, I owe my freedom of musical expression in large part to her.”

RAYMOND Zwerin, Temple Sinai’s emeritus rabbi, was raised in an era when moribund beer hall music written for the early 20th century permeated Reform sanctuaries.

“It was awful,” he says. “‘G-d is in His Holy Temple,’ music like that.

“Along comes Debbie and she says, ‘There’s no reason we can’t have rock ‘n roll or music that resonates with this age group.’

“Some of it was shocking,” Rabbi Zwerin concedes of certain songs she introduced at Sinai as her popularity mushroomed.

“But it was necessary, vital, because otherwise our movement would just die a slow death.”

Friedman received the Isaac Mayer Wise Award from Sinai and Emanuel several years ago. “At the presentation, she sang forever,” Rabbi Zwerin recalls.

“She felt so good about being around people who loved her and cared for her.”

Rabbi Zwerin watched her funeral service Tuesday as it streamed live over the Internet.

“One of the eulogies today mentioned how Debbie wanted to know that somehow her life had meaning beyond the moment,” he says.

“The thing that occurs to me is, her music might not last forever. But that isn’t important.

“What is important is that she made the impossible happen in our lifetime, and made other music possible.

“Now we can sing the music we love and not the music we have to sing.

“That made all the difference — at least it made all the difference to me.”

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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