When her first liturgical tune popped into Debbie Friedman’s head almost 30 years ago, she had no clue that she would become the queen of contemporary American Jewish music.
And when three little Conservative synagogues on the Westside decided to band together for a fundraiser, they had no clue they’d be able to get the queen of contemporary American Jewish music to appear in concert for them.
But since 1971, Friedman’s music has captured the hearts of thousands of American Jews, and on Jan. 13 she will play the Wadsworth Theater in a concert to benefit Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester, and Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.
The concert brings Friedman back to Southern California, where she was based for a number of years before moving to New York in 1995. She’ll play old and new favorites, delighting audiences as she has since her first recording, “Sing Unto God,” was released in 1972.
Peter, Paul & Mary top Friedman’s list of musical influences from the ’60s and early ’70s, which also include Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Melissa Manchester. She taught herself how to play guitar at 16 by sounding out and practicing riffs from the trio’s songs, to the extent that when she and Peter Yarrow finally appeared on stage together, “it was like we’d played together forever.”
Born the daughter of a kosher butcher in Utica, N.Y., Friedman, who will turn 50 in February, grew up in St. Paul, Minn., primarily in Reform circles. As a teenager, she began to chafe against the worship style of her family’s temple.
“One day, I was sitting in my synagogue, and the rabbi was speaking, and the choir was singing, and I realized the service had passed and I hadn’t uttered a word,” Friedman told The Journal.
She was already working as a songleader at Reform camps and synagogues when her first original melody came to her on a bus. The thought of writing lyrics intimidated her, so she gave it the English words to the “V’ahavta” as they appeared in the old Union Prayer Book: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart…”
Friedman brought the new song to a retreat for the Pennsylvania Federation of Temple Youth. “I taught the tune to a bunch of PAFTYites, and they put their arms around each other and began to sway,” she said. “I realized that they were embracing their own tradition.”
She began to write other tunes, settings of Jewish liturgy and verses from the Bible and rabbinic teachings, and introduced them at Reform summer camps and retreats across the country. Often combining Hebrew and English, her songs are easy to learn and bring an immediacy and a participatory style to worship that people often complain is lacking in traditional services.
“She is clearly at the forefront of Jewish music,” said Alan Eder, whose band, Alan Eder and Friends, has issued reggae albums of Passover and Chanukah music and who calls Friedman “the premier songstress of the Jewish world.”
Her songs have been “a major thing for Judaism as well as for Jewish music itself,” Eder said. “Judaism needs good music, contemporary music, music that comes from the heart, music that makes you move, and Debbie provides that.”
Craig Taubman, whose “Friday Night Live” music has galvanized Shabbat worshipers at venues such as Sinai Temple, credits Friedman with shifting the worship focus from rabbi, cantor and choir to congregants.
“The impact she’s had on Jewish liturgy is undeniable,” Taubman said. “Whereas she might have done it through the back door, introducing her songs at summer camps and retreats, those people are leaders in the movement now, and the prayer experience they bring to the synagogue is what speaks to congregations today.”
“She was the first person who ever called me a musician and I believed it,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, who has written several often-performed liturgical pieces. “For all of us who are involved in the effort to create an authentic, American Jewish music, she’s been our catalyst.”
A number of Friedman’s songs have been closely identified with various holidays, lifecycle events and moments on the Jewish calendar. An early piece, “L’chi Lach,” is popular at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs; “Miriam’s Song,” celebrating the women at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, is often sung at community seders and by women’s Rosh Chodesh groups; “Not By Might, Not By Power” has become a Chanukah favorite, and Friedman’s setting of the first three havdalah blessings ending Shabbat is standard at many temples. And thousands of Jewish children have learned the Hebrew alphabet through her “Alef-Bet Song.”
Her music has also been an integral element in the growing popularity of Jewish healing services, and one of her most popular songs today is “Mi Shebeirach,” a communal prayer for healing.
Friedman knows all too well the needs of people who are dealing with health problems. In 1988, she was laid out with a neurological disorder and an adrenal problem after taking a combination of drugs prescribed for an illness. It took her years to come back to full strength, and she had recurring problems even after she got back on her feet.
Her road to recovery culminated in one of her most powerful recordings, 1997’s “Renewal of Spirit,” which includes “Mi Shebeirach” and a number of other pieces on the theme of bodily and spiritual health and healing.
Her most recent CD, “It’s You,” takes a different stylistic path from her other albums, although, as in all her recordings, all the songs are Jewish-themed. The CD was put together by the producer for pop vocal group Manhattan Transfer, and it features elements of that ensemble’s sound: layered backup vocals, synthesizer, a big band. While some listeners think the disc was overproduced, others insist the power of the songs and the feeling behind them outweigh any excesses.
Friedman herself wasn’t comfortable with the “wall of sound” effect. “I’m not looking for something that’s all flowery and dressed up,” she said. “It’s a departure — and I don’t want to do it again like that. Just me and the band.”
And that’s where the focus will be in January: a woman and her guitar.
Friedman is a tireless performer who tours year-round to venues large and small, from synagogues to Carnegie Hall to huge conventions. That’s been her life for decades, though she did have a stint in the mid-1980s as cantorial soloist for Congregation Shir Chadash in the Valley (which later merged with another temple to become Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills).
The congregational job (“my first and my last,” she said) didn’t work out, because, she said, she wasn’t suited to the life of a congregational cantor.
“I don’t know how to do politics,” she said. “I’m not a fighter, and I think politics and religion don’t mesh well.”
Representatives from the three synagogues that will sponsor Friedman’s Jan. 13 concert — she has another date at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center the following evening — came together almost a year ago to explore the possibility of pooling their resources for joint projects and settled on the idea of a fundraiser.
They were spurred on by Rabbi Marv Labinger, then director of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Pacific Southwest Region. Labinger suffered a stroke during the spring but has recovered sufficiently to attend the concert and will be honored that evening.
The planning committee members didn’t think they’d be able to land a headliner of Friedman’s stature. “Initially, I thought we were going to start small,” said Jack Davis, B’nai Tikvah’s vice president for ways and means.
However, Davis said, his temple’s outgoing president, Fred Hadlock-Piltz, and its incoming president, Tony Schaffer, “kind of thought a little bit bigger than the rest of us” and suggested contacting Friedman’s management.
“The fact that we can get Debbie Friedman for three small synagogues is a real coup,” said Sharon Krischer, Kehillat Ma’arav’s president.
Plans for the concert went smoothly. “It’s been a fun experience,” Krischer said. “Everybody is getting along; there’s no politics involved, no territorial behavior.”
“We divvied up the various responsibilities early on, and everybody held up their end,” Davis agreed. The concert is on its way to selling out, and the synagogues have already made back their expenses.
Although Friedman’s music has made its strongest impact in the Reform movement, the three Conservative shuls sponsoring the concert use her tunes regularly. Rabbi Michael Beals of B’nai Tikvah includes her “Mi Shebeirach” as part of the healing prayer during the Torah service on Shabbat morning.
“Everybody likes it,” Beals said. “The rabbi emeritus sort of raises his eyebrows, but I love it, and the congregation really responds to it.” Cantor Keith Miller of Kehillat Ma’arav, who calls Friedman’s music “nice stuff, very accessible,” also has incorporated some of the songs into his synagogue’s worship.
Although Friedman’s songs are not used every week at Mishkon Tephilo, the temple has sung her “Havdalah” for some years. Mishkon member Sue Kaplan said she thought the communal experience of the concert will inspire the synagogue “to incorporate not just her beautiful melodies and prayers into our programs but encourage us as a community and individually to explore the wealth and beauty of the Jewish music scene today.”
Friedman’s style of music, Beals said, helps him attract new worshipers to his shul. “I’m trying to reach out to people and get them through the door,” he said. “This music is really touching them.”
And Friedman is thrilled to be part of that process, the process she didn’t know she was beginning back in 1971. “I didn’t know any of this would happen,” she said. “I knew I wanted the world to be different, and that’s what motivated me. … I’m pleased to know that people who might not have been able to connect to Judaism have been able to connect through music. That’s all you can hope for.”
Debbie Friedman will perform at the Wadsworth Theater (on the grounds of the Veterans Administration in West Los Angeles), Sat., Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25-$100, available without service fee through Tele-Charge, (800) 233-3123. For more information about the Jan. 14 concert in Pasadena, call Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center at (626) 798-1161.