Sisterhood Blog

The Recognition Debbie Friedman Desired

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of HUC

Something didn’t sound quite right to me at last week’s dedication of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, the cantorial school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

Despite the love and sadness that suffused the event, which was born out of a desire to honor the singer-songwriter who died in January, hearing Debbie’s folky Jewish spirituals sung in multi-part choral harmony didn’t quite fit. And I wonder how she would have felt about the cantorial school being renamed in her honor. After all the school probably wouldn’t have accepted her, had she ever applied, because Debbie had absolutely no formal musical training.

Debbie’s innovative compositions changed the way many religiously liberal Jews approach prayer. Instead of the high-church operatic quality that characterized classical Reform worship (attended by a choir), Debbie used music to create a direct line of communication between congregant and God. Much as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach did in Orthodox Judaism, Debbie took text and themes right from the prayer book and Bible, marrying them to melodies structurally simple enough for anyone to be able to quickly catch on. In time, as Debbie taught them to Reform-movement campers and youth group retreat-goers, and then groups of song leaders and Jewish educators, her work became transformative.

At the cantorial school dedication, attended by nearly 400 people at the Reform seminary’s brick building near Washington Square Park, it was her music that was adapted and sung, mostly in a more formal way than I had ever heard it before.

Debbie’s sister, Cheryl Friedman, who came from California with their elderly mother and aunt to attend the ceremony, said that while Debbie would likely have felt embarrassed by the honor of having the cantorial school named for her, she also would have appreciated it.

“I love to hear people create their own interpretations of Debbie’s music. It’s what Debbie would want, to translate it into modes that speak to them,” Cheryl said.

At the dedication, Jerry Kaye, the earliest and perhaps most influential of Debbie’s mentors, spoke of the long struggle she faced to have her folk-infused, informal music taken seriously by the Reform movement and others. And Cantor Bruce Ruben, director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, said that she “inspired rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators” with music that “would speak to the next generation of Reform congregants.”

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC, his voice breaking as he struggled not to cry, described his late friend as “a tzadeket, a righteous woman, who had her moments on the other side as well,” referring to her occasional prickliness. “The purpose of worship is the elevation and renewal of our souls. No one elevated our souls more than she did.”

Debbie joined HUC’s faculty in 2007. HUC wanted “to employ her enormous talents as a caring teacher and composer,” Ellenson told The Sisterhood after the event. She worked with rabbinic and cantorial students at HUC’s campuses in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and New York, he said.

After being so long dismissed as “just a song leader,” it was the kind of formal recognition by the Reform movement Debbie had long desired.

“Her goal in life was to perpetuate Judaism l’dor v’dor [from one generation to the next]. That is what she lived for,” her sister, Cheryl, said. “What better way to do that than to train cantors who will go out and teach other people?”

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Debbie Friedman

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.