4:00pm

Mon January 10, 2011
The Record

Debbie Friedman, Who Rewrote Jewish Prayers For A New Generation, Has Died

Originally published on Tue July 1, 2014 10:17 am

Debbie Friedman, a Jewish folk singer, died on Sunday in Mission Viejo, California at the age of 59. The cause was complications of pneumonia, according to Jerry Kaye, a family spokesman. Friedman's versions of traditional Jewish prayers, set to contemporary melodies with lyrics in both Hebrew and English, became standards in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues around the world.

It was Friedman's reworking of "Mi Sheberach," a prayer for healing and perhaps her most famous song, that was sung by Congregation Chaverim in Tucson at a prayer service for Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on Sunday. In 1997, Friedman spoke with All Things Considered's Robert Siegel about how songs like that one became such fixtures in Reform synagogues:

"Early on in Reform there was a leaning toward more intellectuality and less emotional, less spiritual; that anything that was arational really didn't have a place. And I think that the greatest breakthrough that has happened in these past maybe 20 — maybe 25 — years is that those walls are crumbling, that people have found now that we need to be integrated human beings that both know and think and also feel."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Members of Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, Arizona, held a healing service for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on Sunday morning. It's the congregation she belongs to.

And when they sang the traditional Jewish prayer for healing, the "Mi Sheberach," Hebrew for The One who Blesses, like so many Reform congregations, they sang this version, this melody.

It's by Debbie Friedman who died yesterday at age 59. This is a recording of Debbie Friedman, whose melodies have re-shaped the sound of Jewish worship in Reform, Conservative and Re-constructionist synagogues.

(Soundbite of song, "Mi Sheberach")

Ms. DEBBIE FRIEDMAN (Singer): (Singing foreign language). May the source of strength who bless the ones before us help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing, and let us say amen.

SIEGEL: I interviewed Debbie Friedman on this program back in 1997, a few days before one of her Carnegie Hall concerts. I asked her about this prayer for healing that would have sounded so out of place in a Reform temple, say, 50 years ago.

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Early on in Reform, there was a leaning toward more intellectuality and less emotional, less spiritual, that anything that was a-rational really didn't have a place.

And I think that the greatest breakthrough that has happened in these past maybe 20, 25 years, is that those walls are crumbling, that people have found now that we need to be integrated human beings that both know and think and also feel.

SIEGEL: And for a generation of American Jews, the music that evoked feeling was often the music of Debbie Friedman. She died in Orange County, California, of complications from pneumonia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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