Jewish com­poser put mod­ern spin on prayers

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY ELAINE WOO

Deb­bie Fried­man, a self-taught Jewish folk singer and com­poser who trans­formed syn­a­gogue mu­sic and wor­ship by in­fus­ing tra­di­tional prayers with a con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­ity, died Jan. 9 at a hos­pi­tal in Mis­sion Viejo, Calif., of com­pli­ca­tions of pneu­mo­nia from a vi­ral in­fec­tion. She was 59.

In the past four decades, Ms. Fried­man recorded more than 20 al­bums of songs that com­bined English and He­brew texts with folk rhythms.

Among her best-known com­po­si­tions is “Mi She­ber­ach,” the Jewish prayer for heal­ing. Writ­ten for a friend who was strug­gling to ad­just to get­ting older, it be­came a sta­ple of Re­form Jewish ser­vices and a cen­tral part of the Jewish heal­ing move­ment, which reaches out to peo­ple cop­ing with se­ri­ous ill­ness.

The song was per­formed at a Tuc­son tem­ple Sun­day for Gabrielle Gif­fords, the Ari­zona con­gress­woman who was crit­i­cally wounded dur­ing a shoot­ing ram­page the day be­fore. And it was sung at heal­ing ser­vices for Ms. Fried­man af­ter she be­came ill last week.

A self-de­scribed child of the 1960s, Ms. Fried­man some­what re­sem­bled Joan Baez with her dark, closely cropped hair. She taught her­self to play gui­tar and to com­pose by lis­ten­ing to the mu­sic of such artists as Judy Collins, Carly Simon and the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.

“Deb­bie Fried­man has carved a very pow­er­ful legacy in the Jewish world,” the trio’s Peter Yar­row, who per­formed with her at Carnegie Hall in New York City, said some years ago. “She took all the en­er­gies of the folk mu­sic that pre­ceded it and turned it into some­thing that di­rectly re­lated to Jewish­ness. I don’t think any­body else has done that, and she has done it bril­liantly.”

Since last year, Ms. Fried­man had been a mu­sic in­struc­tor and artist-in-res­i­dence at the Los An­ge­les cam­pus of He­brew Union Col­lege, where she taught a course on us­ing Jewish texts as a source for songs, ser­mons and study.

Al­though Ms. Fried­man was not a can­tor and her mod­ern twist on Jewish spir­i­tual mu­sic ini­tially met con­sid­er­able re­sis­tance, she even­tu­ally led con­gre­ga­tions as a can­to­rial soloist. Her mu­sic is most pop­u­lar in Re­form and Con­ser­va­tive syn­a­gogues, but it has also been per­formed in Ortho­dox Jewish set­tings and in Chris­tian churches.

The daugh­ter of a kosher butcher and a food ser­vice di­rec­tor, Ms. Fried­man was born in Utica, N.Y., on Feb. 23, 1951, and moved with her fam­ily to St. Paul, Minn., when she was 6. She took pi­ano lessons as a child and taught her­self to play gui­tar at a Jewish sum­mer camp when she was a teenager.

She moved to Is­rael af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school and lived on a kib­butz for six months. When she re­turned to the United States, she be­gan at­tend­ing a St. Paul syn­a­gogue but found the ser­vices bor­ing.

“I re­al­ized the rabbi was talk­ing, the choir was sing­ing, and no­body was do­ing any­thing. There was no par­tic­i­pa­tion,” she re­called in a 1995 in­ter­view with the Los An­ge­les Times.

Not long af­ter, she was rid­ing a bus from New Jersey to New York when a melody came into her head. She joined it with “V’ahavta,” a prayer about unity with God, and taught it to Jewish youths at a sum­mer camp.

Their re­ac­tion star­tled her. “All of a sud­den they stood up, grabbed each other’s arms and joined in this prayer,” she said. “I re­al­ized some­thing pow­er­ful was hap­pen­ing.”

The pop­u­lar­ity of “V’ahavta” led her to make a demo. When she quickly sold 1,000 copies of the record­ing, she knew she had found her vo­ca­tion.

Sur­vivors in­clude her mother, Freda Fried­man of La­guna Hills, Calif., and two sis­ters.

Sev­eral of Ms. Fried­man’s songs are in the Re­form prayer book, and some of her lyrics have ap­peared on Hall­mark greet­ing cards. One of her most pop­u­lar chil­dren’s com­po­si­tions, the “Alef Bet Song” about the He­brew al­pha­bet, has been per­formed by Bar­ney, the pur­ple di­nosaur from chil­dren’s TV.

Her pri­mary ob­jec­tive was to “ try to make prayer user-friendly,” she told Re­form Ju­daism mag­a­zine in 2002. “Be­cause the mu­sic is in a fa­mil­iar genre, peo­ple are able to make the con­nec­tion be­tween the mu­sic and the text. The real power is in the po­etry of the liturgy, how mov­ing and stir­ring it can be, con­nect­ing us to our deep­est and most pre­cious ideas, hopes and fears.”

Deb­bie Fried­man recorded more than 20 al­bums.

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