Deborah [Debbie] Lynn Friedman is usually perceived as having introduced into American synagogues—primarily those within the Reform movement—a 1960s/1970s quasi-folksong popular mode, style, and manner of vocal delivery together with informal, non-cantorial communal songleading and guitar accompaniment. Earlier, albeit within the same approximate time frame, that trend had begun in church services outside the mainstream Christian denominations; and it caught on gradually even in some more established churches that had previously been attached mostly to conventional expressions of sacred music.
Within the Reform movement—followed on some levels within the fold of the Conservative movement—the trend began in Jewish summer youth camps, spreading to year-round synagogue services in those congregations that early on were attracted by its informality, immediacy, and so-called contemporary sound. By the end of the twentieth century Friedman’s name had come to refer not only to her own voluminous output of songs to liturgical texts (Hebrew as well as English translations), but to the songleading format for Jewish worship in general, and to the pop-infused expressions of others who followed in her footsteps. It is still not uncommon to refer to the ongoing phenomenon as “Debbie Friedman et al.,” without specifying other names or adding any stylistic tag.
Friedman was born in Utica, New York, and moved with her family to Minnesota when she was five years old. Although she had no formal musical training, she began singing to her own guitar accompaniment and then creating her own songs as a teenager. Her composing began in earnest when she was a songleader in the early 1970s at the Reform movement’s summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, known as the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute. She later recalled that she was influenced by such singers as Joan Baez; the ensemble Peter, Paul and Mary; and numerous other folk-pop singers and groups. Between 1971 and 2011 she recorded twenty-two albums of her own songs.
Having struggled with an undiagnosed neurological condition for 20 years, Friedman died on January 9, 2011 of complications from pneumonia. Obituaries appeared in major news publications throughout the United States, including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.
By: Neil W. Levin