A notable passing: Musician Debbie Friedman

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 11, 2011 - 9:54 PM

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Debbie Friedman, 1951-2011

Debbie Friedman grew up in St. Paul and became prominent in contemporary Jewish music, selling out concerts in Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. Her death this week at 59 garnered a hefty obituary in the New York Times.

The songwriter and guitarist was best known for transforming traditional Jewish music to a contemporary format to make Judaism more appealing to young and old alike.

Some called her the Amy Grant of Jewish music, but Friedman was more like Joan Baez, a Jewish newspaper said. She had a strong spiritual, political and social conscience, as well as a love for Jewish liturgy and her religious history.

Friedman was a feminist who used music to raise awareness about the stories of the women of the Hebrew Bible. She helped to foster a renaissance in Jewish women's spirituality that included feminist Passover seders.

Because she suffered from chronic illness, she also devoted energy to helping people who were ill or distressed and in need of healing.

She attended Highland Park Senior High School in the 1960s and was known to take her guitar to the airport and sing to travelers. In 1972, she released her first album of Jewish songs, "Sing Unto God."

Over the years, her recordings soared to the top of contemporary Jewish charts.

She developed catchy melodies for teaching children Hebrew. Some of her music was used in Barney music videos and became mainstays at Jewish children's camps. During worship, she encouraged congregations to participate in the singing rather than remain passive listeners.

"I didn't know that what I was doing was so different," she told me in 1999. "All I knew was that when I was sitting in services in my synagogue, the choir sang and the rabbi talked and the congregation did nothing. I was looking for a way to connect."

And that she did.

Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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