Crossover Dreams

Does folksinger Debbie Friedman have the cure for our spiritual blues?

Debra Nussbaum Cohen

From Moment, June 1996
Reprinted with Permission.

Packed into a hotel ballroom last November, more than 1,000 Jewish convention-goers in business suits and high heels found themselves standing together and swaying arm-in-arm to the resonant melody and lyrics of Debbie Freidman’s “Mishebeyrach,” a song based on the prayer asking God for healing.

It was a jolting charge to the spiritual batteries of many of those attending the General Assembly (G.A.) of the Council of Jewish Federations. Usually the G.A. is about as inspiring as its name: a mass meeting of Jewish technocrats, funders, and fundees trying to figure out how to solve the Jewish continuity crisis and balance budgets at the same time.

But this year’s G.A. saw — or rather heard — something new. “We need to get in touch with our Judaism,” said a teary Marci Erlebacher, vice president for community relations at the Jewish Federation of Syracuse, New York, shortly after Friedman’s appearance. Singing prayers together “was like being cleansed inside,” she added.

The setting may have been unusual, but for those familiar with Debbie Freidman, the effect was not. It was repeated at the convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, held last December in Atlanta, where Freidman was welcomed with roars of approval and dancing in the aisles by the 4,000 Reform Jews attending her concert. It happened again in January at Carnegie Hall, where, in a hint that Friedman’s music may be on the verge of crossing over into the pop mainstream, some 2,000 New Yorkers put their arms around one another and raised their voices together in sweet communion as Friedman led them in song.

After 13 albums and 25 years as a professional musician, the dark-haired folksinger who bears a striking resemblance to Joan Baez, is finding herself enthusiastically embraced by diverse parts of the Jewish community, from the Reform movement summer camps where she got her start to fund-raising meetings of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA). Friedman tours constantly, performing at synagogues, Jewish community centers, conventions and retreats. Her music is taught in the cantorial studies program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary. Her songs “Mishebeyrach” and “Lechi Lach” have become standards at many Reform synagogue and youth group services, and at the spiritual healing services that are mushrooming around the country.

She has an expanding children’s audience, and her music has been licensed to several kid-related projects, including a “Barney in Concert” video, in which the peripatetic purple dinosaur sings her up-tempo version of the “Aleph-Bet” song. She even has her own home page on the World Wide Web, put up by Tara Publications, a Baltimore-based music company (

Her gentle, folk-based melodies sound just right to Friedman’s baby-boomer peers, whose musical tastes, like her own, were shaped by the “singer-songwriter” generation of the 1960s and early 1970s. Her egalitarian sensibility and unselfconscious feminism have made her beloved in the Reform movement, in “Jewish renewal” circles, and among feminist groups. Meanwhile, Freidman’s own spiritual search, a journey of deepening religious conviction and healing, touches those who are seeking out connection with authentic Judaism.

People are “hungry for it, really hungry” for a sense of spiritual connectedness, says Freidman. “Jews of every age are looking for a place to live their Jewish lives and to put their Jewish hearts.”

“She seems to have hit a chord in those looking for a sense of spirituality that they are not getting from conventional Jewish sources,” says Velvel Pasternak ,a publisher and promoter of Jewish music. “Some people are not turned on by the [traditional] sounds of Eastern European prayer, and she seems to talk to them.”

“She appeals to all ages, the parents of the ’60s and the kids of the ’90s,” says Irwin Rubinschneider, a mental health administrator from Brooklyn, who, with his wife and two young children, braved a blizzard to attend Freidman’s Carnegie Hall debut in January.

Freidman is crossing over denominational lines in a way that no one but the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was able to do, says Pasternak, who is Orthodox. After haring Friedman perform at the conference for the Advancement of Jewish Education last summer in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Orthodox woman said, “I’ve been [praying] all my life, but today was the first time I felt like I was really davening.”

“She comes from a Jewish place rather than being a New Age performer who later decides to do some Jewish songs,’ said Rubinschneider.

Friedman’s personal “Jewish space” is an airy pre-war apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West side that she’s sub-letting from someone spending the year in Israel. The grand piano is tucked into a corner of the living room. Decorative dreidels and boxes adorned with Jewish stars and musical symbols cover the coffee table and bookshelves.

Strewn on he floor are the dog toys that Friedman fruitlessly tries to keep in a straw basket. Farfel, a large animal who can be politely described as being of mixed lineage, bounds around the apartment with slobbering enthusiasm. Each morning they join the “doggie minyan” in nearby Riverside Park for exercise and shmoozing.

The apartment’s second bedroom has been converted into a recording studio complete with computers and an intricate looking soundboard. It’s in this room that she wrote her most recent album, Renewal of Spirit, which is devoted to contemplative melodies relating to healing and spirituality. In some circles Friedman has come to be known at he “high priestess of Jewish healing.”

It’s a title brought upon her by fate, not calculation. For most of the past decade, the 45-year-old Friedman has battled a debilitating and, until recently, mysterious illness. After taking too much of an incorrect combination of drugs prescribed for an illness in 1988, she developed dysautonomia, a neurological disorder, and an adrenal gland problem. She’s been on a roller-coaster of medical crises ever since, bedridden for weeks at a time and occasionally confined to a wheelchair. A recent bout with adrenal failure landed her in a Manhattan hospital for more than a week. A new doctor may have identified the source of the problem and has started a different treatment that as Friedman feeling fine. Confronting her own physical debility and limitations has brought her an exquisite appreciation for everyday blessings. “In many ways it’s given me a gift, “ says Freidman. “Healing is about what he illness teaches us. I’ve never had more clarity or understanding.”

Around the corner from her apartment is Congregation Anshe Chesed, where on the first Wednesday evening of each month Friedman and Rabbi Michael Strassfeld lead a Jewish healing service cosponsored by the National Center for Jewish Healing and Manhattan’s main gay and lesbian synagogue, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah.

The service was created to provide spiritual sustenance to seriously ill Jews and their families and friends. Many of the 40 to 50 people who sit in an arc around Friedman and Strassfeld are fighting AIDS and cancer. Others are there simply to sing, to meditate, and to connect to Friedman’s music in their chronic battle against the feelings of alienation and disconnection that seem to be part of the contemporary urban condition. They leave the service feeling centered and calmed, more whole than when they came in.

I’ve really been forced to feel illness, and life, and death,” Freidman says. “I’ve learned that I can be damaged or impaired and still have those spiritual experiences.”

Friedman, the third of four children, spent the first five years of her life in Utica, New York, where her father worked as a butcher and her mother as a homemaker. The family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where she grew up with the sense that Jewish life could be more vibrant than it was. She yearned to go back to New York.

As a 16-year-old working as a baby-sitter at Camp Herzel in Webster, Wisconsin, she picked up a guitar and began picking out the song a group of campers were singing. “It took a couple of notes, but I played it by ear,” She recalls. “I started playing Peter, Paul and Mary songs, and Judy Collins.”

Several months later she went to a Reform youth group retreat and brought along the guitar she’d purchased in the meantime. “They didn’t have a song leader, so I was elected by default, “ she says.

When she was 18, Friedman went to Israel to learn Hebrew at an ulpan on Kibbutz Yifat, in the Jordan Valley. She soon realized she wasn’t going to lean much Hebrew hanging out with Americans, so after the first day she asked to work with someone who spoke no English.

She was set to the kitchen to work with a woman “who was just a loon. I was totally motivated to learn Hebrew faster so I could know what she was saying about me,” recalls Friedman.

On her second day at the kibbutz, the loony cook and her colleagues wheeled in a crate of onions for Friedman to peel and clean. Her eyes stinging and tearing, Friedman said, “ Lo, lo, lo [no, no, no], I can’t do this.” So the kitchen ladies took away the onions and replaced them with a cart of dead chickens for Friedman to de-feather. “I laid them side by side on the table with their arms around each other, their legs crossed like they were Rockettes,” says Friedman, laughing. The kitchen ladies “started cackling like chickens and laughing hysterically, and then they invited me to their homes. That’s when I really started to learn Hebrew.”

When she came back she began working at Reform synagogues and camps, leading songs and teaching music and prayer, and soon began composing original music.

Her first song came to her on a bus. “A melody came into my head, so I put it to my favorite prayer, the V’Ahavta,” which says “And you shall love God with all your heart.” She taught it to the children at a Reform retreat, who responded by standing up, putting their arms around one another, an singing along. “I realized that something important was happening,” she says.

Her lyrics, set to exquisite harmonies, often combine English and Hebrew. Children and those with little Jewish literacy as well as knowledgeable listeners are easily drawn into lyrics like these, based on Genesis 12, where God tells Abraham to leave his home and go to a place that God will show him ( Lech lacha is the command “to go):

Lechi lach, to a place that I will show you. Lech lecha, to a place you do not know. Lechi lach, on your journey I will bless you And you shall be a blessing, lechi lach.

At most of her concerts people start humming along about six bars into a song even if they’ve never heard it before.

Word of her talent soon made its way through the Reform movement. For the next two decades she wrote music for Hanukkah, Purim, and Jewish rites of passage. She worked as a cantor at synagogues in Houston, Chicago, New Jersey, Palm Springs, San Diego, and Los Angeles and directed music programs at the University of Judaism, the University of California at Santa Cruz, Brandeis University, and the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Brandeis, California.

Her recent appearances before the Council of Jewish Federations in Boston and at the UJA National Young Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., marked watershed moments — but perhaps more for the Jewish organizational world than for Freidman. One of the four “tracks” at the G.A. this year, and the only one to be over-subscribed, with more than 1,000 Jewish professionals clamoring to get in, focused heavily on spirituality. And about one-third of the workshops and sessions a the UJA Young Leadership conference, which brought together some 3,000 men and women, were concerned with spirituality in some way, said conference co-chair Lynn Sachse Schrayer. “No one does it like Debbie. Her music and her message, which is a mixture of spirituality, intelligence, sensitivity, and neshama [soul], are thought-provoking but not threatening. Debbie was way ahead of all of us with this.”

The Jewish establishment’s embrace of Freidman coincided with her move to the geographic heart of the Jewish universe: Manhattan. For Passover in 1995, Ma’ayan, a Manhattan-based Jewish women’s group, had invited Freidman to help lead the hugely popular feminist seders that they have run for the past three years. She felt as if she had come home. In August she moved from California to the closest thing that modern America has to a shtetl, the Upper West Side.

“When I was in Los Angeles I wanted my friends to buy into a whole area of town and create a shtetl. I moved to New York because I wanted a more full life, a Jewish life. For me the Jewish life means that I love and breathe my work, and my work is my life. I want to be totally immersed, “ she says.

Friedman’s producer, Randee Friedman (no relation), would like to see Friedman cross over into the secular market much the way Christian singer Amy Grant has. Grant is still beloved by the Christian music audience, but their mainstream pop albums have sold millions of copies.

Friedman’s music sells like hot latkes in the Jewish market, but the sales are tiny relative to the Christian and ‘world beat” categories, which boast their own sections in major music stores. A few Jewish groups seem on the verge of breaking through, like the Kelzmatics, the funky klezmer collective that recently performed on a PBS special with violinist Itzhak Perlman (see Moment, August 1995). Klezmatics violinist Alicia Avigals recently toured with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and the latest Klezmatics album, Jews With Horns, sold 10,000 copies in its first three months in release. “Most Jewish performers are happy to sell out their first run of 500 tapes,” says Randee Freidman.

Debbie Friedman’s best-selling albums, And You Shall Be a Blessing (1989) and Live at the Del (1990), have each sold about 10,000 copies. Her latest, Renewal of Spirit, came out in December of last year and has sold between 5,000 and 6,000 copies, says her producer.

But figuring out where Friedman’s intensely Jewish music would fit in the he mainstream marketplace is not easy. “Is Friedman folk? New age? Liturgical? Spiritual?” asks Randee Friedman. “We’re struggling with that right now and want to come up with an album concept that can cross over.”

But if it’s not clear how to pitch Friedman to a mainstream market, it’s not clear, either, that mainstream success is what Friedman really wants. She’s not fond of shlepping through airports between gigs, nor of the marketing and merchandising — and compromising — it might take to succeed in the pop world.

There’s only one time when Friedman says she really feels her soul being nourished: when she’s standing on stage watching hundreds or thousands of people open up before her eyes and find something they weren’t even sure they were looking for.

“I live for those moments when people sing out and connect and create this sense of community and camaraderie,” she says. “That’s where it’s at. That’s the best part.”

For booking information, contact Golden Land Connections at 212/683-7816.