It’s hard to believe, but Saturday marks 10 years since the passing of Jewish musical icon Debbie Friedman, who died of pneumonia on Jan. 9, 2011, at age 59. If you grew up in the Reform movement — especially if you ever attended a Shabbat song session at a Reform Jewish camp — you are undoubtedly familiar with the singer-songwriter’s vast and gorgeous musical repertoire. Influenced by folk artists like Peter, Paul, and Mary, Friedman’s music is modern, moving, and wide-ranging, from the soothing and somber “Mi Shebeirach” to the raucous and joyous “Miriam’s Song.”
Friedman was born in New York and, growing up in St. Paul, Minn., she noticed that something was missing from her family congregation’s services — a way for young people to connect with Judaism. Friedman wrote her first Jewish song, “V’ahavta (And Thou Shalt Love)” in 1970 when she was only 19, and first performed her song at a regional Jewish Youth Convention (NFTY, anyone?). Using both Hebrew and English lyrics, Friedman began to write songs for all ages, and her source material and subjects spanned everything from prayers, to scholarly texts, to educational Jewish songs.
Her influence extended far beyond the Reform movement, touching Jewish individuals and communities across denominations, and her songs have also been performed at many interfaith concerts. That’s with good reason: Friedman’s beautiful music has brought comfort to so many. Whether it is nostalgia for our Jewish youth, memories of congregations rising in song, or the knowledge that we will always have Jewish community, the palpable warmth and compassion in Friedman’s songs provide an enduring legacy.
After this difficult week — with the nation reeling from a right-wing mob attack at the Capitol while coronavirus grows more deadly than ever — all of us are craving some warmth and healing. We, as Jews, can push back against Wednesday’s horrifying display of hate by spreading love and Jewish pride in our own communities. Honestly, I can’t think of a better (and socially distant) way to do that than by listening to and celebrating the music of Debbie Friedman.
In honor of the musical icon, we’ve rounded up our ten favorite Debbie Friedman songs, and included a video of each. Whether you listen to one or all ten — or decide to dig deep into her entire catalog on Spotify — we guarantee your heart will swell with joy.
1. “Mi Shebeirach”
One of Friedman’s most popular tunes, this song offers the Jewish prayer of healing in both English and Hebrew. This track could not be more relevant right now: We, as a nation and as individuals, are all in need of healing right now. This beautiful, tear jerking melody is perfect for wrapping an arm around a loved one and feeling the feels.
2. “Miriam’s Song”
This upbeat song tells the story of the biblical character Miriam — reminding listeners of Miriam’s fortitude, leadership, and knack for partying. Plus, it’s a “downright banger,” according to Molly Tolsky, editor of our partner site, Alma. A fan favorite during Jewish camp song sessions, this feminist song is the epitome of girl power and Jewish joy.
3. “Oseh Shalom”
This prayer, often said after the silent Amidah prayer during Reform services, is one of my favorite Jewish tunes of all time. Starting quietly and slowly, it swells with volume and pride as the verses continue. It’s great when sung in a round, either accompanied by guitar or a capella.
4. “V’ahavta (And Thou Shalt Love)”
Friedman’s first original song is sentimental and spiritual. Like “Mi Shebeirach,” it is a prayer, in both Hebrew and English, and can be sung during services. For those who are not fluent in Hebrew, it can be a beautiful tool to understand this important Jewish prayer.
5. Birchot Havdalah
There are so many reasons to love Havdalah — the end-of-Shabbat ritual featuring spices, wine, and candles — and one huge reason is Friedman’s gorgeous melody for the blessings. Friedman’s iconic “yai-lai-lai-lai-lai-lai-lai-lais” will be sure to send you into the new week on a good note.
6. “Not By Might”
Another very upbeat song that features a lot of clapping, “Not By Might” celebrates the spiritual resolve of the Jewish people in general, and also of the Maccabees in the Hanukkah story. If you’d like to dance off your anxiety and/or anger, this is a great one.
7. “L’chi Lach”
Back on the sentimental side, this song tells the story of God telling Abraham and Sarah to make the journey to Canaan, which eventually became Israel. “L’chi lach/To a place that i will show you/Lech lecha/To a place you do not know/ And you shall be a blessing/L’chi Lach.” This was the final song at my bat mitzvah ceremony, which you can imagine was emotional.
8. “Devorah’s Song”
Similar to “Miriam’s Song,” this buoyant tune celebrates a woman prophet from the Book of Judges. If you’re seeking a slightly less popular banger that honors the name of Friedman herself, check this one out.
9. “Alef Bet”
This song is such a staple that many people don’t realize it was written by Friedman. It’s such a catchy version of the Hebrew alphabet that it’s become a mainstay at Hebrew schools across generations and denominations. If you want to teach your kids some Hebrew, this one’s the perfect place to start!
10. “Light These Lights”
Last but not least, this song is an English-language Shabbat tune that will surely give you some much needed peace. An emotional favorite for my synagogue’s junior choir, this song’s English lyrics and soothing melody are spiritual and sentimental.
Header image via Wikipedia