My work is my joy. This is what drives me and keeps me alive and knowing that I must never give in when the doctors say this is as good as it will be – when friends say, this is the best I can do. I will surround myself with people who have the same passion for life, the same passion for passion. This is how we will survive as human beings and this is how we, as women, will become a resonant song whose melody is so strong and so powerful that all of the negative voices in our world will be muffled to an inaudible whisper because all will want to hear this song – because each of us is a part of it.
Debbie was born in Utica, New York, in 1951. She moved with her family to St. Paul, Minnesota, when she was 6 years old. After high school, she lived in Israel for six months. She lived in various locales during her life, including Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Manhattan. In the spring of 2010, she moved to Laguna Woods, California, to be geographically closer to her family.
Debbie had a passion for all genres of Jewish music, instrumental or vocal, that gave “voice” to the wonders of Jewish heritage and living. She enjoyed classical music including opera, symphonic and chamber music. She never laughed louder than when listening to Bette Midler’s humorous music and banter.
Debbie’s early musical influences included Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and others in that genre. As did her musical forbearers, Debbie raised her voice, challenging those in positions of power and popularity; she challenged the status quo. But, Debbie’s influence and inspiration was indelibly etched on her heart long before those musicians had their impact. Her mother and maternal grandparents were Debbie’s first and real inspirations. From them flowed her passion for love, justice, integrity, humor – living Jewishly.
Her music touches people in myriad ways. It compels our willing souls to pray in a different way to see ourselves and others through different eyes, understand ways to give that were previously unknown, find deeper parts of ourselves that were hidden. Her music makes Judaism accessible to all those who are open. For her generation, and those since, the teachings of Judaism were waiting for someone to unfold them – to unwrap them. Debbie gave us that gift.
During Debbie’s formative years, as she sat in synagogue services, she felt that something was missing both for her and for those she observed. She identified with other young people whose Judaism had no language that spoke to them – or for them.
In 1970, Debbie wrote V’ahavta, a paragraph of the Sh’ma. A month later, she taught it to those attending a regional youth convention. In Jewish Sages of Today, you will find the following discussion:
I was stunned when they suddenly put their arms around each other and there were tears rolling down their faces. They were reclaiming this prayer, and it was ours in a musical language they were able to understand... We were reclaiming something that we hadn’t touched, that we had no access to until now.
It wasn’t long after that she had a realization that set the course for her future career, while she was attending a service at her family’s synagogue.
Her songs, and the prayers for which she found melodies, continue to reach countless people of all expressions of Judaism and some who follow the Christian faith. We are a community – but a community is made up of individuals. And Debbie’s music speaks to the community through its individuals. She believed we are healed one person at a time, one soul at a time.
Debbie used music to express her Judaism. She translated and transformed prayers, Torah, Talmud, and other scholarly texts, ancient and contemporary. She brought words of heretofore lesser-known liturgical pieces, Torah portions, psalms, the prophets, and philosophers, into our every-day vernacular. Imagine ordinary people like us – young and old, quoting the prophets, the Talmud, the Koran, and so on. Debbie’s music weaves the message of one’s obligation to the community and its individuals – finding the parallel between the texts and the world as she experienced it.
Debbie began writing in the early 1970’s. She wrote many of her early songs while she was a songleader for both the Northern Federation of Temple Youth (NoFTY), Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Wisconsin, and other youth organizations and camps around the country.
Debbie used both English and Hebrew lyrics, and wrote for all ages. Some of her better-known songs include the Mi Shebeirach, Miriam's Song, Birchot Havdalah, Not By Might, I Am a Latke, 613 Commandments, Sing Unto God, Sh'ma and V’ahavta (Thou Shalt Love), L’chi Lach, T’filat HaDerech, The Angel’s Blessing, Kaddish D’rabanan, Devorah’s Song, to name only a few of her catalogue, containing hundreds of compositions.
Her compositions are written for life-cycle events, holidays, observances marking the Jewish calendar, world events, and much more. For example, One People was written in response to 9/11. In it, Debbie speaks to the nations and peoples of the world about our similarities – that we are One People. In Save a Life, she uses Talmudic and Koranic text to eulogize Yitzchak Rabin. In Not By Might, she quotes the words of the prophet Zechariah. Even I Am a Latke and Happy Thanksgiving, though humorous, are infused with the message that we must not forget the needs of the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the hungry among us. Our responsibility to attend to the needs of our planet is reflected in songs like Plant a Tree for Tu B’shvat. Compositions expressing the joy of holidays of the Jewish calendar can be heard in The Dreidel Song, and Light These Lights. Debbie’s album, Shanah Tovah presents songs through the Jewish calendric year, from Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Purim, Pesach, Simchat Torah, and more. The album Miracles and Wonders, contains two musicals celebrating Purim and Chanukah. They have been performed for over 20 years in countless religious and day schools.
Shirim Al Galgalim: Songs on Wheels is another children’s album celebrating holidays and blessings. The Journey Continues: Ma’yan Passover Haggadah in Song, is a guide, in music, for the Passover seder. This album contains traditional Passover songs, as well as new compositions. Some of the compositions were co-created by gifted lyricists.
Debbie’s amazing sense of humor is reflected in the lyrics of numerous songs. Many of the songs teach the Hebrew language (The Alef Bet or Bakitah). Jewish values are taught in Im Ein Ani Li or 613 Commandments. Debbie draws from her childlike spirit in songs like The Angels Blessing and Lullaby. Debbie once said, “Nothing could give me greater pleasure than knowing some of these songs could put a child to sleep and be calm.”
Debbie’s music is so fully integrated into synagogue liturgy, that in many congregations it is considered “traditional.” Churches, schools, camps, and community centers also find Debbie’s extensive variety of songs to be valuable additions for their teaching and use in worship. Her melodies and lyrics are licensed for hundreds of usages, in recordings, videos, songbooks, prayerbooks, haggadot, textbooks, teaching manuals, children’s books, healing publications, ritual books, films and television, and self-help books. Her work appears in settings from the Barney In Concert video (The Alef Bet Song) to an episode of Strong Medicine on the Lifetime channel (Mi Shebeirach). Tree of Life, a division of Hallmark greeting cards, designed and marketed a series of 12 holiday cards using Debbie’s lyrics.
She has performed in hundreds of cities around the globe and has appeared before national conventions and conferences for every major Jewish organization, including the General Assembly of Jewish Federations; Hadassah; Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Union for Reform Judaism); American Conference of Cantors; Rabbinical Assembly; Cantors Assembly; Wexner Heritage Foundation; Whizin Institute; National Association of Temple Educators; National Association of Temple Administrators; Central Conference of American Rabbis; Women of Reform Judaism; World Union for Progressive Judaism; World Jewish Congress; American Jewish Congress; American Jewish Committee; National Federation of Temple Youth; and United Synagogue Youth. More adherents of Modern Orthodox tenets are listening to Debbie’s music. Her work has also been sung at countless interfaith concerts. In 1997, the choir of a 4,000-member Baptist church in Houston adapted her L’chi Lach.
In the 1980’s, Debbie served as the cantorial soloist for three years at the New Reform Congregation in Los Angeles, California. At OSRUI, she served as a music educator. She directed the music component of its intensive Hebrew Chalutzim program and created Hava Nashira, the popular annual songleading and music workshop.
She served on the faculty of the Jewish Perspectives on Care at the End of Life Symposium at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, the Summer Institute for Jewish Educators, co-sponsored by the University of Judaism and the Whizin Institute in Los Angeles, the Kalsman Institute of Hebrew Union College, the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, the Elat Chayyim Jewish Spiritual Retreat Center in the Catskill Mountains of New York, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Brandeis, California, the Union for Reform Judaism summer Kallah programs held at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, New Hampshire. Debbie once followed an address by President Bill Clinton for the United Jewish Appeal Young Leadership Convention.
For many years, Debbie taught workshops and directed 300-person chorales at Coalition For The Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) annual conferences. The chorales performed in concert, spiritually inspiring the several-thousand delegates who were in attendance.
At many of the conferences at which Debbie appeared, she traditionally co-led gatherings of all-night spontaneous singing sessions (kumzitzim). Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, said the following of the experiences.
Debbie is the inheritor of a great legacy. I’ve sung with her and watched her perform many times, sometimes in the wee hours at spontaneous gatherings during Jewish education conferences. Here is the music of jubilation and confirmation. It is a call to community that rages against darkness and spreads light.
In 1996, in the Palm Beach Jewish Times article “Queen of Souls,” URJ Senior Vice President Rabbi Dan Freelander said:
[T]he kids of the UAHC [URJ] camps of the 60’s became the rabbis of the 1970’s, and the rest of the kids are now board members of congregations all over the country. They walk around with Debbie Friedman’s music embedded in their subconscious.
In the same article, Dr. Marc Epstein, Professor of Jewish Studies at Vassar College said:
[Debbie is] really the first woman contributor of note to popular jewish musical liturgy. She broke the barrier of the staid, hymnic renditions of Chanukah music, without being avant-garde. It’s neither the grave, solemn renditions of the 19th century, nor the childish melodies of the earlier portion of the 20th century.
Although Debbie’s music is primarily heard in Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal liturgy, Blu Greenberg, the orthodox feminist leader, was quoted in the Jewish Week, on January 14, 2011, as saying,
[Debbie] had a large impact [in] Modern Orthodox shuls, women’s tefillah [prayer], and the Orthodox feminist circles... She was a religious bard and angel of the entire community.
Her first concert at the renowned Carnegie Hall, in 1996, celebrated the 25th anniversary of her distinguished musical career. The following year she appeared in her second solo concert at Carnegie Hall. She performed at the prestigious Town Hall, in New York City, and numerous other concert venues all over the world, as well as in Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal synagogues throughout the world. Debbie was part of a benefit for the UJA-Federation of New York concert to respond to the World Trade Center tragedy and the crisis in Israel. In 2004, a documentary of Debbie’s life, A Journey of Spirit, was produced.
Debbie’s appointment to the faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) School of Sacred Music in New York and the HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, in 2007, fulfilled a lifelong dream to teach in a formal setting – allowing her another avenue to help shape the future of the Jewish people. Debbie taught both rabbinic and cantorial students. What follows is an excerpt from an article written by Susan Fishkoff entitled, “70’s Rebel Takes Job at Cantorial School”:
Friedman’s appointment [to the HUC-JIR’s School of Sacred Music in New York] can be seen as part of a general shift in American worship away from grand operatic performances by cantor and choir and toward greater congregational participation.
"I’ve been a symbol," Friedman said, with some frustration. "Rather than seeing me as a whole person, I’ve been perceived as a renegade, someone outside the system..."
That, Friedman said, is nonsense. "The issue is whether we’re reaching people and helping them pray. Whatever we can do to facilitate their worship experience and spiritual self-exploration, we’re obligated to do."
In December of 2011, the School of Sacred Music was renamed The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.
In 2010, she was named to the Forward 50 after the release of her 22nd and final album, As You Go On Your Way: Shacharit – The Morning Prayers. About this album, Debbie wrote:
I have always imagined people on the subway or in their cars riding to work. I have imagined people on the freeways of California sitting at a stand-still or on the trains from the suburbs to the city, people exercising, or maybe just having those few minutes alone in the morning when they can finally gather themselves and acknowledge the moments of quiet, the moments when they can have a sense of the Divine.
The purpose of prayer is to be able to transcend the traffic and the hustle of the daily routine – to begin the day by acknowledging the magic of each day, the miracle of our lives, our bodies, our breath and our minds. Once we can begin to appreciate ourselves as living breathing miracles, we can celebrate and give thanks to The Creator of All That Was, All That Is, and All That Will Be.
In 2005, Debra Nussbaum Cohen interviewed Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a professor at the Reform Movement’s HUC-JIR, in NY. Hoffman said:
Debbie’s music ...[provides] contemporary Jewish spirituality with music that gives worshippers their voice. ...Here is a musical genius wed to Jewish authenticity and a keen sense for what today’s men and women seek both artistically and religiously in the 21st century.
Debbie leaves behind a vast catalogue of compositions. She leaves the world better for having been here. She leaves lessons on loving and being loved – a legacy of inspiration, change, and renewal that is beyond measure.
Her work was her joy. It is what keeps her alive.
In Her Own Words
ON HER WORK
My work is my joy. This is what drives me and keeps me alive and knowing that I must never give in when the doctors say this is as good as it will be – when friends say, this is the best I can do. I will surround myself with people who have the same passion for life, the same passion for passion. This is how we will survive as human beings and this is how we, as women, will become a resonant song whose melody is so strong and so powerful that all of the negative voices in our world will be muffled to an inaudible whisper because all will want to hear this song – because each of us is a part of it. 
ON JEWISH MUSIC
Our history and our people and cultures have influenced jewish music. The music is a reflection of the times in which it was written and the communities from which it emerged relecting diversity. Current interpretations of our liturgy and texts had, in the past created discussion and may not have appealed everyone, but i think the consensus is that most composers are to be acknowledged and respected in their attempt to bringing a new perspective to text. The new music cannot stand alone. Our history must have a voice and represent. One of those ways is by using traditional modes. Without blending the two worlds of music we are left with a singular experience that offers us no spiritual challenge; teaching us to hear in a new way. [June 23, 2009]
Shanah Tovah! I was wondering how you all know everyone's address and get it so that you can e-mail everyone all at once without going back to the address book... I have other strengths, but as I told my manager.... I am not a "computerist", a word I should like to copyright. It has a nice ring to it. Think: guitarist, pianist, delicatessanist, Rabbinist, and Cantorist, and now, my sister has a "hospitalist" (for real), who coordinates all her medical care.... so why not computerist!
I studied a Gemorrah in which two davenists were on their way to shul. They started to davven together, but one left as soon as he was finished and left the other davenist by himself. The gemorrah uses the word for his departure as tore. The word "tore" is stronger than even the word from k'riya. He tore (it has a violent implication) himself from the shul... from the community... The discussion goes on to say that the fact is that he had no consciousness or connection of or to "other." That "other" is at the basis of our every action. Without the commitment to community and to loving beyond oneself, one's prayers become meaningless, relationships are meaningless, life is meaningless. [September 21, 2009]
If we want our world to be different, beginning with our personal world, our family, our community, and our family, we must not fear imperfection because it is all a part of our story, and we need not to be perfect to be human. [February 21, 2009]
Carrots on the bed
Gribbenez at the window
How do you cook Schmaltz?
Phones ring off the hook
The phone rings in the forest
Does it still make noise? [December 4, 2009]
I do know that I am personally happier when I am in a loving environment with people who are willing to not only give love, but accept love. [December 8. 2008]
I started writing because I felt left out. I felt so alone when I was sitting in services; the very place that should have cradled me and given me comfort and warmth. How would I ever find a place to belong when I didn’t share a common language with my fellow daveners? We were all strangers to one another, but we didn’t have to be. There was a common denominator. [September 3, 2010]
More about Debbie's life
→ Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Announces the Naming of the School of Sacred Music in Memory of Debbie Friedman, z”l, to Honor Her Contributions to Religious Worship, Spiritual Renewal, and the Jewish People
From the liner notes of SONGS OF THE SPIRIT (2005)
At once joyful, uplifting, soul-full, modern, elegantly simple and deeply anchored in Jewish tradition. This is the singular combination of qualities that makes Debbie Friedman's songs so singularly beloved, and which have earned her a cadre of "chasidim," devoted fans for whom her music is a central part of their spiritual practice.
In her nearly 35 years of composing, Debbie has forever changed American Jewish prayer and song, with her music now part of the prayer tradition at many synagogues and camps. What really sets her apart from the dozens of other Jewish singer-songwriters around today is her gift for writing music that is at once deeply authentic and also quickly sears itself on the listener's heart. Most of it is rooted in our sacred texts but composed in a way that is easily learned and enjoyed by people even if they've never before read the particular psalm or Biblical passage on which a song is based. The lyrics often combine Hebrew and English, and are set to exquisite harmonies.
Even if they've never before heard her song "L'chi Lach" ("Go Forth," based on the chapter in Genesis in which God instructs Abraham to leave the land of his home, promising blessings in return), for example, people hearing it for the first time are singing along in full voice just a few bars in.
However people first encounter Debbie's music–through one of her 20 albums or at one of the feminist seders whose songs she has written–it invariably makes a strong impact.
And whether she is on stage at Carnegie Hall in front of thousands of people, playing for hundreds at a synagogue or singing for a dozen people at a Jewish healing service, Debbie brings the same gifts; gorgeously meaningful lyrics, a warm voice which spans the alto and soprano registers and, most of all, an open heart.
And her gentle, folk-based melodies sound just right to Debbie's baby-boomer peers, whose musical tastes, like her own, were shaped by the 1960s and early 70s. Her egalitarian sensibility and unselfconscious feminism have made her beloved by a wide range of Jews. Her music is ageless, timeless and transcends denominational boundaries.
One Orthodox woman said, after hearing Debbie play at a Jewish education conference, "I've been praying all my life but today was the first time I felt like I was really davenning."
"People are hungry, really hungry" for a sense of spiritual connectedness, Debbie says. "Jews of every age are looking for a place to live their Jewish lives and to put their Jewish hearts."
"No one—really, no one—rivals Debbie Friedman in providing contemporary Jewish spirituality with music that gives worshippers their voice," said Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a professor at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York. "Here is a musical genius wed to Jewish authenticity and a keen sense for what today's men and women seek both artistically and religiously in the 21st century."
All of it springs from a deeply religious place for Debbie. While she was growing up, the third of four children, her father was a kosher butcher and at first, the family belonged to a traditional synagogue. But when she was five, her family moved from Utica, New York to St Paul, Minnesota and joined a Reform congregation.
And, while Debbie insisted that she attend Hebrew school in a traditional congregation, she also became deeply tied to the Reform movement, working in its camps and youth groups. It was there that she first wrote and tried out most of her early songs, which found an immediately enthusiastic audience.
"There was a whole world of text that needed to be set to music. It was wide open," says Debbie. Using her music, "kids were singing prayers and we weren't using James Taylor anymore. We were using tefilla (prayer) now and it was really working. People were really singing and davenning and it was exciting."
Debbie has been composing these songs, which have become part of the canon of contemporary American Jewish liturgical music, since 1972. She showed early musical promise, singing opera at 18 months, but no one had any inkling then that her compositions would become something that Reform movement cantonal students would one day be required to learn.
Today many of her songs, like those written by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, are sung by people who have no idea who composed them, but who come back to them time and again for their beauty and depth.
The first song she wrote was to the "V'ahavta," from the part of the most central Jewish prayer, the Sh'ma, which says "And you shall love God with all your heart."
She was 20 years old, sitting on a bus on her way from New Jersey to the Port Authority to meet her grandmother when it came to her. "I just heard it in my head," Debbie says. "A lot of times I just hear the stuff in my head."
She'd been playing guitar for a couple of years, after picking one up when she was 16 and working as a babysitter at Camp Herzl in Webster Wisconsin. "I play by ear so after a few notes I picked up what the campers were singing. "Then I started playing Peter, Paul and Mary songs and Judy Collins."
Peter Yarrow, of Peter. Paul and Mary has said "I've sung with her and watched her perform many times, sometimes in the wee hours at spontaneous gatherings during Jewish educational conferences. Hers is the music of jubilation and confirmation," he told the Baltimore Jewish Times. "It is a call to community and commonality that rages against the darkness and spreads light."
Soon she was working as a summer camp song-leader. A couple of months after composing her tune for "V'ahavta" she played it for the kids at camp, who responded by standing up, putting their arms around one another and singing along. When she saw how it moved them, she knew she was on to something. While there she began writing other songs as well, including her compositions for "L'cha Dodi" and "Mi Chamocha."
"It was catching on like wildfire." she says. "The very first thing that caught on was the V'ahavta, which took the country by storm" across the Reform movement, which today is American Judaism's largest denomination.
But it all started with the kids in the movement's camps, and within a few years the music was getting picked up at Conservative movement-affiliated camps and youth group gatherings as well.
"Mi Chamocha" (Who is Like You, God?) came to Debbie while she was strumming the America song "A Horse With No Name," which was a hit that year. "Playing the chords it just turned into Mi Chamocha," she says.
Soon after that, in 1973, a Reform rabbi she met at the camp, who also had a synagogue in Chicago, commissioned her to compose a Chanukah cantata for his congregation. "He said 'I don't want what happened to Irving Berlin to happen to you,' " she remembers. "He said 'I want you to continue to write Jewish music and stay with us.' "
It was with the help of that rabbi, Sam Karff, that she put out her first two albums, Sing Unto God and Not By Might, Not By Power.
During a discussion group at a Reform youth group winter regional gathering, in her early 20s, Debbie was noodling around with her guitar and wrote "Not By Might, Not By Power." At a similar conclave, sitting on the floor, she wrote "Im Tirtzu." (If You Will It).
Also in 1973, an uncle of Debbie's died and she wrote a suite composed of 7 songs to comfort her aunt and cousins. The suite was based on Song of Songs entitled Arise My Love and included "Kumi Lach," "Arise My Love" and "Dodi Li," (My Beloved is Mine) among others. "Arise My Love" was the first song she wrote for that suite, taking it straight out of the Shir HaShirim text."
Debbie wrote a new version of the prayer for travelers, "Tfilat Haderech," because she found its traditional language too negative. "I love the idea of having a blessing when we go on our way, but hated how negative it was, so I just flipped it around," she says.
One of her earliest songs not based directly on Torah or prayer book text was "Sing Unto God." The inspiration for that came from her experience in her high school choir, where they had sung a distinctly Christian song based on that theme. Debbie had moved back to Minnesota and was working at a department store. "I'd take no lunch or coffee breaks and would go teach music at my alma mater with the plan that I was going to make a demo tape," she says.
While today the Reform movement is more traditionally oriented, in many ways, than it was when Debbie started out, she was responsible for integrating some of Judaism's traditional elements back into it.
Take the idea of the messiah, for instance—someone whose arrival traditional Jews pray for each day. Debbie was working at Reform movement Camp Swig in the mid 1970s, and on Mondays they abstained from meat in order to raise campers' consciousness about world hunger. "I was thinking about looking at someone else's life, and how you have to put yourself in other people's place. You have to have an awareness of everyone around you," Debbie says. That led her to write "Ani Ma-amin" ("I Believe"), the opening lines of a traditional Jewish prayer about believing with perfect faith in the coming of moshiach.
She also brought to the Reform worship the petition of God known as the "Mi Shebeirach," which asks God for blessings and peppers traditional Jewish liturgy While it is a traditional prayer, it has in recent years received more focus in Conservative and Reform services, In many congregations rabbis pause the service to ask people to say out loud the names of people in need of healing, or to hold them in their minds, and then the prayer is sung, often Debbie's version.
Debbie wrote one of her most beloved compositions, a melody for the traditional plea for peace, "Oseh Shalom," in 1981. "I was just sitting at the piano and it just came," Debbie says. "This is one of my most popular songs. It has a little bit of that chassidische flavor."
In everything she writes, Debbie integrates a feminist perspective, adding in references to the Biblical matriarchs and references to God in feminized Hebrew language.
Celebrating women, and filling in the white lines in between the black letters of living Torah, where women's voices and experiences are absent from our traditional texts, has spurred Debbie to write many of her best-loved songs. She is the first female composer to contribute significantly to popular Jewish liturgy.
When two friends of hers, Savina Teubal and Marcia Cohen Spiegel, decided to mark their 60th birthdays by creating a new ritual called a "Simchat Chochmah," or Celebration of Wisdom, Debbie wrote music to accompany them, songs which today are among her best-loved and most often sung.
For Savina Teubal's ritual, which was in 1986 and is believed to be the first Simchat Chochmah ever held, Debbie wrote "Bruchot HaBaot," "L'chi Lach" and "Kadish D'Rabanan" (The Rabbis' Blessing).
For Marcia Cohn Speigel's ceremony Debbie wrote "Miriam's Song" and "Mi Shebeirach," which today are sung at just about every women's and feminist seder, and Jewish healing service and baby girl's welcoming ritual around.
"The morning of the event I went to the traditional text and just translated it," Debbie recalls. "We held the tallis up to make a chuppa so that people could come and stand under it. When we asked the congregation if anyone wanted to come under the tallis, like 150 people came up. That's the day that the Jewish healing movement began. I have goose bumps even now," Debbie says.
"It was the day people said aloud I need help, I need healing."
That movement has taken off, with Jewish spiritual healing groups in several cities from the San Francisco Bay area to New York. In Manhattan each month for the last decade Debbie, with Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, has run a Jewish spiritual healing gathering where she sings and people—dealing with challenges like cancer and depression—come to join her in song and meditation, and leave feeling strengthened and consoled. They began at Congregation Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side, moved to the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, another synagogue, when Rabbi Strassfeld switched congregations and are now held at the Jewish Community Center of New York.
"I'm deeply moved by some of the things people say to me, like when they get their chemotherapy they listen to the Mi Shebeirach, or that their child died or their leg got amputated, and that in some way my music helps them get through it," Debbie says. "You just don't ever know what people are going through."
Her sweet song "The Angels' Blessing," which is based on the bedtime prayers, was written on the occasion of a women's gathering in Los Angeles with writer Esther Broner and others. "Esther was using that text for a talk and that morning I wrote the song." Debbie says. "It percolates for a long time and never comes out until the last minute."
Of her song "V'sham'ru," Debbie says "I don't know where this song came from but it haunts me. That one just comes pouring out of my kishkes. I was living in Los Angeles, sitting at home, and it just happened. I cried when I sang it, but then I got myself together."
"You Are The One," written in the early 1990s, is one of her favorite songs, Debbie says, even though it centers on seeing God reflected through nature and "I don't like to be outside. I'm allergic and I'm Jewish, and my idea of a good time is to be inside with air conditioning," she says, laughing.
A close friend who worked as a naturalist and park ranger showed Debbie prayers written by Reb Nachman of Bratslav who died in 1810 at the age of 38, and taught through parables and stories which are still studied by many today.
Like so many of her songs, "Modim" popped out of Debbie fully formed. She was teaching about the traditional Amidah portion of the prayer service at a Jewish educators' conference. "I didn't have a melody for it and the people I was teaching with wanted one, so I left the room and went into the hall. Seven minutes later I came back in with this. We were all just hysterical laughing. I played it and people there recorded it for me. It became a very powerful piece," she says.
The song "Al Tasteir (Don't Hide Your Face)," which she based on Psalm 27, is a particularly personal song for Debbie. "It's a response to the internal chaos that reflects the chaos in the world.
There continue to be times in my life when I hope that God won t turn away from me. Particularly because I need the strength and the wisdom to be able to know how to do this work," she says. "Before I do a concert I sit in the back room and ask God to help me find the right words, tell God 'I need You to help me to find the way to find the right words to reach these people and help bring Your words and Your life to them.'"
Debbie wrote the song "Build This World Together" for Maynard Wishner, who had been leading the Jewish federation movement but in 1995 was too ill to attend its annual convention. "This is what he stood for," Debbie says of her friend, who died not long after. I took little pieces of text and linked them together."
The song "Light These Lights," which some people sing before they light Shabbat and holiday candles, was written while Debbie was in Manhattan—this was in 1995, before she moved to New York—staying at a hotel before leading one of the early feminist seders run by Mayan: The Jewish Women's Project of the Jewish Community Center of New York.
"I heard the tekhinah they were using," she says of one of the informal prayers written by devoutly pious women, "and I just sat on the bed and it just came out, just poured out of me. I just played it and it came out the way it is," she says.
The Ma'yan-run feminist seders, which ended in 2005 after attracting thousands of women (and a few men) over several nights each year in New York, quickly became synonymous with Debbie's music.
Now it is sung by literally thousands more women each year in the women's and feminist seders run all over North America by synagogues, Jewish community centers and women's Torah study groups.
A few years back there was a remarkable sight to see at the largest annual Jewish convention. Over a thousand convention-goers in business suits packed into a ballroom and swayed arm-in-arm as they sang Debbie's prayer for healing, the "Mi Shebeirach," leaving some of them unexpectedly teary-eyed.
It was a jolting charge to the spiritual batteries for many of those at the General Assembly of United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for local Jewish federations, a meeting which is usually just a mass meeting of technocrats, funders and fundees.
Singing Debbie's music together "was like being cleansed inside," said Marci Erlebacher, an employee of the Syracuse, New York Jewish federation, at the time.
One of the newer songs on this album, "The Water In The Well," has a funky salsa-like beat. It came out of Debbie's reading through "The Book of Legends," the exhaustive compilation of rabbinic commentaries, extracted from the Talmud and arranged by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky published first in Odessa in 1809.
The well of water which Jewish tradition tells us followed the prophetess Miriam through her travels in the desert, sustaining the Israelites after they fled Egypt and its enslavement, is said to have dried up when she died. Commentaries in "The Book of Legends" say that the figs and vines dried up without her well to sustain them. "I think everybody has a little piece of Miriam's well with us," Debbie says. "That's part of our connectedness" to the Jews of the past and our shared history.
Debbie has also written some popular Jewish music for children—her English and Hebrew versions of the Alef-Bet Song, "The Latke Song" and The Dreidel Song" among them. Her music has been licensed to several kid-related video projects, including Hanukkah Tales & Tunes and a Barney in Concert video, in which the peripatetic purple dinosaur sings "The Alef Bet Song."
The Tree of Life division of Hallmark has even published Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah and all-occasion greeting cards featuring excerpts of Debbie's lyrics.
Debbie celebrated the 25th anniversary of her singing-songwriting career by performing at three consecutive sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall, where she prompted people to put their arms around one another and embrace each other as they swayed to her moving music. Not every performer can turn her first appearance in the august and storied concert hall into such an intimate experience.
In addition to performing at between 40 and 50 concerts in a typical year, Debbie is also taking her music and message overseas. In the summer of 2004 she went with Project Kesher and about 150 American Jewish women to the former Soviet Union, where they met with about another 100 women there, and Debbie sang for them on the Volga River.
She has, of course, been invited as a cantorial soloist at synagogues throughout the country and at many of them, her music is now part of their regular liturgy. But her influence is not confined to the Jewish sphere–along with Jewish schools and camps, churches and their music and youth groups also use Debbie's music for teaching and worship.
Debbie is the founder of Hava Nashira, an annual song-leading workshop at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, and has taught on the faculty at special programs run by a diverse set of institutions, including the Duke University Divinity School, Brandeis University, Franklin Pierce College and the Kalsman Institute at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
She is also one of the few women appointed to the Honorary Committee for the Celebration of 350 Years of Jews in North America. Among the other awards she has been given are the prestigious Covenant Award for outstanding contributions to Jewish education, the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in Performing Arts from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Jewish Fund for Justice's Women of Valor award.
Lo Bashamayim He. This line from Deuteronomy tells us that the Torah is not in heaven but here on earth. With her singular combination of divine gifts, an angelic voice, an open heart and feet firmly on the ground, Debbie bridges that span. And through the music she brings us—she is quick to call herself a vessel, a conduit—we cross that bridge, too. "I love that I've been given the reward of being the shlichah (emissary) of this music, honest to God," she says. "I get to see people's faces, their tears and their joy too. It's a great trip, you know?"
– Debra Nussbaum Cohen, July 2005