Few musicians alive can be credited with almost single-handedly birthing an entire subgenre of music, but Jewish folk-singer Debbie Friedman is certainly one of them. Long before the appearance of popular Jewish rockers like Rick Recht, she became the best-selling, most beloved performer of Jewish traditional music from the baby-boomer generation.
Prior to Friedman, most Jewish music was perceived to come in only two forms, both originating in Europe: klezmer for weddings and bar mitzvahs, and cantorial liturgy for the synagogue. As a Jewish summer-camp counselor in Oconomowoc, Wis., Friedman picked up an acoustic guitar and began singing the prayers in the American vernacular of the day, using a folk style similar to Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Peter Paul & Mary. With the same fervor for social justice as these boomer-folk icons, she added a spiritual dimension, and by 1972 had released Sing Unto God. It was a different, deeply religious response to the struggles of the Vietnam era, dedicated to "all those people who have helped me come closer to my Judaism, who have deepened my appreciation of life ... to those who stand for peace."
Friedman has since amassed a discography of more than 20 albums of folk songs -- some especially for children, or specific holidays such as Hanukkah. But for their Jewish content, many wouldn't sound out of place on Triple-A radio next to the Indigo Girls. Her tunes reverberate in Friday-night Reform Jewish services (which don't forbid music on the Sabbath, unlike the more traditional denominations) across North America, especially her version of "Mi Shebeirach," which also appeared on an episode of the TV series Strong Healing.
She's needed a bit of that divine healing herself, having suffered the debilitation of multiple sclerosis, which inspired director Ann Coppel to make a movie in 2006 about Friedman's life called Journey of Spirit. Although she's never been officially ordained as a cantor, her music is now studied along with more traditional cantillations, and last year she accepted a post on the faculty of Hebrew Union College (the main seminary for the Reform movement).
A modern, feminist incarnation of King David -- the original Biblical workhorse of the Psalms -- Friedman has returned to a full performance schedule, including her Sat., May 3, appearance at Pittsburgh's Temple Sinai, honoring the 20th anniversary of its rabbi, James Gibson.
She also recently released yet another uplifting album called One People, which according to her Web site is about "the wish to acknowledge that what we share in common is far greater than what differentiates us." She's still 100 percent dedicated to the core Jewish value of tikkun olam ("repairing the world"). While it makes one wish that widening ideological chasms in the Middle East could be bridged through the simple application of music, in real life, it's never that easy.
Debbie Friedman. 7:45 p.m. Sat., May 3. Temple Sinai, 5505 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. $25 ($18 students/$10 children). 412-421-9715
- Cantillations: Debbie Friedman