Jewish Studies Debbie Friedman
Judah M. Cohen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0195


Song leader, composer, and liturgist Debbie Friedman (also Deborah Lynn Friedman, b. 1951–d. 2011) played a significant role in liberal American Jewish music circles over a career that began in the late 1960s, and ended with her premature death from pneumonia on 9 January 2011. Born in Utica, New York, Friedman grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she premiered her service Sing Unto God in 1972 with the choir from her alma mater, Highland Park High School. In the era just before American Jewish seminaries accepted women into cantorial training programs, Friedman parlayed her work with youth groups and summer camps into broader professional opportunities. A season at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin, led to an artist-in-residence position at Chicago Sinai congregation (1972–1977). From there she moved on to positions as a youth group leader at Houston’s Congregation Beth Israel (1978–1984); cantor/soloist at The New Reform Congregation in southern California’s San Fernando Valley (1984–1987); and co-leader of monthly healing services on New York City’s Upper West Side in the 1990s and 2000s. In addition to an active concertizing career, Friedman recorded twenty-two albums, many of which comprised complete, multipart, religious rituals created in collaboration with progressive religious organizations. Although Friedman’s music has become ubiquitous in liberal Jewish settings around the world, scholarship has proceeded slowly due to ambivalence about Friedman’s lack of formal Jewish music training, perceptions of her “outsider” status related to Jewish institutional life, and concerns that the more popular style of her music symbolized spiritual shallowness—matters made more complicated by Friedman’s own repeated claims that she could not read sheet music. Even when New York’s Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music hired Friedman to instruct its cantorial students in 2007, and when the school itself officially took Friedman’s name just after her death, due to a sizeable anonymous donation in her memory, concerns about her role as a representative of Jewish musical tradition persisted. Thus, most research on Friedman tends to focus on historical and social issues, while struggling to address her music on its own terms. The entries in this article consequently include a significant number of primary and journalistic sources useful for future scholarship.


As of summer 2019, scholarly literature on Debbie Friedman is small but growing, a likely result of the continued complications in connecting Friedman to hegemonic cantorial history-based narratives, a persistent view of Friedman’s music as an extension of youth culture, a paucity of primary written musical materials, and the sexism implicit in these framing criteria. Scholars have subsequently sought analytical approaches that acknowledge her musical contributions while focusing on other sociohistorical frameworks, including women’s music, ritual theory, local Jewish history, and healing. The earliest of these efforts, Dreyfus 2001, is an analysis of concert-based recordings. Later writings have sought to understand Friedman through her work with Reform Jewish populations (Edelman 2013), liberal British populations (Kahn-Harris 2011), and the women’s music movement (Ross 2016). Cohen 2015 and Cohen 2017 present Friedman’s life and career episodically, in St. Paul and Chicago, respectively, as part of a larger biographical project. Lipstadt 2014 crystallizes Friedman’s place as a center of controversy between “folk” and “art” advocates in synagogue music. Sered 2005 and Sermer 2014 address Friedman’s work as part of larger American Jewish trends to develop healing rituals in the late 20th century.

  • Cohen, Judah M. “Sing Unto God: Debbie Friedman and the Changing Sound of Jewish Liturgical Music.” Contemporary Jewry 35 (2015): 13–34.

    DOI: 10.1007/s12397-014-9127-9

    Provides background on Friedman’s early life and career in St. Paul, Minnesota, up through the debut of her first service and subsequent album Sing Unto God. In the process, tries to understand the role of scholarship in considering Friedman complex status at the meeting point of literacy and orality.

  • Cohen, Judah M. “Higher Education: Debbie Friedman in Chicago.” Journal of Jewish Identities 10.1 (2017): 7–26.

    DOI: 10.1353/jji.2017.0002

    A chronicle of Debbie Friedman’s career in Chicago from 1972 to 1978, which also addresses the forgotten, short-lived institutions and initiatives that supported her work and professional development. Features discussions of Friedman’s dance service Not By Might, Not By Power and materials from her album Ani Ma’amin.

  • Dreyfus, Benjamin William. “‘Hear the Echo of Miriam’s Song’: American Nusach in Concert.” In Studies in Jewish Musical Traditions: Insights from the Harvard Collection of Judaica Sound Recordings. Edited by Kay Kaufman Shelemay, 33–50. Harvard Judaica Collection Student Research Papers 7. Cambridge, MA: Harvard College Library, 2001.

    The earliest article in this section by a decade, occasioned by a Harvard seminar in the autumn of 1999 exploring the holdings of its library’s Judaica Sound Archive. Using the term “American nusach,” implying an organic development of post–World War II folk-style Jewish religious music, Dreyfus analyzes seven recordings from 1983 to 1997, six of which feature Friedman. In so doing, he argues for a connection between concert and prayer experiences as related rituals.

  • Edelman, Joshua A. “The Debbie Friedman Problem: Performing Tradition, Memory, and Modernity in Progressive Jewish Liturgy.” Liturgy 28.1 (2013): 6–17.

    DOI: 10.1080/0458063X.2012.724311

    An insightful article addressing the ways that liberal Jewish congregations use Debbie Friedman’s music, even as it overstates the extent to which Friedman’s work drew on summer camp culture.

  • Frühauf, Tina. Experiencing Jewish Music in America: A Listener’s Companion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

    See pp. 5–11 in the broader introductory chapter. Frühauf positions Friedman’s career as one case study for opening up a discussion of American Jewish music, right after New York’s Shearith Israel congregation and before Shlomo Carlebach.

  • Kahn-Harris, Keith. “Jews United and Divided: Contemporary Jewish Music in the UK and America.” In Religion and Popular Music in Europe: New Expressions of Sacred and Secular Identity. Edited by Thomas Bosius, Andreas Hagar, and Keith Kahn-Harris, 71–91. London: I. B. Tauris, 2011.

    A welcome study of Debbie Friedman and the reception of her music in the United Kingdom, with specific comparisons to the United States.

  • Lipstadt, Deborah E. “‘And It Not Be Stilled’: The Legacy of Debbie Friedman.” In Between Jewish Tradition and Modernity: Rethinking an Old Opposition; Essays in Honor of David Ellenson. Edited by Michael A. Meyer and David N. Myers, 110–122. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014.

    Written by a friend and colleague of Friedman’s, who recounts her career as a paradigm for thinking about larger debates between cantors and song leaders in Jewish musical life. Meticulously researched, including interviews with several of Friedman’s close associates, and incisively argued.

  • Ross, Sarah M. “Who Sings Unto God? Pioneer Feminist Jewish Singer-Songwriters in the United States.” In A Season of Singing: Creating Feminist Jewish Music in the United States. By Sarah M. Ross, 39–76. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2016.

    Ross addresses Friedman as the first in a series of short scholarly biographies preceding a larger ethnographic study of Jewish American women’s music.

  • Sered, Susan S. “Healing as Resistance: Reflections upon New Forms of American Jewish Healing.” In Religion and Healing in America. Edited by Linda L. Barnes and Susan S. Sered, 231–252. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    An article by an accomplished scholar of gender and medical anthropology that surveys liberal American Jewish healing rituals, including significant discussion of Friedman’s contributions.

  • Sermer, Tanya. “Jewish Spiritual Healing, Mi Shebeirach, and the Legacy of Debbie Friedman.” In Soundscapes of Wellbeing in Popular Music. Edited by Gavin J. Andrews, Paul Kingsbury, and Robin Kearns, 77–88. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014.

    Provides a context for one of Friedman’s best known songs, “Mi Shebeirach,” and addresses its role in popularizing healing rituals among liberal American Jews.

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