Sad farewell to Limmud singer Debbie Friedman

By Simon Rocker, January 13, 2011
Debbie Friedman in what was her last concert, at Limmud two weeks ago

Debbie Friedman in what was her last concert, at Limmud two weeks ago

Tributes have been paid to Debbie Friedman, the influential American Jewish songwriter who died suddenly on Sunday.

Aged 59, she had been admitted to hospital in California just a few days after returning from her last appearances at the Limmud conference in Coventry.

Her melodies, setting traditional Jewish liturgy to folk tunes, left their mark on synagogue music, particulary among Progressive communities, in the course of a career covering 35 years and more than 20 albums.

Cantor Zoe Jacobs, from Finchley Reform Synagogue in London, said: "Jewish musicians can be considered renowned when their melodies are no longer attributed to their name, but are considered the 'traditional melody'. Debbie's niggun (melody) for the havdalah brachot, among other melodies, have achieved this level of renown, even cross-denominationally."

Limmud chair Carolyn Bogush said: "She made a big impact on so many people from a wide range of different Jewish backgrounds during the times she came over to participate in, teach at and perform for, Limmud events in the UK.

"It was amazing to see her on the last night of conference, jamming in the bar at 3am with a bunch of people who she'd only just met, but who she felt were part of the same community."

Educator Robbie Gringras, who now lives in Israel, recalled her appearance at Limmud in 1994 when she created "an astonishing ad hoc choir of Brits who sang to the heavens with a freedom and joy that I'd never heard in the UK".

Another expatriate, Rabbi Deborah Silver, who is now based in California, said: "Perhaps the greatness of Debbie Friedman's music is the way that one learns it by osmosis. You attend a service or a ritual, and find yourself humming along to a tune that it feels you always knew - and only later do you realise that, once again, your prayers have been shaped by this sweetest of singers."

Natalie Grazin, a long time Limmud activist and member of Assif, a Masorti egalitarian minyan in London, said she first heard her sing at Limmud in 1994. She added: "Her music changed my life and my understanding of prayer.

"It was so hard to believe that someone we had the privilege of joking with, who sang to our children and who was so open and real in talking to us so recently at Limmud conference only two weeks ago has now gone."

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of America's Union for Reform Judaism, described the songwriter as "an extraordinary treasure".

Last updated: 1:01pm, January 13 2011