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Jewish bard featured in documentary film

Singer Debbie Friedman. (Michael Fox Photography )

Singer Debbie Friedman. (Michael Fox Photography )

BERKELEY, Calif., April 6 (JTA) — Debbie Friedman began singing while she was still in diapers. By the time she became a songleader in the 1970s at Reform movement summer camps, she was already on her way to becoming hugely popular. Friedman’s rousing, sing-along style quickly caught on, slowly turning her into a household name. Now in her early 50s, Friedman has had an illustrious career: She has recorded 19 albums over 30 years and appeared at Carnegie Hall three times. And now there’s a movie about her. The documentary “Journey of the Spirit” is being shown throughout the United States and Canada at synagogues, special screenings and Jewish film festivals. Friedman is still hard at work, with a list of albums on her to-do list and upcoming performances listed online at DebbieFriedman.com. Her distributor also markets her songbooks, hats and even Hallmark cards featuring lyrics from her songs. Few Jewish performer have sold as many albums as Friedman. “If I were to add up all the sales of Jewish musicians, Debbie would surpass them all,” distributor Randee Friedman, who is not related to the singer, told JTA. Over the years, however, a controversy has been simmering among critics who oppose the introduction of Friedman’s folk-style songs into the synagogue service. It’s this little-known story that is at the heart of “Journey of Spirit.” Based on a song by the same name, the film tells how Friedman’s life unfolded as she began composing, teaching and inspiring others to sing her songs. The film largely was self-financed by Ann Coppel, the director, writer and producer. It was six years in the making, but its seeds were planted much longer ago: Coppel and Friedman met in 1971 when Coppel was a camper and Friedman her songleader. When Coppel and other campers returned to their Reform temples, they began demanding the introduction of songs they could sing — Friedman’s songs. In time, the growing popularity of Friedman’s music provoked intense conflict that continues to this day. Supporters of Friedman’s music, with its folk-song feel, reject the grand operatic style used in some Reform temples, with prayers performed in a “high-church” style by cantors accompanied by organs. As Friedman explains, she doesn’t advocate abandoning the nusach — traditional synagogue melodies — but she also wants to reach out to Jews who don’t understand Hebrew and otherwise might not feel any connection to the liturgy. Coppel began the film after attending a screenwriting workshop and visiting Friedman, with whom she has maintained a friendship since their camp days. “Debbie is a hero to so many people, and to me, too,” Coppel told JTA. “In the film, we find a number of people who appreciate her gender-neutral language and making sure that women’s voices are heard.” Some of Friedman’s most popular songs, including “Lechi Lach,” and “Mishaberach,” use parallel male and female terms. Other classic Friedman hits, such as “Not By Might,” carry a message of hope and faith. Though she’s not an ordained cantor, Friedman has inspired a new academic requirement for Reform cantorial students — a course in guitar. She also has been named an honorary member of the Reform movement’s Conference of Cantors. But her focus is on creating community, spirituality and healing: She displays a remarkable ability to bring strangers together, arm in arm, in song. Her humor and evident spirituality allow her to connect easily with audiences at her concerts and participants at her healing services and teaching workshops. Her songs touch people in need of healing. On screen, Friedman talks about a misdiagnosis of a medical condition, and the inappropriate responses that she then took, which affected her mobility. She talks about a young girl, also shown in the film, who suffers from an anxiety disorder and other conditions. “To know that some tormented child finds comfort in my work makes this tormented child,” she says, stopping in mid-sentence. Overcome with emotion, she drops the sentence and begins anew. “It calms me,” she finally says. What she finds most meaningful in her work, Friedman told JTA from her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “is that people are able to use my music for their own healing and well being, that they can find comfort in it. “Who could ask for more than that?” Friedman asks. “That’s the ultimate gift.”

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