Debbie Friedman was certainly one of the most popular creators of Jewish music, given her prolific output of recordings, the extremely spiritual content of her compositions, and her innovative dabbling in self-publishing. She was also a teacher and cantor at the New Reform Congregation in Los Angeles, CA, and directed the music program at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowac, WI, creating an annual songleading and music workshop there entitled Hava Nashira. Her involvement with various educational institutions produced an extensive series of credits. Friedman's spiritually driven ambition seemed to have no limits, leading her to projects as ambitious as the direction of a 300-person chorale.
Friedman's original musical influences came from the American popular folk music scene of the '60s and '70s, including big names such as Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell. Thus, two musical aspects that are distinctly non-Jewish, the influence of both Appalachian and country & western music, impacted the Friedman sound that has had a massive influence on younger Jewish singers and songwriters. The Friedman song repertoire is basically fully integrated into much of the American synagogue liturgy, to the point that in many congregations it is considered traditional. Jewish children commonly grow up learning the Hebrew alphabet from Friedman songs, which are used in churches, schools, camps and community centers. This material has been extensively licensed on recordings, videos, songbooks, prayer books, haggadahs, textbooks, teaching manuals, children's books, healing publications, new rituals, and self-help books, not to mention Internet websites.
One hardly has to enter a synagogue in order to encounter Friedman, in other words. The Hallmark company marketed a series of greeting cards based on her lyrics, yet this sort of tasteful merchandising scheme was not the heart of her musical activity. This would have to be her emotionally stirring concerts, in which she appeared both solo and with the backing of a trio. While she often performed at the national conventions of major Jewish organizations, she also appeared at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall, where she recorded a live CD in 1996. "Mi Shebeirach," a song of healing, is one of the most beautiful numbers that have appeared on some 20 Friedman releases. Suffering from a neurological disorder from the 1990s onward, Debbie Friedman nevertheless remained active and an inspiration to many during the first decade of the new millennium. She died from pneumonia on January 9, 2011 in Orange County, CA at 59 years of age.