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01/10/2011

Jewish folk singer Debbie Friedman dies at 59

January 10, 2011 | 12:14 pm

Debbie Friedman, a folk singer who set Jewish prayers to contemporary music and created songs that are sung in synagogues throughout the world, has died. She was 59.

Debbie Friedman died Sunday at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, said Jerry Kaye, a family spokesman.

Friedman had returned to California from England, where she was teaching and performing, before going into the hospital on Jan. 3 with breathing problems diagnosed as pneumonia, Kaye said.

"It turned into some sort of infection," he said. "She was a musician and a composer and traveled a great deal and fatigue is a normal course of that lifestyle."

Friedman began composing songs in high school, and her first albums came out in the 1970s. She combined traditional Jewish liturgies with folk music style, using lyrics in Hebrew and English.

"She was looking for ways to better understand them herself and by doing that, she made it so much more available to anyone," Kaye said.

Folk music was a natural approach.

"She grew up in the heyday of folk music and came from the Twin Cities, St. Paul, [Minn.], the home of Bob Dylan, that whole crowd," he said.

Her songs are heard in Reform synagogues, some Conservative synagogues and even in some Orthodox houses of worship, Kaye said.

"Twenty-five years ago, North American Jews had forgotten how to sing," Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a statement. "Debbie reminded us how to sing, she taught us how to sing. She gave us the vehicles that enabled us to sing."

Friedman made some 20 albums and performed at Carnegie Hall and around the world.

At the time of her death, she was working on a new album and teaching at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's School of Sacred Music.

She moved back to California last summer to live closer to her mother and sister and taught at the school's Los Angeles campus but had planned to return to New York briefly to teach a course, according to the school's website.

"It was kol isha (the voice of women) for col isha (every woman) that inspired me to write inclusive music," Friedman said in a statement cited on the website. "It is beneficial not only for women, but for men and children as well. ... The more our voices are heard in song, the more we become our lyrics, our prayers, and our convictions."

Kaye said Friedman is survived by her mother, Freda Friedman of Laguna Hills, and two sisters, Cheryl of Laguna Hills and Barbara of St. Paul, Minn.

A funeral was scheduled Tuesday at Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana.

More later at latimes.com/obits.

-- Associated Press

Photo: Debbie Friedman

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