Debbie Friedman on the Jewish new wave

Debbie Friedman on the Jewish new wave

Debbie Friedman has now produced ‘4 albums — she thinks.
She has to check, because everything gets confusing when you run around the world as much as she does. During the last couple of weeks alone, she’s had to deal with two concerts, family stuff, recording, and travel to other lands. She’s been doing this for 35 years.

But Friedman, who just finished her latest album, will make a stop at Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Shalom this week, where friends and fans will pay her tribute and singers who have been inspired by her music will honor her.

Debbie Friedman

It seems like only yesterday that Debbie was pioneering new standards for Jewish music, opening the tent, and spreading the word through innovations in Jewish song.

Influenced by folk singers of the ’60s and ’70s such as Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell, her work has always been first and foremost liturgical, traditional, and Jewishly inspirational. And it’s been heard everywhere. Even if you don’t know of Debbie Friedman, you probably know a Debbie Friedman tune or two.

Though there are those who have followed in Friedman’s path, Jewish music today, especially that aimed at Generation X and Gen-Y, pulls pop culture into Jewish music — from gospel and reggae to rap and rock, heavy metal, disco, and world music. From Matisyahu to Madonna, everyone is getting in on the act. (Debbie says she heard good things about Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor.)

So the Standard asked Debbie about what is going on. What does she think about this new phase?

Friedman is careful and measured about her answer because she understands it.

"The new wave of music is reflective of the times and indicative of the fact that people are exploring new ways of expression and connecting with their Judaism," she says.

But does she like it?

"As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter if I like the new liturgical music now being composed," she says. "It matters whether people can connect to the music because of their own tastes and their own needs. We are not all the same.-If listeners link to something Jewish within it some way — if they can somehow embrace the tradition — that is what is essential. Even the most traditional understanding of liturgy these days is deeper and different, and it means liturgy is no longer done just by rote."

And what about Matisyahu’s Judeo-reggae?

Debbie isn’t phased by it. She appreciates the variety and the spice new Jewish music offers.

"I hate that people make blanket statements about things that they know little about. Most preconceived notions are misinformed and do damage," she says. "We need to look at what inspires…most new things that happen out in the world, the most creative things, are inspired by experience…it’s all about the inspiration and the young people.

"What chutzpah it would be for me to say that this or that belongs in a service or a synagogue or doesn’t. Let the kids go crazy over these bands, it gets them excited about Judaism and that’s not a bad thing. It’s much better than being passive, disinterested, and numb. At least they are engaged in something that has value and engages them in life, and that’s something that sets some standards.

"For me, the people are the inspiration, and for sure, the young people are a huge source of inspiration and hope. The wellspring, the mayan of my existence, is seeing and hearing people respond to the music with the sounds of their voices. It doesn’t matter what they sing, as long as they sing."

And where should the singing lead?

"I think that our mission," she concludes, "our naaseh venishma, [the Jews’ promise to God at Sinai] is going out there and doing the tikkun, [the fixing of the world] not just for ourselves, but l’olam [for the world and forever]. It’s about making the whole world better.

"Whatever we can do to help people embrace their Judaism, that’s what we need to do. And we also need to let people know that there is a potential to be embraced by Jewish tradition, as well. It demands of us to behave like decent human beings toward one another, and if that is the ultimate message of the music and being a Jew, then there’s no problem."

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