DEBBIE FRIEDMAN'S SPIRITUAL UNDERTAKING

By Lisa Alcalay Klug
The Jerusalem Post
Article published: Friday, December 12, 2004

When Debbie Friedman began singing opera music at 18 months old, little did her mother know her daughter would one day help inspire a new academic requirement for Reform cantorial students.

Or that she would ultimately be named an honorary member of the Reform movement's Conference of Cantors. These events, as well as Friedman's remarkable influence on contemporary liturgical Jewish music are revealed in a new feature-length, independent documentary entitled "A Journey of Spirit."

The film's Israeli debut is scheduled for 9:15 PM on December 13, as part of the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

Largely self-financed by director, writer and producer Ann Coppel, the film was six years in the making, at least officially. Coppel first met Friedman back in 1971 when the singer/songwriter worked as Coppel's camp song leader. From her start in Reform movement summer camps, Friedman, 53 has gone on to an illustrious career, recording 19 albums over 30 years and performing three concerts at Carnegie Hall. Rather than focusing solely on her achievements, however, “A Journey of Spirit” is true to its name. Stemming from a Friedman song, Journey tells the odyssey Friedman unknowingly launched when she began composing, teaching and inspiring others to sing her songs.

When Coppel and other campers returned to their Reform synagogues, they began demanding the introduction of songs they could actually sing. In time, the growing popularity of Friedman's songs became the focal point of an intense conflict continuing to this day. Supporters of a sing-a-long fold style music reject the grand operatic style of some Reform temples, with prayers typically performed in a "high church" style by cantors accompanied by organs. As Friedman explains, she doesn't advocate abandoning "nusach," traditional synagogue melodies, but she also wants to reach out to those Jews who do not understand Hebrew and who might otherwise not connect in any way to the liturgy.

Coppel decided to make the film after attending a screen writing workshop and visiting Friedman - with whom she has maintained a friendship since their camp days - in New York City.

Friedman "opens my heart," explained Coppel, who makes a cameo appearance in the documentary.

In a phone interview while promoting the film in Madison, WI Coppel said: "Debbie is a hero to so many people and to me, too. In the film, we find out a number of people who appreciate her gender-neutral language and making sure that women's voices are heart... She has also struggled with some medical issues."

Three main themes emerge in the film, community, spirituality and healing. Viewers soon discover the remarkable, widespread appeal of Friedman's songs and her ability as a performer to bring strangers together, arm in arm, in song. Her humor and evident spirituality readily connect audiences at her concerts and participants at her healing services and teaching workshops.

And interviews with rabbis, cantors, educators and musicians speak further of the depth and power of her music and the tension between old and new liturgy. Viewers also see how Friedman's music touches individuals in need of healing, including a young girl who suffers from multiple illnesses, including a marked anxiety disorder.

Viewers may also be surprised to learn of the misdiagnosis and mismedication of a physical condition that has affected Friedman's muscle control. Viewers see Friedman in the gym with her physical therapist who explains that the illness causes her muscles to stiffen uncontrollably. By the end of the film, however, we see Friedman moving freely on stage.

At another point in the film, when speaking about the therapeutic value of her work, Friedman becomes so overwhelmed with emotion that she stop mid-sentence, puts her hand to her heart, pauses and begins again. She tells the camera, "To know that some tormented child finds comfort in my work makes this tormented child...[pause] it calms me."

From her home on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Friedman said, "What I find most meaningful 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? That is the ultimate gift."
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