Login  |  Register

Donate to JWI!


Debbie Friedman’s Transformative Havdalah Melody

The late songwriter’s melody for the Havdalah ceremony swept through Jewish communities and camps like wildfire, inspiring other songwriters and igniting an interest in the ritual that is still being felt.

By Elicia Brown
Winter 2011

Since Debbie Friedman’s death in January 2011, at age of 59, much has been written about the influence of the singer-songwriter, of how she transformed Jewish music, of how, even while she lay in a hospital bed dying, her friends regaled her with the now ubiquitous songs of healing she’d composed.

As Jews continue to celebrate Friedman’s legacy—this month, for example, marks the dedication of the Debbie Friedman Sacred School of Music at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion —it may be worth casting a spotlight on Friedman’s impact on a single weekly ritual: Havdalah.

Some 35 years ago, the young Friedman wrote a melody for what was then a little-known ceremony outside of Orthodox communities. And almost immediately, Friedman’s majestic tune swept through Jewish communities and camps like wildfire, igniting a revolutionary change in the nature of the Havdalah ritual itself. Eventually, that tune inspired a movement: Havdalah pajama parties, Havdalah b’nai mitzvahs, and seminal moments at Jewish camps typified by large circles of swaying children bidding farewell to Shabbat with a lakeside song. Today, the melody has been adopted by communities as far afield as Cuba and Uganda, and often is mistaken for an ancient tune of unknown origins.

The tune permeates many segments of American Jewry, including some sectors of Orthodox Judaism. Here is a spirited rendition of Debbie Friedman’s tune for the blessings of Havdalah, delivered at a 2008 gathering of NCSY, National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Union’s youth group. (Friedman’s melody follows the sadder but also poignant melody of Shlomo Carlebach for “Hinei Yeshuati,” which traditionally precedes the blessings of Havdalah): 

The singer/songwriter Aviva Chernick, who has herself led a rousing call-and-response “Havdalah chant,” focused on the single word “Hinei” or “Behold,” says that when she hears Friedman’s Havadalah, it transports her to Saturday nights of the 1980s at Camp Ramah in Canada. She thinks of “friendship, swaying, darkness.” Also of how “you can see a light in everyone’s eyes, and everyone knows it, and no one is left out.”

Basya Schechter, another contemporary musician, who calls Friedman’s melody “gorgeous” and “universal,” was inspired by her own camp experience to write music for a Yiddish woman’s prayer or techinas often recited before Havdalah. Schechter’s upbeat, catchy rendition of the prayer will be available on an upcoming prayer CD.

Rabbi Leila Gal Berner followed in the footsteps of the famous singer-songwriter when she wrote a feminist alternative to “Eliyahu Ha-navi,” the song that typically signals the end of Havdalah. Using the same music but new lyrics, Rabbi Berner crafted a song for Miriam in 1989, called “Miriam Haneviah” (see the lyrics below).

The Friedman melody for Havdalah is not without critics, with some cantors disappointed that Friedman didn’t adhere to the traditional nussach, or modes. Cantor Paula Pepperstone, who finds the melody beautiful, still complains that “it’s like writing poetry without looking at the masters.” But Craig Taubman, a musician and close friend of Debbie Friedman, retorts that cantorial traditions vary around the world, and anyway, “Who the hell cares? What if the chicken is kosher but not prepared in the traditional manner of our forefathers?”

“She made it a ritual,” says Taubman, of Debbie Friedman’s melody. He introduced the Havdalah tune to Camp Ramah of Canada in the late ‘70s, shortly after learning it from Friedman. “The tradition of Havdalah is ten times more prevalent than it was prior to her walking this earth.”

Miriam Ha-neviah
(Miriam the Prophet)
[Traditional music for Eliyahu ha-navi; words by Leila Gal Berner ©1989]

Miriam ha- neviah
Oz v'zimra b'yadah
Miriam tirkod itanu l'hagdil zimrat olam
Miriam tirkod itanu l'taken et ha-olam
Bimherah v'yameynu hi tevi-eynu
el mey ha-yeshua, el mey ha-yeshua.
[Miriam, the prophet, strength and song are in her hands,
Miriam will dance with us to strengthen the world's song,
Miriam will dance with us to heal the world.
Soon, and in our time, she will bring us
To the waters of redemption.]

Elicia Brown is a writer who lives in New York City.

Related articles

Havdalah: A Ritual for Our Time
The brief, yet poignant ceremony to mark the division between Shabbat and the rest of the week is being embraced by contemporary Jews.

Fire, Spice, Wine and Song
A Quick Guide to Havdalah

Jewish Women International
1129 20th Street NW, Suite 801
Washington, DC 20036

Please contact Jewish Women International
for information about reprint rights.