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To Life!

By Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray

Celebrating a milestone is always a good reason to celebrate. In Judaism, the number 18 holds a special place as the word “life” in Hebrew: chai formed by the letters het and yud equals 18.

Eighteen is good, and double chai, 36, is very good! This year I am mindful of the blessings of both the numbers 18 and 36. In 1999, I began serving my synagogue Temple Shearith Israel, now Congregation Shir Shalom of Westchester and Fairfield Counties. In 1982 I founded the Women Cantors’ Network. Both these events have impacted my life and my family in profound ways. Both have added immeasurably to my life and continue to be a blessing.

As I reflect on these milestones, I see the work and changes behind me and the work and issues still ahead of me.

I’m proud to see so many women cantors serving pulpits today, but I also worry that synagogues need to value the hiring of cantors, male and female as part of the staff going forward. The Cantors Assembly has a slogan – “singing is just the beginning” and truly cantors bring much more than a lovely voice to the pulpit – they bring a vibrant love of Jewish culture, music, community, spirit and caring. Music opens the soul to prayer, and a gifted cantor will uplift and reach deep into the congregation’s hearts and minds. Our children should grow up knowing who their cantor is, and hopefully be inspired by them. Leonard Bernstein, whose 100th birthday memorial is this year, wrote often about how his cantor influenced him growing up. Synagogues should allocate resources to a rabbi and a cantor, with both enriching the congregation and community. I’m so grateful my synagogue understands the value of a cantor and I am so proud to be serving 18 years and hopefully many more!

As an early pioneer woman cantor, I am proud of our strength in numbers and love the new creativity of composers all around me. As a fourth-generation cantor from a traditional home, I also worry that nusach – our sacred chants that bring light to our Shabbat, Festivals and High Holydays – will be diminished more and more. When I hear new music that has no strain of a Jewish inflection, chant, nusach, I worry our sacred music will get dusty and seen as only a historical resource. I’m hoping that our wonderful composers today will occasionally write something that has the proper nusach for that service and continue to bring these sounds to life.

My grandfather, Cantor Adolph Katchko z”l, was a pioneer in this regard. When he had a stroke in the 1950’s he wrote down and composed everything a cantor needed to chant for Shabbat, Three Festivals and High Holydays using the nusach he learned, composing gorgeous music with those modes that is still being taught today in cantorial schools. When his book was published by the Hebrew Union College of Sacred Music it was said to be the first time that nusach was written down in this fashion for cantors in America. He helped fuse the European tradition with a cleaner more modern American style. I hope more composers look into that style of music, the sacred chants and prayer modes and create a new sound that can include those melodies.

Reflecting on the 18th year in my synagogue and the 36th year of the Women Cantors’ Network reminds me that life is so precious – and that we can always make a difference.

We should be marching for our beliefs and ideals, but not with leaders who cannot denounce racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism. I was an early marcher in the 1970s for women’s rights and the anti-war movement.

The Women’s March leadership is a major disappointment to me, and I cannot support these leaders whose hatred of Israel blinds them to the rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan, whose outrageous statements they refuse to refute. I will not march under the leadership of Linda Sarsour, who supports terrorism and boycotts of Israel. Tamika Mallory praises Farrakhan, whose hate speech is dangerous and wildly antisemitic: “Judaism is a gutter religion,” “..Satanic Jew ..I’m here to say your time is up, your world is through.” No, our world was through at Auschwitz, we are not going to be silent about you! I am dreaming of a future leadership where the tent is open to peace-loving and open-hearted women who can see clearly with a moral compass that is not poisoned by radical hatred.

My teacher and mentor Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, inspired me from the very first class of his at Boston University. “Speak truth to power;” “Remember the victims;” “We must bear witness” (even when there are no more witnesses); “Hope is not an emotional luxury but a moral necessity;” When overwhelmed with the world’s events, he would say,

“Do something – anything – just start somewhere to fix the world; neutrality never helps the victim.”

As I reflect on my life’s anniversaries – 18 years at my pulpit and 36 years with the Women Cantors’ Network – I hear Professor Wiesel’s voice with me, burning in my heart. His songs are in my soul. We must not rest, we must not be silent – Elisha Wiesel, his incredible son, spoke at a memorial for his father and gave us a call to action. I believe his words have meaning and power.

Speak out against oppression
Never be silent
Do something about oppression
Silence encourages the tormentor
One person can make a difference.

As life unfolds – 18, 36, and greater – may we all know that we can make a difference with our lives.

Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray of Congregation Shir Shalom of Westchester and Fairfield Counties can be reached at www.cantordebbie.com.

Readers are invited to submit original work on a topic of their choosing to Kolot. Submissions should be sent to judiej@jewishledger.com.

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