Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Stories and Songs of Elie Wiesel with Deborah Katchko-Gray

Stories and Songs of Elie Wiesel with Deborah Katchko-Gray: Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray describes the influence studying with Elie Wiesel had on her and plays some of the songs she sang with him. For Holocaust Remembrance Day, a program by The Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County, at JCC of Stamford, Ct.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Our Patriarch has left us- he has left us a lifetime of memories, of kindness, a legacy of education, culture, dedication to health and fitness, a vibrancy and love of life, and a unique gift to all of us here today remembering our beloved Ted, Grandpa, Uncle Ted, Dr. Theodore Zimmerman, Dad, and for me, beloved former father in law. My heart goes out to Rick, Jacqui, Michael, Ron, our sons David, Aaron, Ezra and Joey- cousins Phyllis and Margie, Manny, Richie, Aunt Renee, brothers Joe and Norman, many nieces and nephews here and countless friends here on earth and already passed waiting for him for the next great golf game in heaven. Margaret, his caretaker deserves special recognition as her devotion to Ted surely increased his years on earth with her loving attention with Rick and Jacqui devoting years to his care. Words have always been inadequate in describing my relationship with him in particular. Former Father In Law sounds weird, but it’s accurate. It doesn’t say what is in my heart- he really was like a father to me, but it felt dishonest to overuse the word, Dad- technically he wasn’t my father, but he acted and felt like a dad to me. Father in law, once for 22 years, but legally not, but forever connected through my boys, through beloved relatives I could not fathom releasing as society may have dictated. I will never forget his first act of incredible generosity. I was 22, had just gotten a job as a part time cantor but had no vehicle to get to my job! I started crying that I wasn’t sure how I could get to the job without a car and he immediately gave me his car keys- He said, not having daughters he wasn’t used to a girl crying and couldn’t stand to see me upset! He just handed me his keys and said, “ here, take my car, I’ll get another- “ The world that was presented to my boys growing up is a world not seen by many, and perhaps will not be seen by my grandchildren or many others. A world of utter delight, elegance, sumptuous buffets at world class country clubs, private golf and tennis lessons for young boys happy to wrestle on the floor or throw a ball- trips to Disney, twice yearly trips to Florida to experience a world of luxury and love, playtime and ocean walks- Grandpa was the center of our world in so many ways- For years his beloved Elaine, Grandma from Florida was the director of activities, the planner and queen in his kingdom. When the two of them summoned us for frequent vacations we knew everything would be taken care from the flight to the sleeping, eating, playing and experiencing. There were carefully selected gifts waiting, gorgeous clothes, country club meals and restaurant meals to delight, Golf, tennis, ocean swims, sand building, pool swimming with lessons from Grandpa, Special toys just there waiting for the boys to use- it was a never-ending world of generosity and love. The boys felt such a pull to grandpa that when they came to visit, he was made to stay back in the car until Grandma made her entrance and got her hugs and kisses. If Grandpa was there, poor Grandma was hardly noticed. The running and hugging to him was powerful. She wanted some of that and deserved it too! The only way was to hide Grandpa for a while! It is hard to describe what that meant years later when our world changed and realities were harsher. One by one, beloved grandparents passed away from cancer, first my mom in l996, then my dad in l997, then Elaine in 2001. Grandpa was our rock- he was there for every major life cycle event- every Bar Mitzvah, graduation and celebration- every holiday, every important meal. My parents did not live long enough to enjoy even one Bar Mitzvah, but Grandpa Ted was there for all four of them- all high school and college graduations- When it was no longer possible for him to live in Florida, after a few years with his sparkling companion Sylvia of blessed memory, or at an assisted living facility in Stamford, , Rick and Jacqui lovingly created a wing in their home just for him and wonderful Margaret. Michael was so fortunate to have Grandpa right there and I know has many wonderful memories to cherish as well. The last few years were a different dynamic. I enjoyed taking Ted to breakfast or lunch at a few regular places. Everyone knew him and looked forward to seeing him. Often a grandson would join us; Aaron, David, Ezra and Joey were regulars at mealtimes with Grandpa. The delight he took in everything from a simple bowl of soup especially homemade, or just being out with us was inspiring. He took us to the height of luxury but in the end, it was just being together and holding hands that mattered. Sitting in the car with a dunkin donuts coffee and blueberry muffin feeding the ducks at the Lakeside Diner became our excitement- life has funny turns in the road you can never foresee, but I always felt every experience with dad had a measure of elegance just because of him. How many former father in laws walk their former daughter in laws down the aisle a second time? I believe rarely! He embraced Scott and shared many a wonderful conversation about medicine and golf. They had a beautiful relationship too. He was incredibly handsome and dashing as a young man- in photos he looked like a movie star to me. Those handsome genes have been passed down to my boys and I know they are extra blessed because of Grandpa’s kishkes inside them. Who knew that Grandpa was such a great singer? Who knew he loved to sing at the top of his lungs, “ embrace me, my sweet embraceable you”? All the years he lived the exciting country club life with nonstop parties and golf tournaments we hardly heard him sing. As he got older, sitting and singing became one of our favorite activies. He even indulged me in saying he loved hearing me play cello- The singing became a wonderful way to communicate as he slowly forgot the present and remembered the past. Old songs were very present for him- old army chants, college songs, bugel calls, Gershwin tunes, helped lift our spirits. Thankfully we have so many videos of him singing, so many photos of our many years of delight with him to cherish and pass on. I know when my boys describe their grandfather to their children one day it will be with reverence and a love hard to describe. Abraham Joshua Heschel said to live your life as if it were a work of art- create something unique and beautiful out of this precious gift we call life. This is what Ted did- he created and lived a life of unsurpassing beauty, excitement, generosity, kindness, and love. His legacy will continue through his many acts of tzedakah for his family- His light will guide us and illumine for us a path May we all walk in his light May he find peace and rest in heaven as he reunites with his beloved Elaine who has been waiting a long time for him. The clothes have been laid out for a gala and the band is just beginning to play. Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you….

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sparks of the Divine Again

Sparks of the Divine Again September 30, 2013 Growing up in a cantorial home, it was one of my greatest delights to sit at the kitchen or dining room table with my beloved father of blessed memory, Cantor Theodore Katchko, and listen to him record prayers for me. It was mostly during my first year as cantor at Cong. Beth El in Norwalk, in l980=1981 that I asked my father to record many parts of the services, especially as they came up in my first year there. My father was a willing teacher and I was the grateful student. He loved putting his art of hazzanut on the little tape recorder and I soaked it all up. After seeing these old cassette tapes in my drawers and moving them from place to place, I realized they could be of help to other cantors, cantorial students and lay leaders. My father had the perfect balance of Katchko training from his father, the master teacher and composer, Cantor Adolph Katchko, and a gentle manner. His voice reflected the deep reverence for the music and the liturgy that I often feel is hard to teach cantors today. You have to hear it over and over- you have to internalize these sounds or they will be lost. Finally, two years ago I walked into a recording studio with a box of cassette tapes of my father recorded over 30 years ago. The wonderful recording engineer put all of them on cds and gave them to me to listen to and notate what was what, what order it should be in, the sources, etc.. That was about two years ago. The cds have been sitting on my desk for some time. I looked at them every day. I just couldn’t bring myself to hear my sweet father’s voice and relive those tender moments of learning knowing he has been gone since 1997. This month was his Yartzeit, and I realized I just had to begin this project before I lost all motivation. Today is also the 85th birthday of my mentor and inspiration, Prof. Elie Wiesel. I had wanted to sing for his birthday, but that was not to be. Working on my father’s music was a good use of my time today, I had just put the first cd in when I got a call from an oil company asking to update my email. When I gave my email address, the young woman said that her sister was a cantor! What a coincidence- she was a graduate of Hebrew Union College where my grandfather’s music has been part of the core curriculum for nusach- Jewish modes used in worship. It is the backbone of every cantor’s repertoire. Sometimes it feels like a nudge from above- this was the right time to begin. This project is on its way, and I look forward to sharing it as it nears completion. Thanks for the nudge- I needed it!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof! By Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray, Founder of the Women Cantors' Network, and International Vice Chair, Cantors for Women of the Wall May 12, 2013, 3 Sivan 5773 Justice, justice, we must pursue! It is clear to me that justice means mutual respect and religious pluralism, especially in our holy Jerusalem and at the Kotel, the Western Wall. There must be room for religious diversity and pluralism, mutual respect and shalom bayit (peace within the family) in our most holy place. It is symbolic of a democratic society which Israel continues to be. Those who live an ultra Orthodox life should be entitled to live that way, but they must not impose their way on a democratic society in Israel. About thirty years ago I felt it was not right that women couldn't graduate with a cantorial degree from JTS and women couldn't be admitted to the Cantors Assembly. I formed my own organization as a response to feeling left out, and The Women Cantors' Network began and continues to be a source of joy and support for over 300 women cantors. There were no opportunities to study with a mentor and get certification which I also thought wasn't fair. Today all of those injustices are history. In fact, the first woman president of the Cantors Assembly, Hazzan Nancy Abramson is about to be installed in a week. The Kotel needs liberation once more. It must not be the private shul for the ultra-orthodox. It must be a place of prayer for the Jewish people, and that includes women who choose to wear tefillin and tallit. We are not forbidden, it is our choice. Let all of us work for the day when this situation is also history, and women can pray with pride and equality at the Kotel if they so choose.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Koch and Moses

Mayor Koch and Moses Recently we read about Yitro, the father in law of Moses and his influence on him. As a leader, Moses looked to Yitro for advice and ideas on how to improve his leadership of the Israelites- Last month we lost a wonderful leader of New York City and a devoted member of our people- Ed Koch- former mayor of New York City, often asked his people, “ How’m I doin?” Just as Moses asked Yitro, Ed Koch asked all his people for advice, feedback and ideas for improvement. Ed Koch was deeply influenced by the last words of the slain journalist, Daniel Pearl, and requested them on his tombstone- “ my father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish”. In parsha Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments and one of them is “kaved et avicha v’et imecha”- honor your father and mother- Ed Koch is indeed honoring his father and mother, and his people by having these words as a lasting remembrance for all who will visit his grave. His tombstone also includes the Sh’ma- Koch was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith- he loved his country, the United States of America- May his name always be a blessing and an inspiration. Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray Temple Shearith Israel

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Narrow Bridge in Newtown

A Narrow Bridge in Newtown A beloved and well-known rabbi, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught “ The whole world is a narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid” The words are used in a popular song called, “ Gesher Tzar Me-od”, meaning “ A Narrow Bridge”. It is often sung with great spirit, starting slowly and building up to a strong and lively pace. Communities who consider themselves spiritual, renewal or new age truly love this teaching and this song. On Dec. 14, 2012, a tragedy of unimaginable magnitude came crashing into our community, only 20 minutes north of my beloved Ridgefield, CT in Newtown, CT. The details of the tragedy are seared into our national history- 20 innocent young children who went to school to learn, and were brutally murdered in their classrooms, a place of supposed safety and education. The 6 brave teachers and administrators who were murdered while protecting these precious children are now heroes, and will not be forgotten. The mother of the murderer had her life ended by her own disturbed son who took his own life after his rampage. I cannot shake the feelings of despair, sadness and terror for what the victims experienced. The following Saturday, there was a concert of remembrance at Congregation Adath Israel, in Newtown, CT. It was an evening to bring some measure of humanity, hope, and healing through music. Harold Geller, a resident of New Jersey felt compelled to bring music to the Newtown synagogue, and worked his magic bringing several wonderful artists to the synagogue through his network of musicians. Rabbi Ken Chasen of LA, Ellen Allard and Noah Aronson of MA graciously shared their incredible talents with the community. I was grateful to share in a small way in the concert and add a few healing songs. Rabbi Shaul Praver, spiritual leader of the synagogue, led a beautiful havdala ceremony to begin the concert. Havdala means separation, and while we separate Shabbat from the weekday during the ceremony, it is a reminder that there is always hope- darkness is followed by light, weekdays look forward to Shabbat every week. How does this relate to “ A Narrow Bridge”? I’ve always loved to see these spiritual moments when you least expect it and somehow there is a profound connection between events, words, people, music, and prayer. I’ve experienced it many times in my life, and each time it takes my breath away. I enjoy noticing these connections. I call them “ sparks of the divine”. I’ve lived in Connecticut most of my life and I’ve traveled Interstate 84 many times. I don’t take too much notice to the signs of the communities along the way unless I’m tired and hoping to see signs of towns close to mine. Driving to Newtown for the first time since the tragedy was difficult. I was full of apprehension- would I drive down the Main St and see the piles of teddy bears, flowers and candles? It would break my heart to see that! I took the direction from my GPS and I soon saw the sign for Newtown/Sandy Hook. Oh my- that sign will never be just a sign. Just seeing it hurt- that was the exit I took according to my GPS. I didn’t know if I would be taken through Main St or not. I just cautiously drove while feeling my breath get tighter as I got closer to the synagogue. About a mile from the synagogue, I saw a small bridge with a sign NARROW BRIDGE. I couldn’t believe it- Here I was anxious about going to the synagogue to sing songs of healing to a community devastated by this tragedy, and right in front of me was the sign, NARROW BRIDGE. Rebbe Nachman’s teaching was clear as can be! The world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid- to cross it and go forward. I crossed the bridge and felt grateful that that teaching warmed my heart and reminded me to be brave and strong. My dear cousin, a survivor of the Holocaust teaches me every time we speak or visit. Cantor Leopold Szneer, who experienced 5 concentration camp, hiding, rescue by the resistance, brutality of SS and worse, remains one of the most inspiring and devoted human beings you could ever meet- Poldy always says, “ Life goes one way- forward”. After seeing the sign, “ narrow bridge” on the way to the synagogue in Newtown, I also thought of Poldy, and how life goes forward- we will all go forward and with strength of spirit, prayer, music and community. The main thing is to cross the bridge and not be afraid.