THE KALEIDOSCOPE PROFILE
Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray
Congregation Shir Shalom of Westchester and Fairfield Counties
Interviewed by Rabbi Ita Paskind
Congregation Beth El-Norwalk
Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray’s office is a living embodiment of the mantra, “Don’t waste time.”
The urgent credo, imparted by her beloved teacher and mentor, Elie Wiesel z"l, seems to express itself on every inch of wall, every surface; the space is all at once a museum, showcase, studio, library, archive, laboratory, think tank, shop. It hums with energy and creativity, as does the woman who is behind the desk one moment, at the piano the next; now pointing to a photo or plaque or article on the wall, now gesturing toward a rack of tallitot she has made and another rack of CDs she has recorded; and now paging through the galleys for Prayerful Creations, the book on a Swedish embroidery technique that she is about to publish.
“Cantor Debbie,” as she is affectionately known, is married to Dr. Scott Gray and has four sons, two step-sons, and one grandchild.
When Cantor Debbie was hired by Congregation Beth El in Norwalk in 1981, the fourth-generation cantor was only the second woman in the country to hold the position at a Conservative synagogue. Coincidentally, her interviewer is Ita Paskind, for the past four years the rabbi of that same synagogue, and the first woman to serve as its spiritual leader.
The two colleagues met in Cantor Debbie’s office in March 2019 to compare notes and explore what makes Debbie run. Following is an excerpt of their conversation.
Listen to the complete KALEIDOSCOPE interview with Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray, conducted by Rabbi Ita Paskind, by clicking the Play button below.
Rabbi Paskind: I've been in town for almost four years and I hear your name at Beth El-Norwalk pretty regularly. Introduce yourself: what should people know about you? How do you describe yourself?
Cantor Debbie: I am a fourth-generation cantor and I'm very proud of that. [pointing to a wall] I like to remember from where I came. My grandfather’s father, Pinchas, was a cantor in Kalisz, Poland but that wasn’t his profession; he was probably a shochet [Jewish ritual slaughterer]. I think a big part of my identity is that my grandfather had two brothers who were cantors and three sisters, who were all lost in the Holocaust. He never mentioned that he had siblings and I grew up thinking my grandfather was an only child and only through my studies with Elie Wiesel, I started doing a lot more research and I found out that there were two cantors and other singers and opera singers who came to Israel and then didn’t sing after the war.
I feel lucky to have survived and be part of this chain: my great-grandfather, Pinchas, in Poland; my grandfather, Cantor Adolph Katchko, the famous composer; my father, Theodore Katchko, who was part-time cantor and had a little liquor store in Stamford – he always said that he dealt in spirits – and he never wanted to be a full-time cantor because it was just too traumatic to be under the shadow of his father, who was very revered.
I came along, feminist and proud, and I know I ruffled a few feathers in the early days. I was supposedly the second Conservative woman cantor in the country and that was before Jewish Theological Seminary ordained women.
I had studied with Elie Wiesel in college, studied with my father, studied with Rabbi Joseph Polak at Boston University Hillel. In 1981, I was married to a photographer who went to a wedding and heard that there was a job available in Norwalk. I called up Beth El and spoke with Rabbi Jonas Goldberg and I said, “Would you consider a woman?” and I’ll never forget: he said, “My dear, we’ve interviewed 18 male rabbis. At this point, I’d interview a monkey.” Or maybe it wasn’t “monkey;” maybe it was, “I’d interview anyone.” I had 10 or 11 very good years there.
I am also the founder of the Women Cantors’ Network; I'm very proud of that. In 1982, after being at the pulpit in Norwalk for a year, I noticed this great void, a silence. There were male cantors all around but there was no colleague talking to me, nobody was reaching out, and that might be a particular New England thing, too, where people just kind of stay in their corners. But still, I like to share and network and learn – and maybe this is a female thing – but that’s how you grow, by experiencing other ideas. I would hear about cantors’ concerts and other events being planned and I wasn’t invited to anything. I didn’t like the feeling and I thought, “I can sit in the corner and complain about it or I can do something.”
I went to a Cantors Assembly convention and there were a bunch of women there studying to be cantors, interested in the cantorate, musicologists, composers, singers. I said, “I’d like to have a conference. Let’s get together and meet.” Cantor Elaine Shapiro, who was the first-ever fulltime woman Conservative cantor, in West Palm Beach, had graduated from JTS but at the time, they didn’t give the degree of Chazzan; she got a master’s degree in Jewish music. She studied the whole curriculum just like any male cantor, and she was my hero at the time; we’re still friends. She and I thought it would be a great idea, and I went running with it. We had the first conference in 1982 in Norwalk, and 12 women showed up. One woman came from Brooklyn and she was Orthodox and she said she was afraid that if her family found out she was at the conference, they would disown her.
It was a beautiful beginning and now we have about 275 members, it’s a national organization, we have annual conferences, we have a very active listserv and we have a Facebook presence and we just became a 501(c)3. We do have seminary graduates and traditional certified, ordained women. But there are a lot of women who have gone the non-traditional path and sometimes, for women, that makes more sense: you can’t always relocate to New York or study fulltime if you have a family – there are a lot of variables. So when I started, I felt it should be open to everyone and that if a synagogue hired you as a cantor, it’s our obligation to become better cantors, not to judge how you got there, what your qualifications are. Sometimes you can have an innate talent or a great spirit that can’t be certified, that might not be something on paper. At the time, it was pretty radical and there were a lot of people angry with me for many years that I was legitimizing “illegitimate” cantors. And I just felt that it was supporting the women who were out there already, and let’s all get better.
Over the years, it’s attracted many mainstream cantors who see the value of this wonderful, open organization, and a few men have joined because they love how open it is.
Rabbi Paskind: You’ve mentioned Elie Wiesel; tell us more about him.
Cantor Debbie: He was teaching at Boston University, and that’s why I went to BU. I didn’t care what kind of degree I got. I chose not the most difficult program – elementary education – because I wanted to sing in the coffeehouses and study with Elie Wiesel.
When I walked into his classroom in 1976, it was the first class that he ever taught on the Holocaust. He had us write on a 3-by-5 index card why we wanted to take his class because there wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit in the classroom. The idea of a “selection” was abominable to him. I wrote something like, “I come from a family of cantors and I want to learn more about our history and my family’s history, and I want to impart my love of Judaism to children in some way, through music, art, history.”
When we were walking out, he said, “My door will always be open to you.” That meant that I could take every class he gave without even registering. He let me sit in on graduate-level doctoral classes so I made my schedule around his. I took copious notes in his classes and sometimes I rewrote them and I would send them to him and he wrote me this beautiful note: “If a teacher has one student – you – it would be dayenu [enough].”
Joel Rappel, who was head of the BU archives for seven years, came to get material from me – class notes, lecture notes; I have a whole binder of personal, hand-written notes, and that’s all in the library. The very first class he taught on the Holocaust – he never taught it again because it was so painful – the university had no record of it; they didn’t have a syllabus, they didn’t have a reading list and I had my class notes, and that’s the only record they have of that class.
One day, hopefully not in the too-distant future, I want to write a book showing my class notes, what I've learned from them. I have almost 50 essays a few more that I still want to write. I have the blessings of most of the Wiesel scholars and teachers. I'm hoping that that will be my next project, after I finish my second book on Jewish huck embroidery.
Rabbi Paskind: You’ve built up a whole world of activities that you love to do.
Cantor Debbie: From my studies with Elie Wiesel, he really imparted to us the miracle that we’re alive at all; it’s a miracle that there are any Jews alive today, so we shouldn’t waste time. I love making stuff, I like doing music. I play cello and I got back into it recently and I'm playing in a string quartet and the Danbury Symphony Orchestra.
I've been dying to do a project for my father, who taught me. His father transformed American nusach: he took the very ornate cantorial chant from Europe and rewrote it for American cantors and Hebrew Union College owned the rights to it; it was part of their curriculum. When I started in Norwalk, I knew the High Holidays because I had done them in college; I knew a little bit about Shabbat services but I hadn’t done the three Festivals. I would run to my father and I would say, “Hallel! Help me!” or “Ha-El! How do you start it?” “The omer!” My father would hit the button on the cassette-recorder and out would come the most perfect voice and the most beautiful music and it was all Katchko compositions. I want to take my father’s recordings from the entire year of liturgy and remaster them and get them onto my website.
I feel like I’m in my prime of creative energy, I don’t want to waste time, I want to get as much done as I can. I just turned 62 and I know I’m not old but I just feel like I want to make the most of however many years I have in life. I feel more and more like I want to waste less time, I feel more urgent. I want to work as long as I can, 10 years at least.