My Family's Stories in Jewish Music & More
Stories can teach us so much, inspire us and shape us. I’ve always wanted to write down the stories of our family as a lasting legacy to cherish and learn from, perhaps even be inspired by. Everyone has a story, and everyone has parents, grandparents. Why do I think mine have so much to offer and teach?
As a little girl, I was always fascinated by the stories of my grandparents. Many of the stories were held as secrets until I was older -- some tragic, some historic, some inspiring and some sources of huge pride. Every family has a story -- I feel mine has quite a few that are worth remembering and learning from.
My four grandparents all had something special, some more special than others, but each one had a unique talent and history. Some even made history by their creativity and bravery. When I looked back on American Jewish history, I felt that a few of the grandparents played a role in the shaping of the American Jewish community. I think those are stories worth retelling and learning from. Each of my four grandparents came from a different country -- Austria, Poland, Russia, and England. Each one was lucky to arrive before the Holocaust. We would not be here if they didn’t arrive in the l920s with the large wave of immigration following the pogroms in Russia and Poland.
Rae Glicenstein studied on the highest level in East London before World War One. She received honors in religious school studying with Chief Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz of the British Empire (editor of the famous blue Chumash). She also studied with historian Max Nordeau. Rae was going to be a German-language major at the London School of Economics when World War OneI broke out. Max met her and fell in love, insisting she come with him in the early 1920s to Stamford, Connecticut. She was instrumental in helping to form the Jewish community: as president of the Hebrew Ladies Educational League, she helped fund the beginning of Bi-Cultural Day School, The Agudath Sholom Sisterhood, and Jewish War Veterans, and got active with the Zionists of America and Hadassah. She was honored by the Zionists of America as Zionist of the Year in Stamford.
She worked her whole life and never drove a car, taking buses when she didn’t have a ride. She was my hero growing up.
Max Epstein, her husband, fought in the first Jewish army, The Jewish Foreign Legion, 18th Battalion alongside David Ben-Gurion. He was General Allenby’s dispatcher and knew Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky. As part of the earliest Zionists, he fought the Turks and helped build the Allenby Bridge across the Jordan River. Ben-Gurion asked him to stay and help be a leader in the emerging Jewish country and he said, “I would die for this country, but (seeing the desert and malaria) who could live here?”
As a new American, he worked very hard to build a moving company, Stamford Moving and Storage, and was very philanthropic as well.
Jessie Katchko, Gisiya Babushkin, was an opera singer with family in Russia, born in Austria. I was told her family had a big department store and were very wealthy. It was her brother Morris who helped pay to bring Jessie and Adolph Katchko to America in the early 1920s. If not for her brother, we would probably not be here. Jessie was singing in a concert in Berlin with Adolph Katchko and tripped him as he walked off the stage to meet him, so I was told! Adolph was very lucky to come here with Jessie in the early 1920s -- the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust with the exception of his sister Rachel’s children (in Israel). Seventy members of the Katchko family perished in the Holocaust.
When I met Cantor Leopold Szneer in 2006, he was astounded that any Katchkos survived -- his father and Adolph were first cousins; their mothers were sisters. It makes our existence a miracle.
Cantor Adolph Katchko was one of the most influential cantors in American Jewish history. He was a child prodigy in Kalisz, Poland and was sent to Berlin to study composition as a young boy. He apprenticed with cantors in Warsaw, Berlin, and Budapest. Luckily, he met Jessie, whose family brought him over in the early 1920s before the Holocaust. He had two brothers who were cantors; both perished in the Holocaust, and three sisters -- one sister’s family survived in Israel; most perished. It makes me want to continue our heritage even more when I think about that.
Cantor Adolph Katchko was the first cantor in America to write down nusach, the system of chants and modes that every cantor needs to know. Every holiday has a unique mode, and he composed melodies using traditional nusach from Europe, making it more modern and American. It was revolutionary to have everything written down, and it is still used and taught in cantorial schools. When you hear the opening melody to the Avot on Shabbat in most synagogues, it’s his music that is sung. He was known as the “cantor’s cantor” as he composed, taught, and sang at the highest level. I think the history of my family gave me the courage to be the second female cantor in the Conservative movement in 1981 and form the Women Cantors’ Network. Carrying a family tradition is a sacred privilege.
Max, Rae, and Adolph were true pioneers in their communities.
Dr. Theodore Zimmerman has a wonderful history and legacy as well. Sara and Hayim Zimmerman started a pet store on Fifth Ave in New York City, which got Grandpa Ted interested in animals at an early age. Grandpa Ted was a pioneer in animal health and rights and started having animals living in natural habitats at the Central Park Zoo way before the concept was understood. There are more stories about them in his book, They Can’t Talk, But Never Lie. David and Anna Wolf, parents of Grandma Elaine, had a very interesting and exciting life: David Wolf invented a few devices, and he had several patents for inventions of mechanical engineering. Anna was from the famous real-estate family, Durst, but came with nothing when she first arrived in this country. Her uncle, Joseph Durst, brought her over with other family from Austria before World War Two.
Uncle Sidney Epstein grew up in the moving and storage business with Max’s Stamford Moving and Storage, and ended up being the president of Allied Van Lines, the highest job in the moving industry. He used his position to help others and was honored by many organizations in the Chicago area. With that trucking gene, his son, Bob Katchko, built his own excavation and construction business -- also without a college degree. He helped organize a caravan of dump-trucks right after 9/11 to help with the disaster relief at the World Trade Center. His son, Ezra, is on the same path with his own moving and hauling business and helping homeless shelters and the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
Starting with nothing from a foreign country, building businesses and families, helping to form Jewish communities, preserving and creating new Jewish music, protecting animals -- these are all family legacies that make me proud of my ancestry and history.
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