Deborah Katchko-Gray
Pioneer woman cantor, artist and Bubbie.

Cantors and Covid. A New Fall Phobia

This morning I went out for a walk, eagerly anticipating the joy on my grand dog’s face as I call his name from outside his window and see his unbridled excitement. I’m very lucky one of my sons lives 7 houses away from me. However, this morning, something was different; there was a chill in the air, that fresh cold air that has been missing all summer. This morning I could feel a distinct change in the temperature. This change in the air, commonly known as  Fall or Autumn can bring on the most beautiful feelings, memories, hopes and dreams. AHH, fall leaves will be arriving; the colors will be magnificent! Pumpkins, apples, warm cider, it is so wonderful! That is what most people feel, however cantors get a different feeling, and this year it is really, really different!

Cantors feel the first chill of autumn and get a nervous knot in the stomach; oh my God, the High Holydays will be upon us! I have to prepare my music, my choir, my musicians, have meetings with the rabbi, most of all stay healthy! Watch out for fall allergies, don’t catch a cold,  get the acid reflux under control, don’t talk so much, limit dairy, start resting your voice and drinking water! That’s what the last 41 years were like for me. This year is different. Cantors have to worry about being “super spreaders”, for the first time in our lives, singing is perceived as dangerous, it could spread Covid and be disastrous. How can we sing and pray this year and feel authentic?

Many cantors are pre- recording the music, some are doing it live by Zoom or live streaming with only clergy present, some with a very small congregation socially distanced, some doing outdoor services hoping for good weather. Some are using a hybrid mix of prerecorded, live, streamed and in person all together. If previous  years brought on anxiety about singing for the High Holydays, this year is truly unique and a challenge.

I am pre -recording everything in a revered recording studio ( Carriage House Studios)  in Stamford, CT where Beyoncé, Paul Simon and Diana Ross have recorded. I’m hoping some of those excellent musical vibes will somehow flow into my Avinu Malkeinu and Kol Nidre prayers. I’m so fortunate to have wonderful musicians to work with and a very compassionate and brilliant rabbi .For the first time I’ll be using a few tracks  from  my CD’s including a Kol Nidre my father sang with me harmonizing ala Natalie Cole. I am so excited to share his masterful cantorial voice with my congregation.

This year I’ll be sitting at home, zooming in to the service, watching my prerecorded videos with a surreal feeling; it will be the most unusual experience.  Maybe this year I will have the luxury of praying without any fear or anxiety of “ performance” or vocal health concerns. Maybe this is a blessing in disguise and I will be totally immersed in the prayers and in my thoughts; joining the Jewish community all around the world and praying for a good New Year. I think I may like it, but I’m going to pray we go back to a full healthy congregation next year with some of the advantages of live streaming included. Next year may we take the best of this year’s innovations and sing together as one community. When the cool air returns next year may we  just be super spreaders of beautiful music and prayers!

About the Author
Fourth generation cantor, second woman to serve a traditional synagogue and founder of the Women Cantors' Network. Deborah studied with Elie Wiesel z"l and continues to be inspired by his teachings. First recipient of the Debbie Friedman Miriam Award. A cantor in Ridgefield, CT since 1999, cellist, tallit Swedish weaving embroiderer, mother of 6, grandmother of two. Wife and friend.