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

Preparing for the High Holydays – a cantorial view

Songbook and Recording Katchko Three Generations of Cantorial Art

From my very first High Holyday services in l976 at Boston University at the age of 19, I knew preparing for the music and spiritual experience was like the “Jewish Olympics”. It is a delicate balancing act of good health, vocal strength and stamina, musical preparation and all the bigger questions of one’s life. Are we ever truly ready to answer those questions? What have you done this year? What could you do better? I love the words to the song “Ratzo Vashov” by my colleague Cantor Lisa B. Segal- “Where have I been? Where am I going to? Counting the days of the ebb and flow.”

For 46 years, I’ve been doing this High Holyday dance of preparation, fear, nerves, rehearsing, reviewing music, cooking baking, and gathering family together, juggling it all knowing that one bad allergy season, cold, asthmatic bronchitis, and now COVID, could put a real dent in all the plans! Luckily, there have been few real dents along the way, and mostly a wonderful uplifting experience I eagerly look forward to each year. Most people think it’s lovely to see the leaves starting to turn colors; cantors think…. Uh oh… we know what’s coming and what’s expected of us.

Adding to the usual preparations and worrying, for me is a long history of cantorial musical memories. My very first musical memory is of sitting on the stairs listening and watching my parents rehearse for the High Holydays during the summer. It began in August usually, with my father standing by the black baby grand piano in the living room that my mother was playing. They always began with Slichot, a musical journey of the High Holydays, and ended with Neilah, the final service of Yom Kippur. I listened and absorbed this mostly Katchko classical cantorial music as well as Lewandowski, Sulzer, and others. It always sounded grand and glorious- majestic, dignified, and awesome. I had heard my famous grandfather gave a rare compliment to my father as he studied to be a cantor and told him he “had the voice of a prophet” It sounded prophetic to me, and it has stayed with me all my life. It is that sound that inspires me during the High Holydays. I can hear my father singing the exact words and melodies of his father during portions of the service. People sometimes tell me they notice a change in my voice, my spirit and feel the change too. It is a channeling of a deeper older sound that just connects me to my father and his father through the music.

It is my hope that this year, 2022, my 46th High Holydays brings all of us good health, spirit and soaring music that lifts us up and carries into the New Year 5783.

May we all answer the questions, “where have I been? where am I going to?” and look forward to a brighter and more peaceful world.

Here are two older essays I wrote about the High Holydays for the Times of Israel Blogs.

Second Day Rosh Hashanah. A Yartzeit and PTSD

A Kol Nidre tale: Thank you Natalie Cole

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 five. Wife and friend.
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