Songs of the season, and of the spirit

If not now, when? It is a question people often ask themselves about things they would like to do “someday,” especially when they learn of the death of someone they know.

And so it was for Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray of Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield earlier this year. A fourth-generation cantor who had done many concerts and made several recordings earlier in her career, she had ideas for several new recordings, and even some partial recordings in hand, when she learned of the passing of a former congregant, “a vibrant woman with a zest for life who was only 53.” She decided now was the time to complete four of those ideas, each representing a passion of hers.

“One was half done, one needed to be reissued and two needed to be recorded,” she said. “I started production last spring, and wanted to get them done before the High Holy Days, which began in September.”

Having previously recorded a CD of Passover music, she first wanted to produce one for Hanukkah, the result being Hanukkah Songs of Light and Hope.

“Making this music of beloved Hanukkah melodies with amazing professional musicians was a dream come true. The sax player was Mark Fineberg, who played for Riverdance and dozens of Broadway musicals as well as national rock tours; Jay Heffler is a phenomenal guitarist in every style; Rayham Pasternak is brilliant Russian concert violinist; and Adrianne Greenbaum is known as the klezmer queen of flute. They added so much joy and flavor to the recording.”

Shabbat Jam by Talented Teens of TSI represents passing joy and the love of music on to teens, and is a youthful celebration of Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) music.

“For the past several years I’ve developed a core of fabulous teen singers and musicians. They sounded so wonderful, I thought let me record them now, before they go to college. It contains some blues, pop, folk and traditional songs, music they love singing. Each of the five singers and three instrumentalists had a chance to shine on it.”

Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray's recent CDs.
Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray’s recent CDs.

The recordings were made at Peaceful Waters Studio in Pound Ridge and were recorded, mixed and mastered by Wayne Warnecke, who also mixed and mastered the other two.

A Suite Shabbat is “elegant Friday evening Shabbat music recorded in 2005 with the Tourmaline String Quartet, a strong group of local musicians. I know cantors who are looking for string music for Friday evening service, and a new listening made me realize it should be out there. I’m very happy with the way it turned out and glad to make it available.”

The final, and most personal, of the CDs is A Musical Reunion: Kalisz to California, recorded onsite with Cantor Leopold Szneer of Los Angeles. To fully understand its meaning and impact on Cantor Katchko-Gray, some general and personal history is helpful.

As the synagogue official who sings or chants liturgical music and leads the congregation in prayer, a cantor, she says, can be likened to a lawyer who represents the people, takes the prayers to God, and prays for people as well. For most of its history, the training of cantors was by oral tradition and restricted to men.

Cantor Katchko-Gray’s grandfather, Adolph Katchko, came to the United States from Poland in the early 1920s and to help train others to serve the growing Jewish population in this country, became the first cantor to write down the liturgical music, including his own compositions; his books continue to be used to this day. In following the family tradition, Cantor Katchko-Gray also broke tradition, being only the second female in the country to serve a Conservative congregation. She has also written a book, Three Generations of Cantorial Art Music, with CD, that tells the story of her family, the singing Jewish sacred music and includes a number of  pieces from her grandfather’s books.

She also grew up “a student of the Holocaust; Elie Wiesel was my mentor and I took a couple of classes he taught on the subject in the 70s in Boston and have maintained a relationship with him. More than 70 members of my family died… I did a lot of research looking for family that may have survived, finally finding a family in Israel that was related.”

Then, in 2006, she received an e-mail asking if she was related to the Katchkos of Kalisz (Poland). The query came from Cantor Szneer, a Holocaust survivor and member of the Los Angeles Orthodox community. He and his wife had been listening to some sacred music and, particularly taken with one song, looked to see who recorded it … and saw the familiar name of Katchko. He asked his grandson to use the Internet to see if he could find her. It turned out that Cantor Szneer’s mother and Cantor Katchko-Gray grandfather’s mother were sisters. A trip to California was quickly arranged and extended family joyfully met.

Most of the recordings on A Musical Reunion were captured by Cantor Katchko-Gray husband, Dr. F. Scott Gray, when Cantor Szneer was 86; he is now 93. “The recordings have a European flavor, a tradition that is dying out with the passing of his generation. For those who experienced the Holocaust, there is an emotion in the voice, almost sagelike, full of wisdom and faith… it has given me wisdom.

“Cantorial music is praying while singing… there is freedom and flexibility of notes, room for interpretation of feelings, place of knowledge of faith and belief. There is something very dignified about his voice, something very sacred, the experience comes through, what was lost. I was so happy to record him, that he is alive and can still share… to sing with him was heavenly; he taught me with his voice and his spirit.”

Overall, Cantor Katchko-Gray says, “I hope people will listen to the CDs and enjoy the many different kinds of Jewish music, find them uplifting and spiritual at the same time.”

They are available through, and iTunes; the Hanukkah CD is available at a number of local music and book stores and all are available at Turkey Ridge on Bailey Avenue in Ridgefield. For additional information on Deborah Katchko-Gray, visit her website,