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Eulogy for Esther Ghan Firestone, Habonim Cantor Emeritus

Dear Habonim Members,

For those of you you could not attend the memorial service for Esther Ghan Firestone , here is the eulogy I delivered in her memory.

May we continue to remember Esther for all the beautiful music she brought to Habonim and to the world.

Eli Rubentein
Religious Leader
Congregation Habonim

Eulogy for Esther Ghan Firestone (1925-2015)

Dear family and friends, we are gathered to honour the memory of Esther Ghan Firestone:

Wife of the late Paul Firestone, Sister and Sister in Law of the late Morry Cohen and of Phyliss Cohen; Mother of Debbie, Shawn, Tracy, Jay, Sherry, Danny, Ari, and the late Hilary Firestone; Grandmother of Nathalie, Alex, Jason, Josh, Tina, Michael, Tyler, Chaz, Ross, Courtney and Noah.

It is very hard to stand here and eulogize someone who I worked with for the better part of 30 years, someone who I stood across the Bima from, through countless Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Shabbat and holiday Tefilot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, and baby namings, weddings and memorial services.

Hard not just because Esther was one of the most dynamic, energetic and alive people I have ever known, but because over the course of those almost 30 years – during which time we spoke practically every week – Esther became not just an esteemed professional colleague, but a close and dear personal friend.

But as difficult as it is, I also consider it a sacred obligation – indeed a sacred honour – to participate in a service where we pay our respects to this remarkable individual.

So let me begin at the beginning.

Esther was born Esther Cohen in Winnipeg on April 9, 1925. Her parents were Jacob and Rachel Cohen, who ran a small grocery store in the south end of Winnipeg. Her father was born in Winnipeg, but her grandfather from her father’s side was one of the first Jewish immigrants to Winnipeg and was therefore known as Columbus Cohen. Her mother, born Rachel Ghan in 1895, grew up in the town of Korson, in the Ukraine. Economic hardship, rampant anti-semitism, and state sponsored pogroms caused large numbers of Jews to turn their eyes towards North America.

One by one Rachel and her siblings (and their parents) made their way across the ocean to a new life of promise in the US and Canada. One of her siblings was actually booked to travel on the Titanic, but arrived too late to board the vessel. Another sibling, her blind brother Sherman Ghan, made his way to Winnipeg, then Toronto, where his prodigious violin playing helped him build his career.

Practically the only Jewish family in the south end of Winnipeg where they lived and worked, Rachel and Jacob soon had two children: first Esther, followed a few years later by Morry. Both Esther and Morry were musically gifted. Though they were the only Jewish children in their classes, they were still always being picked to perform in the Christmas plays, mouthing those words in the songs that ran counter to Jewish belief.

Initially, Esther’s forte was the piano, while Morry was the singer of the two. But her mother Rachel knew Esther could also sing, and when someone once called for Morry to sing at a given event, Rachel suggested Esther instead. Soon Esther started excelling in singing as well, and at 17 years of age Esther auditioned for a singing role in a local production. To her surprise, she won the role, and the young Esther, who had been planning a career as a concert pianist, began a new life as a promising young singer. (Winnipeg at that time was a breeding ground for many aspiring artists including Monty Hall, who Esther knew, and Deanna Durbin, both of whom went on to major careers in Hollywood.)

Esther was soon spotted by vocal teacher Madame Nina de Gedeonoff, who offered her take her under her wing if she came to Toronto.

So Esther moved to Toronto in 1944, where she lived for some time with her blind uncle Sherman Ghan, who had carved out a remarkable career of his own in Toronto as a violin player. (As an aside, his great niece Sharon Cohen, is a member of the First Violin section of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.) It was Uncle Sherman who advised Esther to adopt the stage name of Esther Ghan, believing, quite correctly, that it would serve her better in her career.

Esther’s musical career blossomed in Toronto – and her remarkable achievements may be found in their entirety in the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Here are just a few of them:

  • In 1948 she won second prize in an international scholarship contest sponsored by Carnegie Hall.
  • She sang on CBC’s ‘Canadian Cavalcade’ from 1949-51 and starred from 1957-1960 on CBC radio’s ‘Stardust’.
  • She gave her first Toronto recital in 1950 at Eaton Auditorium, accompanied by her uncle Sherman Ghan.
  • Her extensive concert career included performances with CBC Opera with the TSO (1950, 1951), the Buffalo Philharmonic (1969, 1970), and the CNE Bandshell concerts (1970).
  • In 1971 and 1973, with three of her children, she recorded Let’s Sing English Songs, a collection of 52 songs for distribution in Japan by the Tokyo Kodomo Club.

She was also very active on the Jewish musical scene:

  • She conducted numerous choirs including the YMHA Choral Group, the Toronto Hadassah Women’s Choir, the J.C.C. Singers, and the Habonim Youth Choir.
  • She was the first woman cantor in Canada, holding positions in Toronto at Beth-El Synagogue from the mid 1950s, at Temple Emanu-El, and at Congregation Habonim, where she was employed from 1985 until the present. (I should say the while there are thousands of female cantors around the world today, Esther was one of the first to break the barrier – and certainly the first in Canada. Though, when I once asked her, she would not describe herself as a feminist…. her independence, her motivation, her single minded devotion to her craft and her many achievements – which all began even before the term feminism came into popular usage – indeed her entire life, embodied the principles feminism came to stand for.)

Throughout this amazing career, Esther led a full family life. In the late 1940s, Esther met an aspiring young actor, and former flight trainer for the Canadian Air Force, by the name of Paul Firestone. At the time, Esther was singing at the
New Moon Lodge in Muskoka. And the MC for the event was none other than Paul Firestone. When he walked into the theatre hall in the New Moon Lodge, on that fateful night, Esther was on the stage with a number of other people. Paul nudged the friend he was with and said, “You see that little girl on the end? I’m going to marry her.”

The couple were soon married in 1950, and shortly thereafter had the first of six children, Debbie, followed by Sean, Jay, Danny , Ari, & Hillary, who was the youngest, born in 1965.

Last night, sitting with Debbie and Ari and Blima, Debbie and Ari shared with me stories about their mother from the time when they were growing up. Debbie remembers that her mother was virtually the only one who had a full time career at the time. They both remembered, with barely dimmed amazement, her wonderful cooking – how she could make a marvelous dinner for 20 in a couple of hours and present it on a beautifully arranged table.

“Everything that she did, she did to perfection,” I was told.……”She had six kids, but if you saw her on CBC’s Take 30 she was svelte and always in a beautiful dress and high heels.” They remembered how she actually knitted her own clothing and made beautiful suits that looked like they were from Chanel in Paris. “Nobody else was like her. Nobody else did all these things.” Debbie said. Most importantly Debbie added, “she was an extraordinarily loving mom, a really good mom.”

Ari remembers the bedtime ritual from the time when they were living in Deepwood Crescent, in a three bedroom house where he and Danny shared a room. “Danny and I used to go to bed at the same time, earlier than everyone else. My mom would come in, turn off the lights and lie down with one of us and sing a song in our ear, kiss us three times, and then get up and go to the other one. Every night, without fail, it would be a contest between Danny and me, who would get to have even a few more seconds with Mom. If Ari felt short changed, he would complain: “You were with Danny 13 seconds more than me!” – and vice versa.

Both Debbie and Ari remember the great parties their parents threw, and how warm and welcoming their parents were to everyone including their young friends. Esther welcomed many distressed young people into their family when they were having trouble at home. Some even believed that Esther had saved their lives by making them a part of their family. “Esther”, her children told me, “was their escape.”

“Our friends”, they said, “always felt like they were part of our family – and we were one big family.”

Of course, Esther’s deepest loyalty was to her own family members. She took extraordinary care of her own mother Rachel until she passed away at around 102 years of age.

In the mid to late 1990’s, before Rachel passed away, whenever I spoke to Esther it was always, before or after: Either she was just on her way to give her mother a meal, or she was just returning from having fed her.

Esther’s devotion for her mother, was only matched by her devotion to her children and grandchildren. When Hilary first took sick, Esther did everything and more a mother could do to care for her child. And truth be told, Esther never stopped mourning the loss of her beloved Hilary. She used to tell me, “You know, they say it gets easier, but it just gets harder with each passing day.” In fact, in almost 30 years of working together, Esther only missed one service in all those years – and that was just after Hilary’s passing.

Before I conclude, I want to return to my experience of working with Esther over the last 3 decades. When I first met Esther, I was in my late 20’s and Esther was double my age. In short – I had never met anyone like Esther – and this was not just because I had just come from the Ultra-Orthodox world. Since we first met, until today, I have never met anyone – of any age or gender – with the same drive, passion, charisma, and sheer musical ability that came together in this one package. And this never changed throughout all my years together with her – her enthusiasm, her passion, her youthfulness never left her. In fact, earlier this month, at age 90, Esther was scheduled to perform a Bat Mitzvah with me at Habonim – but the illness at the end of April interfered with those plans.

I have never met anyone who was so passionate about music, who was so excited when she discovered a new melody, or when she heard a unique voice in a young child in the choir or at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, or who became so wrapped up in the singing of a particular piece of music.

Esther literally lived and breathed music. As many of you know, for a number of years, Esther was looking to downsize to a condo. For most people, the first question they ask is: How big is the kitchen? Or, how many bathrooms, how many bedrooms? But for Esther the first – and perhaps only question was – does the condo have a room big enough to house her grand piano?

But before I continue to talk about Esther’s music, I do want to point out that no one could tell a Jewish joke like Esther – no one.

Here are a few she loved to share:

Seymour is lying in his hospital bed quite ill on his final life’s journey. His loyal wife Sadie is by his side, as always, holding his hands. There are tears in both of their eyes.

“Sadie”, Seymour says, “you’ve been with me during my toughest times..”

“Sadie, you were with me when my partner tried to swindle me out of everything.”

“Sadie, you were by my side when the store burnt down.”

“Sadie, you never left me, even when my next business went bankrupt.”

“Sadie, you were with me, when I had to go on disability and could no longer work.”

“And Sadie, now you are by my side, as I lie in the hospital with this terrible illness, still holding my hand.

“Sadie – I’ve come to one conclusion – You’re a…… jinx!!!

Another:

There was a little old Jewish man who wasn’t very sophisticated and who thought that the great violinist Jascha Heifetz was actually a singer.

When he hears Jascha Heifetz is coming to Carnegie Hall, he makes a big trek all the way from the Bronx to Carnegie Hall. He arrives at the ticket booth and says: “I’d like to have a ticket for Jascha Heifetz.”

The woman in the booth says: “I’m sorry, we’re all sold out.”

The old man says: “Vat?! You’re sold out! I came all the way from the Bronx and had to take two buses and walk 50 blocks!”

But the woman said, “I’m sorry but we just don’t have any tickets left.”

So the old Jewish man said, “Please! For an old Jewish man, just vun ticket!”

But, again, she says: “I’m sorry sir, we are all sold out.”

So, he goes around the side of Carnegie Hall and sees an open door.

He goes in the open door and, in fact, there’s a man sitting in the dressing room. The old man says: “Listen. I’m an old Jewish man. I took a bus (bosch) and I walked 50 blocks, and I took another bus, and I just want to hear Jascha Heifetz.”

The man says: “I’m Jascha Heifetz.”

“You’re Jascha Heifetz! Listen, can you do me a favour? Can you sing me a little song?”

Jascha Heifetz says: “What?!”

“Sing me a little song. Just for a little minute, sing me a song. I took a bus, I walked 50 blocks, all the way from the Bronx.”

Jascha Heifetz looks at him and, although he’s never sung for anyone before, he sings a song for the old Jewish man. When he’s finished the man says: “Det’s nice.”

Jascha Heifetz says: “Listen, why don’t you come to the concert. I’ll give you a ticket and you can hear me play the violin.”

The old Jewish man looks at him and waves his hand and says, “No thank (tenk) you – It’s enough I heard you sing!”

Clearly, Jasha Heifetz was no Esther Ghan Firestone when it came to singing!

Now let me return to Esther and her music… When Esther would sing on the bima, her face would light up, and her entire being, her very essence – blended into the note she was expressing.

I remember seeing the look on peoples’ faces when they would walk into Habonim – not having been there before – and all of a sudden this gorgeous, pure voice would issue forth from this petite woman behind the bima – and seeing the awe in their expressions. And this continued throughout the service – as attendees would marvel at her exceptional range, and her ability to sing with both outstanding volume and subtlety, depending on the musical piece.

And Esther’s interpretations of the various songs in the service were unmatched. From her singing of the Chasidic melody to Ale Adon, to Ben Steinberg’s Shalom Rav, to her plaintive Mizmor Ldavid at Yizkor, to her heartbreaking rendition of Avinu Malkeinu on the High Holidays – every member of Habonim who heard these, and so many other melodies, will remember forever Esther’s exquisite interpretations of these now classic pieces of Jewish liturgy.

I should also add, that when Esther sang the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur – the most solemn evening on the Jewish calendar – her soulful chanting of this timeless Jewish prayer with its haunting melody, connected all of us to the old world, to centuries of Jewish tradition, prayer and heartfelt supplication. Esther, was in many ways, our bridge to the past, to a time when prayer, and piety and faith were the common fare of every day Jewish life. Even the most hardened cynics toward religion, even the atheists and doubters among us, could not help but be moved by Esther’s chanting of the Kol Nidre.

Boris Pasternak once said: “Art is the measure of the displacement of reality by emotion.” Esther’s evocative singing, carried us all to a different place, to a higher almost mystical reality, on the wings of her angelic voice.

Esther’s musical influence in the Jewish world did not end in Toronto. When we first met, we started a choir together – the Habonim Youth Choir, and recorded an album with them. Many of the songs Esther taught the choir and which the choir recorded and which she arranged – Lay Down Your Arms and Eli, Eli among them – have since been heard around the world, have appeared in various radio and TV productions, and have become central musical pieces for the students on the March of the Living.

When Esther and I performed Bar & Bat Mitzvahs, Esther would march down the aisle with the students – leading the singing of Shabbat Shalom. Then Larry would play a short introduction on the organ before Esther would begin singing
the opening morning prayer – Mah Tovu, at an impossibly high octave and volume that only a handful of opera singers around the world could ever hope to reach. Sitting next to the nervous boy or girl on the bima, I would whisper in their ear, just as Esther hit the first note of Mah Tovu – that I would like them sing exactly the way Esther sang. The student would look at me with a terrified expression on their face and I would say, “Of course, I am joking,” and then they would begin to relax.

But the most important and transcendent moment in every Bar/Bat Mitzvah service would be when Esther would sing Debbie Friedman’s “May You Be Blessed” to the boy or girl as they stood in the centre of the bima after just having been presented with their tallit. (See full text of song at end of the eulogy.)

All of a sudden there was complete quiet in the sanctuary – you could hear a pin drop, as Esther sang this so beautifully, so eloquently, so deeply, and so touchingly – every note pitch perfect and each phrase sung with such profound feeling. Once the song was finished – and everyone had put away their Kleenex – everyone sensed that they had experienced a moment of sublime beauty and holiness, the wedding of religion, spirituality and art, a moment of hope and blessing, that everyone was feeling, for the child at the centre of this pivotal moment in his or her life.

To this day, much of what we do at a Habonim service is based on what Esther introduced to Habonim and I think of Esther and feel her presence during every one of these services. But each time the song, “May you Be Blessed” is sung from the bima to a new bar–bat mitzvah child, I especially think of Esther.

Oscar Hammerstein, in the musical Carousel, wrote these words: “As long as there is one person on earth who remembers you, it isn’t over..”

Esther has passed away – but throughout most of the 90 years she was granted, her beautiful voice has given joy and comfort to hundreds of thousands of people.

And I think I speak for all of us here when I say, that it is Esther’s exquisite voice – and so many of the beautiful melodies we were privileged to hear from her – that we will always play in the back of our minds, that we will continue to remember, continue to hear, continue to marvel at and to draw both joy and comfort from, long into the future.

May her memory always be for a blessing..

Eulogy delivered by Eli Rubenstein, May 31, 2015

May You Be Blessed: Tfilat Haderech, by Debbie Friedman

May you be blessed as you go on your way
May you be guided in peace
May you be blessed with health and joy
May this be your blessing, Amen.
Amen, Amen, May this be your blessing, Amen
Amen, Amen, May this be your blessing, Amen
May you be sheltered on the wings of peace
May you be kept in safety and in love
May grace and compassion find their way into your soul
Amen, Amen, May this be your blessing, Amen
Amen, Amen, May this be your blessing, Amen

 

Esther Ghan Firestone: Canada’s first female cantor delighted audiences with her voice

 

Fri, August 7 2020 17 Av 5780