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Esther Ghan Firestone

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Esther Ghan Firestone (1925 – 28 May 2015) was the first female cantor in Canada, although she was not ordained.[1][2] She began as a cantor in the mid-1950s at Toronto’s Temple Beth-El, and worked in Toronto at Temple Beth-El (mid-1950s to mid-1960s), Temple Emanu-El (1977), and later at Congregation Habonim Toronto from 1985 until some time in 2015.[3] She was also a member of Kol Nashim (Hebrew for “All Women”), a sextet of female lay cantors founded in 1987.[4]

Aside from her cantorial work, she was a singer; after training as a pianist in Winnipeg and giving several recitals in Manitoba, she began voice studies in 1944 in Toronto with Nina de Gedeonoff and at the TCM with Emmy Heim.[4][5] In 1948 she won second prize in an international scholarship contest sponsored by Carnegie Hall.[5] Her first recital in Toronto was in 1950 at what was then called Eaton Auditorium (now the Carlu), with her uncle accompanying her on violin.[4] She later sang on CBC Radio’s Canadian Cavalcade from 1949 to 1951, and on its Stardust program between 1957 and 1960.[4] In 1951, she made her operatic debut with the CBC Opera Company, playing Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème; she also performed with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and in concerts at the CNE Bandshell.[4] She also worked as a choirmaster and arranger of music, most notably of an Israeli-Canadian peace song, Lay Down Your Arms.[4] She also conducted the YMHA Choral Group, the Toronto Hadassah Women's Choir (1967-74), and the J.C.C. Singers (1980s), who recorded folk songs in 1984.[5] 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.[5] She was also co-founder (along with Eli Rubenstein) and conductor of the Habonim Youth Choir.[5]


She was born as Esther Cohen, and her mother's maiden name was Ghan.[4] Her mother had fled to Canada to escape the pogroms in Ukraine, where she had been imprisoned and assaulted and had faced great poverty.[4] Esther's uncle suggested she adopt the stage name of Esther Ghan for the sake of her career.[4] She later married Paul Firestone and had six children: Debbie, Shawn, Jay, Danny, Ari and Hillary; Hillary died of ovarian cancer in 2009.[4]

Further reading[edit]

Flanagan, Marie. "Music and baby food mix beautifully for her," Toronto Daily Star, 30 Mar 1962.


  1. ^ Lisa Fitterman. "Esther Ghan Firestone: Canada's first female cantor delighted audiences with her voice". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2015-06-11.
  2. ^ "PressDisplay.com". PressDisplay.com. Retrieved 2015-06-11.
  3. ^ "OBITUARY Canada's first female cantor was mother figure to many | The Canadian Jewish News". Cjnews.com. 10 June 2015. Retrieved 2015-06-13.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Lisa Fitterman (2015-06-08). "Esther Ghan Firestone: Canada's first female cantor delighted audiences with her voice". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2015-06-13.
  5. ^ a b c d e "Esther Ghan Firestone". Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Retrieved September 1, 2019.