This interview for the Columbus Jewish
Historical Society Oral Project with Cantor Vicki Axe, is taking place October 23, 1996,
at 130 South Columbia Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43209. The Interviewer is Richard
Interviewer: Would you tell me your name?
Axe: Cantor Vicki Axe.
Interviewer: Who are you named after?
Axe: I’m named after my paternal grandfather who’s name was David. You might
ask, “How do you get Vicki out of David?”
Interviewer: What’s David’s last name?
Axe: Grant. My maiden name is Grant. I was the third of three girls. My parents had
boys’ names picked out for each of us. They never had girls names picked out. So my
oldest sister is Stevie – Stephanie; Jackie – Jacquelyn and I was supposed to be David.
When I was indeed a girl, they looked at the name Debra but there was a dog across the
street named Debra and my mother was not crazy about dogs and she didn’t want to call
me in from outside and have this dog come, so they took: this is the logic – David /
Davida / Vida / Vicki.
Interviewer: When were you born?
Axe: August 17, 1948.
Axe: Newton, Massachusetts – a suburb of Boston.
Interviewer: At what point can you start to trace your family history?
Axe: I’d say my grandparents. Before that is tough. All four of my grandparents
came from Russia.
Interviewer: Did you ever have a family tree?
Axe: No. The four grandparents came here as teenagers. My father always said it was to
avoid the draft. And growing up, I didn’t understand how serious that was. Jewish children were conscripted into the Russian army at age seven.
Interviewer: How long have you been in central Ohio?
Axe: Since 1988 – eight years.
Interviewer: How did you get here?
Axe: I was brought here by Temple Israel to be their cantor.
Interviewer: Are you the first female cantor in this community?
Axe: I believe I am and I was the first full-time cantor in a Reform Congregation.
Interviewer: What is your first memory of Columbus, Ohio?
Axe: Actually, I lived here before that – from 1971-73 – my first two years of
marriage. My husband, Harold, was in the air force at Lockbourne AFB. We came here
directly from our honeymoon in Puerto Rico and he was a major in the air force – a
physician – and I was a newlywed so while we were here, I did my Master’s Degree at
OSU and I taught music in the southwestern city schools.
Interviewer: You were a music major at OSU?
Axe: Yes. Music Education – Master’s Degree. High Holidays, 1972, we wanted to go
pray somewhere but we knew we’d be leaving so we were not interested in affiliating
with the congregation so I said, “Harold, why don’t we sing in the choir?”
High Holidays, 1972, which was Rabbi Folkman’s last High Holidays and it was Tom
Gaul’s, the tenor, first High Holidays – who’s been here ever since.
Interviewer: Who did you say?
Axe: Tom Gaul, the professional tenor, who sang in the choir. 1972 was his very first
Interviewer: Is he with Temple Israel Choir now?
Axe: Until this year. It would have been his 25th year. In any case, we sang in the
Temple Israel choir as volunteers in 1972.
Interviewer: When you got out of college, what were your career goals?
Axe: I had hoped to be a high school choral conductor. That was my dream.
Interviewer: How did that evolve into . . . .
Axe: The cantorate? I was 29 years old and pregnant, living in Manhattan, realizing
everything in my life had led me toward the cantorate. After Harold and I left Columbus in
1973, we wanted to travel. We didn’t want to settle into suburbia for awhile so we
lived in Israel for two years – I taught music all along. I had my Master’s Degree
and I always taught in the schools. When we came back from Israel in 1975, we lived in
Manhattan and I taught in day school instead of public school because I felt I had that
added dimension of knowing Hebrew and Hebrew songs and I was taking some classes in Jewish
Music Education with a cantor from Philadelphia. He talked about what he did with the
children and what he did with the adults and what he did to teach and what he did to
conduct, and it just all fit. And as I said, I was 29 years old and pregnant with my first
child and we were living in Manhattan so I went to Hebrew Union College.
Interviewer: What educational impact did you hope to make with members of the
congregation and the general Jewish community when you moved here eight years ago?
Axe: I think whatever my title is, I’m a teacher with a capital T and so I believe
that everything I do is involved in teaching; who we are as Jews through music, through
modeling Jewish behavior in terms of study, good deeds, visiting the sick, rejoicing with
the bride and groom, all of those kinds of things. So through my contact with Jews of all
ages and non-Jews as well, I believe that we’re always teaching the Jewish message to
the world. And that as a cantor there was an added heightened spirituality and maybe some
added knowledge by virtue of the study I engaged in and the ability to teach people to
touch their Jewish selves.
Interviewer: Do you think you were successful?
Axe: Yes, I do.
Interviewer: You’re pleased with yourself?
Axe: Yes, I am.
Interviewer: What made you decide to become a cantor?
Axe: Well, I was sitting in this class, Jewish Education, pregnant with my first child,
which was not the issue, it just happened when it happened, I realized that everything
that what I am, is what a cantor is. A cantor is a performer because you have to perform
the liturgy in a way that will touch people. A cantor is a teacher. A cantor is a person
who can counsel and engage in pastoral care and I believe I have a gift and a talent for that. A cantor is a person who lives a Jewish lifestyle and Harold and I, as a couple and then as a family, have chosen to live a very deep Jewish
lifestyle. And I realized that everything I am is what a cantor is. Now I have to go and
Interviewer: Were there any other cantors in your family?
Axe: No. Never. I only knew one of my grandparents – my paternal grandmother, and I
knew her when she was pretty old and not healthy but I understand that she was an actress
in Russia so I guess I come by performance naturally. And my paternal grandfather was a
Jewish scholar so I guess if you put those two together, you come up with a cantor.
Interviewer: Tell me something about your siblings.
Axe: I’m the youngest of three daughters. My oldest sister lives in Washington
State. She writes children’s books. She’s also a psychologist by education – a
Ph.D. She is trying desperately to publish. My middle sister was an elementary school
teacher with a Master’s Degree and she lived in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, she died
of cancer when she was 34 – 17 years ago.
Interviewer: When you were young, what were some of the changes in some of your
thinking then, as opposed to now in the maturing factor of your Jewishness? Was there any
specific thing that did that? You’ve talked about how important that is to you.
Axe: I was one of the rare kids who loved going to Sunday School. I remember my
confirmation year very well and I remember during high school thinking about my ideas of
what God is and I was very moved when studying Plato and Socrates and seeing how that fit
into my view of God. I don’t think my view of God has changed much since then but I
had a very adult view of God then – it’s not that I have a childish view of God now.
Interviewer: Did you get that in high school?
Axe: I think so, yes.
Interviewer: In the high school or in Sunday School?
Axe: Sunday School – by virtue of having gone to Sunday School and thinking about it
and also coupled with studying the philosophies in high school, I guess it was always an
important thing to me so I internalized those studies and made them my own.
Interviewer: Did you ever go to camp while you were growing up?
Axe: I did but I never went to Jewish camp.
Interviewer: So nothing came out of the camp that gave you a Jewish experience.
Axe: No. I’m not a product of the Jewish camp world because many rabbis and
cantors are. That wasn’t my avenue.
Interviewer: What jobs did you have during high school? College?
Axe: I had totally unrelated jobs to Jewish life. I worked as a Mother’s Helper
for two summers with a Catholic family.
Interviewer: Is that like a Nanny?
Axe: Yes, a Nanny. My very first job was working in my mother’s office as a filing
Interviewer: What did your mother do?
Axe: She was a bookkeeper – an office manager.
Interviewer: With what kind of company?
Axe: It varied but that’s what she did. My father was a Willie Loman type.
Interviewer: Are your parents living?
Interviewer: What were their names?
Axe: Gertrude Greenberg Grant and William David Grant.
Interviewer: What are some of your hobbies and interests now? Besides raising four
Axe: We spend a lot of time, together, as a family. If you want to call it a hobby or
leisure time activity. I like to read pleasure books. Some of the mysteries that are out
now. I’m reading “Beach Music,” right now. I went through a stage where I
read every book I could get my hands on having to do with the Holocaust, Children of the
Holocaust, and all of that literature – about 10 years ago.
Interviewer: I assume you’ve been to the Holocaust Museum?
Interviewer: And what about the one in Los Angeles? The Museum of Tolerance?
Axe: No. But I had the very great honor of singing at the Holocaust Museum.
Interviewer: Tell us about that.
Axe: Our Cantor’s convention each year is in a different place. We have about 300
members of the American Conference of Cantors.
Interviewer: Weren’t you an officer?
Axe: I served as president from 1991-1995 – four years and I was the first woman to
serve in that capacity and I was the first person to have two consecutive terms. Our
convention was in Baltimore and our plan was to spend the day at the Holocaust Museum
where most of us had not been yet. We toured for the day and then it culminated into a
concert in the afternoon. Most of the people who participated were either survivors
themselves or cantors or family survivors. It was very moving. Two of the Cantors in
particular dedicated the pieces that they sang to children they had known in the camps who
had died. And because I was president, I got to lead everyone at the very end, singing Ani
Ma’aamin “I believe with Perfect Faith.” My husband, who was in the
audience, said that people were sobbing, absolutely sobbing. It was a real highlight kind
Interviewer: How did you meet your husband, Harold?
Axe: We met in a choir. We both went to Temple University Undergraduate School and he
went to Temple University Medical School. He’s six years older than I am. As an
undergraduate, he had sung in the Men’s Glee Club and each year, the combined choirs
would sing with the Philadelphia Orchestra and since he was right there in Philadelphia
Medical School, he sang in this one concert when he was a second-year medical student and
I was a freshman. Harold saw me and thought I was interesting and wanted to meet me but I
was with someone and he was too shy to say hello. So six years later, he had since done a
medical residency in Michigan and was back in Philadelphia for his last year of residency
and I had since graduated and was in my second year of teaching back in the Boston area
and whenever I visited my sister who lived in Philadelphia, I would also go and visit this
choir which is similar to the Columbus Symphony Orchestra Chorus, called the Mendelssohn
Club which was conducted by our college director. Harold sang in this choir, my sister
sang in it; and all my friends sang in this choir so I would always go to rehearsals when
I was in town. And we met then. It was a very happy time, meeting my future husband but it
was also a sad time because the reason I was in Philadelphia at that time was because my
mother was very ill. I met Harold on a Wednesday evening at choir rehearsal and my mother
died one week later. So it was a very highly emotional time.
Interviewer: Where are the places you’ve lived?
Axe: I grew up in Boston, lived two years in Chicago when I was ten and eleven, back in
Boston through high school and during my college years, my parents lived in New Jersey and
I was in Philadelphia. Two years out of college, I lived in Boston, then my first two
years of marriage, Columbus, Ohio, third and fourth year of marriage, Israel – we lived in
Tel Aviv for two years. Then we lived in Manhattan for nine years from 1975-1984;
Westport, Connecticut from 1984-88; and Columbus since 1988.
Interviewer: I am interested in your attitude toward raising children – how that has
Axe: I think the greatest gift parents can give their children is autonomy, confidence,
and if our children can go out into the world and feel wonderful about themselves, then
we’ve done our job right. If ultimately, they make decisions that we don’t agree
with, we may feel very terrible about it but if we’ve done our job right, then they
will indeed make their own decisions.
Interviewer: How did that differ, if it did differ, from the way you were raised?
Axe: It’s very interesting, when you have children and you feel yourself doing and
saying things – I feel my parents’ presence at different moments – you parent the way
you were parented. I think one of the reasons why conflicts arise between husbands and
wives over parenting is because you’re just doing what you instinctively were raised
with, what’s inside and it may be different and then you, as a couple, may find your
own ways which sometimes you agree and sometimes you don’t, but I think I’m
raising my children very similarly to how my parents raised me.
Interviewer: Am I reading between the lines in saying that Harold parents one way and
you parent another way? Neither one is right or wrong. A male parents differently than a
Axe: I think a male parents differently than a female. I think that Harold’s
mother was a first-generation American which makes a difference. Harold’s mother was
born in Poland and came to America when she was seven and grew up with an immigrant
mentality and I think that creates a different kind of environment to grow up in. My
parents were second-generation Americans and were of the liberal 20’s era and I think
that influenced my upbringing and I see it in the way we raise our children.
Interviewer: Philosophically speaking, what has been the most outstanding thing in your
life? Family? Job? Politics? Religion? Is there that one you can isolate and say this has
been the most important?
Axe: I think having and raising children is the most important thing we, as human
beings, can do and the most difficult. Stuff comes up and, I say, none of this was in the
Interviewer: Is there anything specific you would like to talk about that is relevant
to Columbus Jewish History and your part in it?
Axe: Well, I think you touched on my part in it as the first female cantor, the first
female clergy in Columbus. I believe that it is significant. I also believe the fact that
I’m the first fully credentialed cantor in the Reform movement in Columbus, Ohio is
also significant. Temple Israel is 150 years old and really has followed the history in
its philosophy and ways of classical Reform synagogue practice. I came to Temple Israel at
a time when, historically, Reform congregations are open to the notion of a cantor which
historically was something the Reform movement rejected for all kinds of reasons. So I
think my presence at Temple Israel as its first cantor within its 150-year-old history is
very significant and can be parallel to the history of Reform Judaism and Reform Jewish
Interviewer: How many female cantors are there in this country? Do you know?
Axe: Well, I can speak for the Reform movement. Most specifically, the first female
Cantor graduated from Hebrew Union College in 1975 and at that time, it was a Bachelor
Degree. This woman, Barbara Ostfelt Horowitz, who is in Buffalo now, went into Cantorial
School right after high school. Today it is a Master’s Degree program. The School of
Sacred Music is only in New York.
Interviewer: And you graduated from the New York Institute?
Axe: Correct. Out of about 300 members of the American Conference of Cantors which is
the organization of Reform Cantors, 40-50% are women. But that happened very quickly. Once
it opened up to women, the numbers kept changing dramatically. In the seminary, the
balance between men and women students changed dramatically in the 80’s once it opened up.
I am very typical of what happened where women went into the cantorate as a second career
– I was 31 when I entered school and I was 35 when I graduated from seminary. I would say
it is still typical. It wasn’t an option that was open to us when I was in college
and graduate school. But once it was open, it was, “Alvis House ha! That’s who I
am!” and the calling was so clear to me as I believe to many other women.
People go into the cantorate through very different avenues. The rabbinate is more
typical. People major in Political Science, Jewish Studies, Sociology or History but the
cantorate, people had an opera career, people who were on the theater stage, people came
through the camp movement, or people like myself, came through teaching and choral
Interviewer: Are you aware of any female cantors in the Conservative or Orthodox
Axe: The Orthodox movement is much more difficult to deal with and I am not sure
I’ll ever see it in my lifetime. There are women’s minyans where women serve as
cantors but in terms of the Orthodox movement, I don’t think it will happen.
Interviewer: What about Conservative?
Axe: Conservative movement – women were accepted into the seminary in the last ten
years. It’s interesting that women were accepted into the Rabbinical School earlier
than the Cantorial School within the Conservative movement and more easily, although not
without difficulty because according to Jewish law, it’s easier to reconcile a woman
rabbi than a woman cantor.
Interviewer: Why is that?
Axe: Because the role of the rabbi is teacher and preacher. The role of the cantor is
Shaleeach Tzibur, the person who prays on behalf of the people and according to Jewish
law, a woman is not obligated to pray so how can a woman pray on behalf of the people? So
within the Conservative movement, which is bound to Jewish law, the whole notion of a
woman cantor is much more difficult to accept than a woman rabbi. I believe,
sociologically, it’s easier to accept a woman cantor than a woman rabbi because
people have the male image of a rabbi – father figure and the cantor is thought of the
more aesthetic, nurturing, music, so for people, it’s easier to consider a woman in
the role of cantor but by Jewish law, it’s just the opposite which is what you’d
Interviewer: Were you Bat Mitzvah?
Axe: I never had a Bat Mitzvah. I think I went to the cantorate because I really wanted
to study . . . .to know Judaism. I think that Reform Judaism is a very viable answer. My
parents came to Reform Judaism as adults. My parents who were serious intellectuals where
they moved from New York to the Boston area and friends took them to a Reform
Congregation, Temple Israel, in Brooklyn with Lauren Gittleson – these are stories that I
grew up with. My father, from that first service, said, “This is wonderful! I can understand it. It’s not a mystery.
It’s intellectual.” They just ate up Reform Judaism. They became avid practicing
Reform Jews and that’s what I grew up with but I always believed that as a
second-generation Reform Jew, there were problems because those who founded Reform Judaism
made choices based on knowledge. They were basically coming out of an Orthodox orientation
where they knew the laws and rituals and practices and could, say around the turn of the
century, this is significant, this isn’t, this has meaning, this doesn’t. As a
second-generation Reform Jew, I didn’t have the knowledge on which to base meaningful
decisions. If that’s what Reform Judaism is about, Reform Judaism is the thinking
person’s Judaism and is incumbent on us to make choices about our Judaism, but how
can we make intellectual thinking choices if we don’t know what the options are? If
we don’t know the full spectrum? That was part of my motivation for going into the
cantorate – to know more.
Interviewer: Tell me some of your political philosophies in this day and age. Do you
have any specific thoughts of the political arena?
Axe: I usually try to stay away from that area. If somebody pinned me to a wall and I
had to answer the question, I’d say I’m a moderate liberal – using the word
moderate means I don’t want to take a risk.
Interviewer: It’s interesting when you use the word liberal, how they have – the
agenda today is as if you’ve got AIDS. If you’re a liberal, you’re a
horrible person. People are reluctant to even use the word today.
Axe: Yes, it’s a red-flag word. But on some of the political issues that have
religious overtones, like abortions, euthanasia, schools, I believe that none of those
things belong in the arena of legislation, as a sweeping statement. I think things that
have to do with life and death should not be legislative, they should be between you and
God and within your family structure. Prayer in school – I’m very opposed to it. I
believe there should be a clearer separation of church and state than there is.
Interviewer: Our constitution says that. Where is the rationale coming that it
doesn’t mean that? Do you understand?
Axe: No, I don’t.
Interviewer: It’s very clear what that means.
Axe: I believe it is. In fact, I remember when I was in third or fourth grade, when
prayer was taken out of the school. I remember very clearly in my earlier school years, we
said the Lord’s Prayer and I still know it by heart. And my third grade teacher read the Bible to us as part of the morning ritual. And then, we didn’t.
Interviewer: People like to say, “When I grew up, I was part of the Christmas
celebration in school” and they say it didn’t affect you.
Axe: I believe that none of the holidays belong in school.
Interviewer: Including Christmas? You don’t think the balance where there’s a
lot more Chanukah – where someone comes in and does the Chanukah thing?
Axe: No. Or Kwaanza.
Interviewer: It’s just as bad?
Axe: I think it’s worse. Christmas is a major, major holiday on the Christian
calendar. Chanukah is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. And to juxtapose the two, I
believe, is a disservice to the Christian community as well as to the Jewish community. It
diminishes what Christmas is and should be for Christians and should be celebrated fully
in their religious institutions and, I believe it builds up Chanukah for something it
shouldn’t be. Musically, you can’t compare Handel’s Messiah with “I
Have a Little Dreidel.” And why should we? I do, however, believe Handel’s
Messiah should be studied – I think any knowledgeable choral singer should experience
Handel’s Messiah but don’t sing it in December as part of Christmas – sing it in
February or March as part of your musical education.
Interviewer: This is something you really don’t have to talk about – how has
breast cancer affected your life? What has it meant to you and what it’s done to you
positively and negatively and, I happen to think this is a very important element, in
society today? Do you mind talking about it?
Axe: No, not at all. I think of my experience and I see other people who deal with
serious disease . . . I choose to be very open about it. For two reasons. Number one, I
think people can respond to someone’s disease if it’s direct and open and
they’re not afraid to say, “How are you feeling? What can I do for you?
Here’s a hug.” And the other reason I was open about it was because it helped
part of my healing. Some people are very hush-hush about the word Cancer or they whisper
the word death – I’m just the opposite. I think disease and illness are part of life.
God created us to deal with disease, God created us as mortal beings and so it’s
something we need to deal with as directly as we deal with waking up and eating. So I
think that because I was so open and direct, I was able to watch little miracles happen
around me all the time.
Interviewer: Was there a religious connotation to the experience?
Axe: I think so only in that I live in a very heightened religious world. I deal with
our texts all the time and I get to sing them all the time which, to me, is a gift and I
get to share them with other people but for me, personally, where we sing the same texts
all the time, because we have a fixed liturgy, certain words jumped out at me or certain
melodies touched me even though I sing them all the time. The word I found most compelling
was the word AMEN and I wrote about it.
Interviewer: What do you mean you wrote about it?
Axe: I kept a journal from the day I got the biopsy report.
Interviewer: What do you plan to do with it?
Axe: I don’t know.
Interviewer: We could see it published one of these days.
Axe: I’d love to see it published. I think there’s some good stuff in there
and I think it helps other people. All of the journals that have been published have
really helped other people. The word Amen means “I believe.” It comes from the
word Amen. It’s the same three-letter root in Hebrew and literally means “I
believe.” It’s a statement of belief at the end of a prayer. Amen. Picture a
Baptist minister and victims of the Holocaust who we are told said the word Ani Ma-aa-meen
as they went to their deaths. So whenever I sang the word Amen, I found it very moving.
It’s also becoming a very universal word. Whenever I work in a Christian community or
sing a concert or do an interfaith, I always point out to the Christian people involved
that every time you say, sing, or speak the word Amen, you’re actually saying Hebrew
and it brings people together. Amen means “I believe.” It is the ultimate
statement of faith.
Interviewer: We’re at the end of the interview. I don’t have any more
questions. Is there anything you want to talk about?
Axe: No, I don’t think so.
Interviewer: This concludes my interview with Cantor Vicki Axe.