TORONTO — She was best known for her angelic voice and for being the first female cantor in Canada, but to her oldest daughter Debbie Firestone and the rest of her six children, Esther Ghan Firestone, who died May 28 at age 90, was also a loving mother who devoted herself to her family and friends.
“My mother was – aside from being professional – she was just so defined by being a mother… her house was a house where everyone who came through it became part of the family,” Firestone said.
As the wife of the late Paul Firestone, whom she married in 1950 and soon after had the first of six children – Debbie, Sean, Jay, Danny, Ari and the late Hillary, who died six years ago – Ghan Firestone was a mother figure to many.
“One of my brothers, when he was in university, his roommate had come from Israel to go to U of T and he literally became part of the family. And when his sister followed him from Israel, she became part of the family. When he got married, his wife and kids became part of the family. And when his parents came over from Israel, they became part of the family, so much so that as adults, his kids didn’t realize that we weren’t cousins. They assumed we were all cousins. And that story is repeated over and over again,” Firestone said.
Firestone added that even her ex-sister-in-law continued to be close with her mother, and her sister’s first fiancé, whom she never married, remained so close to her mother that he was a pallbearer at the funeral.
“We all have feelings of being part of a giant extended family, and that all came from my mother.”
Ghan Firestone was also a grandmother of nine and was expecting her first great-grandchild in August.
Her devotion to her family and loved ones is all the more remarkable given her illustrious career as a musician, performer and cantor that spanned decades and continued until just a couple months ago, when, after a car accident, she was diagnosed with brain cancer.
“She was driving and living by herself and conducting the JCC choir just the day before [the accident], and she was scheduled to officiate at a bar mitzvah with Eli [Rubenstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Habonim] on May 2,” Firestone said.
In a eulogy at Ghan Firestone’s May 31 funeral, Rubenstein, who worked with her for 30 years, gave a short history of who she was and where she came from.
Ghan Firestone was born in 1925 in Winnipeg, and music was an important part of her life from a young age. Her talents first emerged as a pianist, while her younger brother, Morry, was known as the singer in the family.
It wasn’t until Ghan Firestone was 17 that she auditioned for a singing role in a local play and got the part. She never looked back. After moving to Toronto in 1944 with her blind uncle, Sherman Ghan, who forged a career as a violinist, her achievements included singing on CBC’s Canadian Cavalcade and starring on CBC radio’s Stardust.
She also performed with the CBC Opera, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic.
She was the first female cantor in Canada and worked in Toronto at Beth-El Synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, and later at Congregation Habonim from 1985 until earlier this year.
“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,” Rubenstein said. “I remember seeing the look on people’s 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 bimah, and seeing the awe in their expressions.”
Although Ghan Firestone broke down barriers as Canada’s first female cantor, her motivation was never political.
“A reporter once said to me, ‘Oh, your mother is a feminist.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ She never sang or performed her cantorial duties out of any philosophical or ideological desire to be a feminist or be a working woman. It was just who she was. She sang,” Firestone said. “She was a living example of a woman being a full person who did everything she had the ability to do.”