By Hollace Ava Weiner
It’s a rare person who can chant from parchment texts and translate high-tech data. Monica O’Desky, who will become an ordained cantor June 2, is just such a person — a Torah scholar and a software engineer who operates an IT company called Netunim, which is Hebrew for data.
O’Desky kept her Texas computing company running while she commuted the past three years to classes at Hebrew College near Boston.
“It was a bit of a schlep,” she says. “I got up around 5 a.m. and worked before I got started on my studies.” O’Desky’s combination of ancient and modern skills culminated with her master’s thesis: a computer program (already being utilized) that teaches musical interpretations of Hebrew liturgy.
The toggling of high-tech and Torah texts is not Monica’s only innovation. A longtime member at Beth-El, she organized a volunteer choir, Shir Halleluyah, in the 1990s that fueled her hunger to learn about Jewish music and understand why and when specific melodies are chanted. In the 2000s, Monica started a Saturday morning Torah study group, which still meets religiously at 9 a.m., whether or not she’s in town. More recently, she orchestrated the formation of Klezzoup!, a troupe of local musicians who perform Yiddish melodies on brass, strings and woodwinds.
“We have a strong talent pool here,” says the 62-year-old Chicago native who grew up in Toledo and moved to Fort Worth in 1982 as a single woman with $200 in the bank and a master’s degree in technical writing. She landed a job at the local medical school, wrote its five-year academic computing plan, got married and gave birth to a son, Eli Holley.
O’Desky’s journey back to the future began 16 years ago, when Eli began studying for his bar mitzvah under the guidance of Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger and Sheri Allen, then a soloist and now a cantor.
“My son and I were a reverse l’dor v’dor,” she said, using the Hebrew phrase that means from one generation to the next. “Eli announced he wanted a bar mitzvah, and I studied with him. The more we studied, the more I was fascinated by the cantillation, the interpretations and the history.”
When she was growing up in Toledo, O’Desky, an alto with a broad musical range, loved to sing but stopped performing when a tonsillectomy damaged her vocal cords. As a mom, she began chanting Hebrew prayers with Eli, then soloed at Shabbat services and accepted invitations to lead bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.
Encouraged, she auditioned for choral groups and joined the Fort Worth Symphony Festival Chorus in performances of Chichester Psalms, Beethoven’s Ninth, Carmina Burana and George Takei’s Sci-Fi Spectacular. At the American Airlines Center in Dallas, she was in the choral backup twice when legendary tenor Andrea Bocelli performed. (“What a thrill.”)
When New York Cantor Bruce Ruben, director of the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College, came to Beth-El to chant during the High Holidays in 2009, he urged O’Desky to audition for cantorial school.
“He was keen for me to audition at HUC, the Reform seminary, but I discovered we were not a good fit. It wasn’t academic enough for me. I’m a researcher, a scientist at heart. I want to know why.” She wanted more than a Reform Jewish school of music. “I heard about Hebrew College in the Boston area and came to take their Ta Sh’ma, their ‘look-and-listen’ session. The school had just launched a three-year cantorial ordination program wrapped around a master’s in Jewish education.”
That fit O’Desky’s vision. She was one of only three applicants accepted.
“The school is pluralistic,” she explained, “meaning it covers all streams of Judaism, not just Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. I fell in love with the program, the people and the idea.”
The main obstacle was Hebrew. She knew the basics because she had gone to Hebrew school while growing up in Toledo. But for cantorial school, applicants need to be at “Hebrew 4 level,” comparable to four semesters of liturgical Hebrew. O’Desky was at level 2.
“That’s like reading Beowulf in English,” she sighed. “When you learn a language in your 50s, it’s an adventure. I wouldn’t have made it without Batya Brand,” the Israeli-born educator and sage who formerly headed the Fort Worth Hebrew Day School. When Brand moved to New Jersey, the pair studied on Skype.
To further bone up on Hebrew, O’Desky enrolled in Hebrew College’s Masters in Jewish Studies program, a rabbinical track. “We studied the same things as rabbinical students — Talmud, Mishnah, Hebrew and lifecycle events (doing weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals, baby namings).”
Because cantorial students have no classes during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they go to work. Abilene’s Temple Mitzpah hired O’Desky in 2016 as “kol bo,” meaning “cantor, rabbi, Torah reader, sermon giver, you name it.” The High Holidays stint turned into a year-round position, with Monica commuting 150 miles from Fort Worth to Abilene every four to six weeks. She got rave reviews from the Abilene Reporter-News for her interfaith work in West Texas.
She has also been a weekend scholar-in-residence at Longview’s Temple Emanu-El, an East Texas congregation. On several occasions, she led events for the Texas Jewish Historical Society, which considers her an honorary member.
What’s next now that O’Desky has earned the title of “cantor” and two more master’s degrees? She plans to slow down, catch her breath and see what comes along. Her son, Eli, now 28, has a master’s in government and conflict resolution from Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He joined the Texas National Guard and is assigned to an overseas intelligence group.
O’Desky resumed using her maiden name in January. “It felt right to be ordained as Monica O’Desky,” she said. Although the surname has an Irish lilt, it was derived from her family’s roots in the Black Sea port of Odessa.
“The story goes that when my father’s brothers came to America. Too many Ukrainian Jews were pouring in. So, they made themselves an Irish name for a better chance. So here we are.”
A newly minted Jewish cantor with an Irish rhythm to her name.