70th Anniversary | Local

Falkow, Strauss families carry cantor’s legacy of tradition into 21st century

The Falkow family in 1955, clockwise from left: Lynne, Bess, Cantor Maurice, Richard and Deena (Courtesy Congregation Anshei Israel)

During holiday musaf services at Congregation Anshei Israel, Jack, Alan and Ian Strauss ascend the bimah to recite the priestly blessing. As the son-in-law, grandson and great-grandson of the late Cantor Maurice Falkow carry on their patriarch’s legacy, they cover their heads with their prayer shawls, raise their arms and chant the prayers in the same sing-song melody that Cantor Falkow sang for decades.

Ian, Beth and Alan Strauss practice for Ian’s bar mitzvah at Congregation Anshei Israel in 2012. (Courtesy Congregation Anshei Israel)
Ian, Beth and Alan Strauss practice for Ian’s bar mitzvah at Congregation Anshei Israel in 2012. (Courtesy Congregation Anshei Israel)

They are among a dwindling number of Cohanim (descendents of Moses’ brother Aaron) who are still interested in and able to bless the congregation in this traditional manner. Two more may soon join their ranks, Alan hopes, if he can convince his mother and aunt, Lynne Falkow- Strauss and Deena Falkow, to join them on the bimah, as Anshei Israel expands this honor to include daughters of Cohanim.

In many ways, this scene epitomizes how the Falkow-Strauss family has stayed involved and committed, carrying on a legacy of tradition while finding ways to keep it relevant and meaningful, generation after generation.

“It’s a good example of larger conversations that have to happen within any church or synagogue, which is how does the place remain relevant to the values of its membership, without sacrificing whatever core identity and values are decided on as those of the institution. And I do think that’s the way my grandfather would approach these things,” says Alan.

Although she hasn’t made up her mind just yet, Lynne thinks her father would have approved of women taking on this role. “Daddy never had a problem with women going up [to the bimah]. Once [the synagogue] became egalitarian it never bothered him at all. Mommy was the one who was way more traditional.” But on the other hand, she says, “As my mother always told me, ‘Anything the women are involved in, we do better and we take over.’”

The family has been in Tucson almost as long as the Arizona Jewish Post.

Cantor Maurice Falkow in 1949. He served as cantor at Congregation Anshei Israel for 40 years. (Courtesy Congregation Anshei Israel)
Cantor Maurice Falkow in 1949. He served as cantor at Congregation Anshei Israel for 40 years. (Courtesy Congregation Anshei Israel)

Maurice Falkow was born in Albany, N.Y., and studied at Juilliard. While serving as a chaplain’s assistant in Okinawa during World War II, he met Anshei Israel’s Rabbi Marcus Breger and the two became good friends. When Breger returned to Tucson after the war, he asked Maurice to join the congregation as cantor and education director of its new religious school. Maurice brought his wife, Bess, and their young family to Tucson in 1948, arriving just before Passover. Lynne was 11 months old and her older brother, Richard, was 6.

While Richard, Lynne and Deena quite literally grew up at Anshei Israel, their father practically lived there. Between teaching, running the religious school, tutoring b’nai mitzvah students, conducting services and serving as executive director, he worked long hours and was often back at the synagogue for committee meetings in the evenings. Fortunately, they lived just three blocks from the synagogue, so he always came home to eat dinner with the family.

“It was a much smaller community,” says Lynne. “You knew everybody who was Jewish, didn’t you?”

“Well, at least everybody knew us,” says Deena, noting that she loved growing up in her father’s shadow. “I felt very special, very blessed and proud. I felt that everybody really loved him.”

“He was such a good person. His Judaism truly was his life. He believed in it,” says Lynne. “His Judaism came first.”

She also remembers him being very active in the broader Tucson community, conducting Passover Seders for churches and speaking at high school baccalaureate ceremonies. The flip side of that was that he wasn’t home much.

“One of my fondest childhood memories is after Hebrew school on Sundays, very often we would go picnic in Sabino Canyon. It seemed so far away back then,” says Lynne. “That was our time with him, because he was always so involved in the community.”

Maurice, who was cantor at Anshei Israel for 40 years, died in 2005 at age 87.

Bess, who died in 2013 at age 94, held the family together. A stay-at-home mother for years, she also volunteered extensively at the synagogue, earning a Woman of Valor award from the Sisterhood. From organizing model Seders for the religious school to hosting sukkah decorating parties for Sukkot, she was always by Maurice’s side. In the 1970s she even started driving the preschool and kindergarten van. As her children got older, Bess went to work as a real estate agent, initially to earn money for Lynne’s wedding to her childhood sweetheart, Jack Strauss.

After completing her bachelor’s degree in family relations and child development from the University of Arizona in 1971, Lynne was asked to help out at the synagogue’s preschool. Three years later, she was appointed director of the preschool, a position she has held for more than 40 years. Under her leadership, the Esther B. Feldman Preschool/Kin­dergarten has twice received the Solomon Schechter Award for Excellence from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Richard, a retired attorney, lives in Plano, Texas, with his wife, Sheila.

Deena earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the UA in 1973. She lived in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Germany before moving to North Carolina in 1983. She returned to Tucson in 1990 with her two young children, Brittany and Brandon. She taught in Anshei Israel’s preschool for 10 years and was recognized as Educator of the Year by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona in 1999. Although Deena loved teaching, she needed to find a better paying job as the sole provider for her family. She didn’t have to go far — and now works for Southwestern Eye Center, just east of the synagogue on Fifth Street.

Both of Lynne’s children, Alan and Lori, are educational leaders too. Lori is the principal of the high school program at Wildwood School in Los Angeles, and is married to a Reform cantor. Alan was the assistant director of the Disability Resources Center at the UA, and now heads the UA Sky School and the Mount Lemmon Sky Center. He also serves on Anshei Israel’s board of trustees.

“They were both really, really touched by their relationship with my parents,” says Lynne. “We spent every Friday night there for dinner and we spent every Shabbas there.”

Alan says he learned a lot from his grandfather during those times they spent together — walking home after Saturday morning services, Shabbat lunch at their house and spending hours fishing on their boat on Roosevelt Lake.

“He gave me an understanding of what it means to be Jewish, how to figure out what’s your Jewish identity,” Alan says. “I remember conversations walking home from shul on Shabbas or on the boat, always exploring things through a Jewish lens.”

Another memory he has was being out on the lake with his grandfather one Fourth of July, when their boat ran into some mechanical trouble and they were stuck in the middle of the lake as it was getting dark. Maurice set off a flare to signal for help and as it lit up the night sky, people on the shores of the lake started cheering, assuming it was a fireworks show. Not the reaction they hoped for. “It was my first memory of my grandfather ever cursing,” he says. “It was so shocking to hear anything profane come out of his mouth.” Of course, they laughed about it afterwards.

Humor, insight, challenging assumptions — these are the ways Alan remembers Maurice; the essence of Jewish living. As Jewish Tucson has changed over the years, Alan often thinks about how his grandfather would respond to those changes and the challenges they present.

“I have no idea what the Jewish community of Tucson will look like in 85 years. Things are changing throughout our country. How we think about organizations of any kind. People think differently now about what’s community, what’s collective support. Not to sound like my grandfather, but it’s a strange world we live in. I have a 17-year-old, and I think, ‘What’s the world like for him?’ And I laugh to myself, because I do remember my grandfather saying this about the world I was going to be coming into. Every generation has a nostalgia for the past. You just try to keep some hope for the future and leave the place a little bit better than you found it.”

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is the editor of Arizona Jewish Life magazine.