There was a poignant air to the Chamber Music Society concert in Fort Worth December 1, 2007. Prior to the performance, Chairman Leon Brachman thanked the audience for extending emotional support following the death of his wife, Fay Rosenthal Brachman on November 18, 2007. Both Brachmans were among the founders of the Chamber Music Society, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and the city's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The chamber music performance that December day was dedicated to Fay's memory. By chance, the concert program included her favorite composition, the Franck "Sonata for Piano and Violin."
"It was a lovely tribute," wrote the Fort Worth Star-Telegram music critic. The music critic might have added that Fay Brachman had set the tone and the tempo for many an endeavor during her 86 years. As a young bride in 1948, she had transformed the Ladies Auxiliary at Ahavath Sholom into an energetic organization that held teen functions and opened a Judaica shop (because there was nowhere in the city to purchase the basics for a Jewish home). When Fay launched the Fort Worth Jewish Archives in the 1990s, she secured funding from the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth & Tarrant County, drummed up volunteers and converted a storage room at Ahavath Sholom into a repository for crates of materials to be archived. When she joined the Texas Jewish Historical Society, her energies propelled the membership to a fivefold increase, and her efforts continued through her presidency, from 1993 to 1995 and beyond.
"When Fay had an idea that something needed doing, she didn't complain. She jumped in and did it," recalled Leon Brachman, her husband of 66 years. "She energized people. She didn't plan to do things big, she just planned to do things better, and they grew." A take-charge person with a matriarchal air and a motivating presence, Fay Rosenthal was born in Fort Worth June 21, 1921. Her paternal grandfather, immigrant Abraham Rosenthal, was a shochet and the chazzan at Dallas's Shearith Israel. Her maternal grandfather, Ben Levenson, was one of 10 men who founded Fort Worth's first Jewish congregation, Ahavath Sholom, in 1892.
Seeing her grandfather's signature on the opening page of the congregation's Yiddish minutes was among the factors that propelled Fay on her journey into Texas Jewish history. A gifted storyteller, Fay loved recounting how her father, Harry Rosenthal, and his brothers used to herd steers through downtown Dallas, past the old Sanger Brothers store on Lamar Street. One day, they were fined for driving too many cattle. "My father was a cowboy!" Fay once told a reporter from the Forward, a national Jewish newspaper. Fay's mother, Jennie Levenson, grew up in Fort Worth and wandered barefoot around the courthouse square, where her parents operated a dry-goods store. When Fay was an elementary-school student, her grandmother attended the local National Council of Jewish Women's Americanization School, and Fay helped with her English lessons. As a 16-year-old ingénue, Fay made her bow to Fort Worth Jewish Society as a debutante at Presentation, an annual Thanksgiving ball. She graduated from Paschal High in 1939. That year, Fay met her beshert, Leon Brachman, near a golf course when his ball went astray and landed at her feet. Always quick with a retort, she challenged him to improve his golf game. It was the start of a courtship that led to marriage August 10, 1941.
Fay, following in her mother's footsteps, joined the Ladies Auxiliary of Ahavath Sholom. The nominating committee convinced her to become first vice president, an office with few responsibilities - until the president was forced to resign because of family issues. Twenty-seven-year-old Fay found herself the head of the Ladies Auxiliary - an organization in which the shots were called by the two most senior past presidents, Rebecca Goldstein and Annie Mehl, both immigrants from the old school. During board meetings, the pair conducted annoying side conversations. If a motion they opposed passed, they argued for it to be rescinded, and it was. With "trepidation" and anxiety, Fay studied "Robert's Rules of Order," rallied younger women and began to institute change. Under her baton, the Ladies Auxiliary opened a small Judaica shop, instituted a Saturday night Teen-Age Canteen, revised its constitution and initiated book review luncheons starring Rabbi Isadore Garsek. The book reviews proved so popular and profitable that they continued for decades, with busloads of people arriving to hear the animated rabbi bring bestsellers to life.
When her children were grown, Fay went to work as a travel agent. However, she disliked the way the agency was run. So she started her own business, Brachman Travel, which she sold after more than a decade of success.
On her travels around the globe, Fay kept her eye out for Judaica to stock the synagogue gift shop. In Haiti, where Leon had opened a manufacturing plant in the 1960s, Fay learned that the nuns at the local convent sewed linens that rivaled world-famous Belgian lace. Fay began helping the sisters market their wares in the U.S. This cottage industry, in turn, allowed many young women in Haiti to learn a trade and earn some income. As a travel agent, in 1974 Fay organized the Tarrant County Jewish Federation's first mission to Israel.
Fay enjoyed being from a small town, yet she was far from provincial. Her tastes were classical and international. The Fort Worth Chamber Music Society practiced in her living room, and continues to do so. For the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, held every four years, she and Leon routinely housed a contestant. In 1997, they hit gold when their contestant, California schoolteacher Jon Nakamatsu, placed first.
For the present and future, whenever the Chamber Music Society performs, when the Ladies Auxiliary meets, and when the Federation embarks on a mission to Israel, Fay Brachman's accomplishments will continue to resonate.