For two decades, Arnold Saltzman loved chanting Saturday and festival services at a prominent synagogue in the nation’s capital, using the commanding voice that high school friends once compared to famed tenor Enrico Caruso.
Then, when his voice failed, he had to learn how to listen.
It was a stressful experience, he said, stressful enough to raise a cantor’s blood pressure.
“You’re yearning to interpret the liturgy, and all you can interpret is the silent prayer. That’s very humbling,” said Arnold Saltzman, his voice reduced to a whisper. “Cantors have egos. Even if I wasn’t the biggest ego, I certainly had a lesson in sitting, listening to others.”
Some 15 years ago, Saltzman had no choice but to reinvent himself. He pursued rabbinical ordination and found ways, as a music composer, to find his voice again. In a 2012 Yom Kippur sermon titled “Valley of the Broken Piano Hammers,” which he delivered at one of the three congregations where he was a part-time rabbi, Saltzman spoke about a piano graveyard in New York as a metaphor for a troubling culture where everything is disposable.
“It was unimaginable to me that people could do something like that (destroy pianos),” he told RNS last month in his office at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, where he is cantor emeritus. “Maybe that’s a metaphor for myself — that with my voice in shambles, I felt I had something to give.”
Arnold Saltzman poses in his office in Washington. RNS photo by Menachem Wecker
Saltzman, 70, also talked in a whisper to RNS from the pews at National Presbyterian Church during a dress rehearsal for his latest composition. At the church, some 200 performers, including American University’s orchestra, chorus and chamber singers, the Strathmore Children’s chorus, and soloists Janice Meyerson (mezzo-soprano) and Rob McGinness (baritone), performed a choral symphony that Saltzman composed.
The music was inspired by writings of 12th-century Spanish rabbi, philosopher and poet Judah Halevi, about whom Saltzman learned as an Orthodox yeshiva student growing up in New York in the 1950s and 1960s.
As a child, Saltzman was known as a singer but had little interest in religious instruction. At school, he was prone to fall asleep in religious classes.