Arnold Saltzman’s opera ‘Geniza: Hidden Fragments’ unlocks a trove of Jewish history

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Solomon Schechter at work in the old University Library, Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Cantor and Rabbi Arnold Saltzman arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1981 to serve Adas Israel Congregation with his soulful voice and inherent understanding of the profound connections synagogue-goers have to liturgy as both balm and provocation. He served Adas until 2005, when he was diagnosed with dysphonia, a serious voice disorder that makes it difficult for him to speak beyond a whisper, and impossible to sing.

Over the years, aside from serving as a cantor and rabbi (he was ordained in 2008), Saltzman has been committed to adding to the Jewish musical canon with classical works — symphonies, ballets and operas. His latest, “Geniza: Hidden Fragments,” sung in English, Latin and Hebrew, makes its North American debut Oct. 13 at the Theater of the Arts of University of District of Columbia. It follows a performance at the Alba Music Festival in Italy, Washington Jewish Week connected with Saltzman via email to learn more about his newest work.

“Geniza” features scholar and rabbi Solomon Schechter. Many American Jews may be familiar with him as an early influential rabbi and educator in the Conservative movement, and we might know the community schools that carry his name. What do we need to know about him to appreciate “Geniza”?

As a young man Solomon Schechter was recognized as an ilui, a scholarly genius …. He was brought to England as a talmudic tutor and teacher at Jews’ College in London. Soon after, he met Mathilde Roth, who shared his love of scholarship. Schechter was appointed lecturer in Talmudic Studies at University of Cambridge [and] he and Mathilde were welcomed by the Christian biblical scholars, and Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, Presbyterian sisters, travelers and scholars.

What’s a geniza and why is this episode depicted in the opera libretto so significant to Jewish scholarship?

A geniza is known in most synagogues as a place for unusable sacred texts, or, when in doubt if it’s in Hebrew letters. Sometimes these were temporary and the material was taken and placed around the grave of a religious individual. The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, old Cairo, had a 20-foot-tall storage space accessed from the balcony, which had been covered with a carpet to conceal the opening. Most of it was not buried, making these fragments more accessible, even though covered in dust, and deteriorating. Geniza (g-n-z) means “to hide or hidden.” The character of Ganuz in my opera has something hidden about him.

Rabbi Arnold Saltzman. Photo by Andrea Joseph

What inspired you to use this story for your newest opera?

As a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America [where Schechter had been president in the early 20th century] my teachers Dr. Johanna Spector, Dr. Albert Weisser and Rabbi Morton Leifman all spoke of the early music of Obadiah the proselyte, a monk who had converted to Judaism in the 12th century. I collected material about him, discovering the scholarly mystery, which had been revealed by his music and biography. He had a twin brother, Rogier, who became a baron, while Obadiah, the son born minutes later, was sent to a monastery in Oppido, Lucano [Italy], where he is celebrated today by local historians. His music was a puzzle … solved by scholars. We know about him because his memoir written in Hebrew was part of the geniza in Cairo. So, a musical monk, who embraces Judaism in the 12th century? That’s a story! Also, our earliest music in notation for the synagogue.

Why a love story intertwined with a story of scholarly discovery and debate?

Opera and stage works need tension, they need a love story. Here we have several: scholars who love study; a wedding dress maker who loves her itinerant salesman; a sister who loves her sister more than herself; community, which in a loving, way supports scholarship; love of tradition, morality, law and discovery.

In the opening prologue you hear the Latin chant sung by monks of Psalm 113, and English — “When God brought us out of Egypt in the Exodus ….” The irony is ‘Why are there Jews living in Egypt’ when every day [as Jews] we thank God for having brought us out of Egypt? Later, you hear the English version of the Book of Ben Sira sung by Schechter, and then sung seamlessly by Schechter in Hebrew, which he identified as part of the many sacred books of Judaism.

Why should this story of Jewish scholarship braided through with 12th-century love and intrigue matter to us today?

Why should the public care about this? The story and music draw us into the beginnings of an historic find of documents illuminating Jewish history and Egyptian history, and the relatively open society that had existed in Egypt until modern times. It is also a story of traveling in the footsteps of those of any religion who wish to be close to biblical tradition. It is part of my work in expanding our music and theater repertoire as an important cultural foundation of our Jewish heritage, and for a better understanding of the depth of the history of the Jewish people in an age of misunderstanding and antisemitism.

“Geniza: Hidden Fragments,” an opera by Arnold Saltzman, featuring members of the Chesapeake Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Silberschlag. Oct. 13, 7:30 p.m., Theater of the Arts, University of the District of Columbia, 4200 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington. Admission is free with proof of COVID vaccination. Masks required in the building.

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