Piano Teacher Has Half Century of Accomplishments
(as printed in the Cleveland Jewish News on September 14, 2012)
As a student at Temple on the Heights, 11-year-old Mel Arnoff was singled out by Cantor Saul Meisels to join the “Cantor’s Club” to learn to sing and lead student services.
Arnoff said he remembers Meisels’ words, “I’ll see you at ‘Cantor’s Club,’” as an “absolute honor” from his music icon.
“He was a mentor to me,” Arnoff said of Meisels. “He taught me how to transcribe music and arrange it. He was absolutely amazing.”
From then on, Arnoff worked in the Cleveland Jewish community, performing with cantors and composing music, especially for the High Holy Days, for 62 years.
Arnoff, a congregant at Temple Israel Ner Tamid in Mayfield Heights, stopped performing in High Holy Days services two years ago. He said he enjoys being in the service more than being at the service, but recently has settled into other projects. Arnoff’s name holds colorful timbres with colleagues, who recall his musical contributions to the Cleveland Jewish community.
“Mel is a wonderful musician, wonderful with people and his work means a lot to us,” Larry Sheir, cantorial soloist at Beth Israel-The West Temple in Cleveland, said about Arnoff’s work for the congregation.
Susan L. Golden, a member of the Beth Israel-The West Temple choir, said, “Mel is not only a fine musician, but a spiritual leader. His deeply Jewish soul is manifest in each note. His compositions and his interpretations of the traditional prayers inspire both choir and congregation, taking us to a higher plane.”
Upon Meisels’ request, Arnoff became the organist-choir director at the temple’s Young People’s Congregation at age 16. He was also part of the Cantor’s Club, a group of young musicians who studied under Meisels, including Rabbi Alan Lettofsky, Cantor Danny Gildar and Rabbi Joseph Levine.
While working at Temple on the Heights, Arnoff received a bachelor’s degree in music education from Western Reserve University in 1953. He went to The Ohio State University in Columbus in 1955 to receive his master’s degree in education and went to Ohio University in Athens to receive his doctorate in school administration in 1961. During his time in college, Arnoff was a musician for the University’s’ Hillel House.
“I never stopped,” Arnoff said. “Music has always been my life.”
After college, Arnoff became the director of Bible studies at Temple on the Heights. He also worked as the education director at Congregation Beth Am, Temple Israel and Congregation Bethaynu.
While at Bethaynu, he worked with Kathy Sebo, now cantor at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, for three years as she learned the melodies for each holiday and studied with rabbis and cantors in New York to become the first female cantor in the Conservative movement in Cleveland.
“I’m grateful for his musical skills and accompanying me my first three years of my cantorial career,” Sebo said.
After serving at Bethaynu, Arnoff worked as director of the Workmen’s Circle for two years and formed the Workmen’s Circle Klezmer Orchestra with clarinetists Rabbi Jacob Shtull and David Greenberg “for fun.” Lori Simon became the group’s vocalist while studying Yiddish and Yiddish music, and Arnoff said she became “an accomplished Yiddish singer” with three CDs to her name.
“Mel encouraged me to learn Yiddish,” Simon said. “He is a great one for encouraging and inspiring others to accomplish things. Mel is always thinking about how to bring good and happiness to others musically.”
The group became larger when saxophonist and clarinet player Norman Tischler, now director of the Workmen’s Circle Klezmer Orchestra, joined the group.
“He’s a great piano player, both written and by ear,” Tischler said. “It’s magical playing with him. He’s very passionate about the music.”
Later in his career, Arnoff said he was privileged to work with and accompany Cantors Ed Berkovits, Louis Danto, Martin Leubitz, Aaron Shifman and cantorial soloists Gary Paller and Sheir.
For a High Holy Days performance four years ago, Arnoff composed “Mah Tovu” and “Adon Olom,” translating the lyrics to relay the powerful meaning of the song to the congregation at Beth Israel-The West Temple.
“L’dor v’dor – that’s what Mel is,” said Sheir, who worked with Arnoff in the late 1980s at Temple Israel. “He has composed from generation to generation and his music has stayed up to date. I have folders of his music with his notations from High Holiday services that we use today at the Temple.”
Arnoff teaches piano to 18 students around the Cleveland area and composes music at his leisure. He lives in Solon with his wife and said he appreciates the time he spends with his family now that he can be with them for the holidays.
“Sixty-two years at the organ and keyboard has been very satisfying for me,” Arnoff said. “I will now sit back and enjoy what other musicians create during the Days of Awe.”