For more than two decades, Jimmy Galdieri has made spirits soar and toes tap at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
Just after the rabbi and bar mitzvah boy returned the Torah to the ark at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on a Shabbat that coincided with Halloween, a few notes of the theme song from “The Addams Family” found their way into the prayer Eitz Chayim.
The moment is classic Jimmy Galdieri, says the temple’s former Cantor Judi Rowland.
“That’s Jimmy,” she says. “He’d sit up there in the choir loft, listening to someone’s bar or bat mitzvah speech about loving baseball or horses or whatever, and then at the end of the service he’d weave a little ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ or the horse race ‘Call to Post’ into the recessional, so subtly that virtually nobody noticed.”
So what’s a nice Italian-Catholic boy doing in a shul like this? A great job, by all accounts.
“Jimmy has great longevity with this congregation, a love and respect for its musical history, its traditions and the congregation,” says BHC Rabbi Andrew Busch. “He has a deep grounding in liturgy, in how worship works. We all benefit from the range of worship experiences that he brings, his deep sense of the musical choreography of a service.”
Pastor Sue Lowcock Harris of the First Presbyterian Church of Howard County — where Galdieri also serves as music director — agrees. “He really understands worship,” she says. “He’s committed to the Roman Catholic tradition, but he’s worked in a lot of Presbyterian churches, and he has a deep and abiding love for the traditions of Jewish worship.”
That range of experience started early. Galdieri, 58, grew up Catholic in Jersey City, N.J., but learned and “fell in love” with Jewish music and traditions through his parents’ friend, “Uncle Bobby” Hyman.
An Owings Mills resident, Galdieri snagged his first church music job at age 12 and his first synagogue job at 14. After graduating from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., where he studied organ, voice and choral conducting, he played at various churches and shuls.
In 1988, Galdieri began accompanying Cantor Rowland at Temple Beth El in Spring Valley, N.Y., and joined her at BHC in 1997. “He was an extraordinarily accomplished church organist,” she says, “who could also arrange, lead choirs, play in any genre and improvise.”
Says Galdieri: “I love liturgy … and especially the nusach, the way the liturgical seasons flavor the services and the music, whether it’s Advent, Pentacost and Lent in the Christian calendar or the High Holy Days, Chanukah and Passover on the Jewish calendar.”
What he loves and ends up playing aren’t always the same. Galdieri remembers returning from a conference with great new music for a service.
“But there’s often resistance — at least initially — from some members of the congregation who were comfortable with the musical traditions that preceded me. That tension between the old and the new can be frustrating,” he says, “but it’s also exciting.”
BHC Cantor Ann Sacks says of Galdieri, “He wants the music to be as good as it can be. Consequently, he’ll do anything in his power to make sure you look good on the bimah.” Cantor Rowland says she and Galdieri worked together so long that “he could hear my breath, I could hear his feet move and we knew what to do next.”
Jason Wilson, who plays electric bass at First Presbyterian and sometimes at BHC, says, “Jimmy hears things in his head and knows they’re going to work before he puts his hands on the keyboard, and you have to keep up.”
Sometimes that can be a bit challenging, he says. “It’s standard practice for Jimmy to say during a service, just before a song, ‘Hey guys, I decided this sounds better in D,’” Wilson says.
Being a non-Jewish synagogue music director isn’t unusual, says Galdieri. Many Jewish congregations have choirs consisting of non-Jewish professionals. In addition, he says, Jews interested in liturgical music tend to become rabbis or cantors and not professional congregational musicians or music directors.
Cantor Rowland describes Galdieri as “a deeply religious person. He can find the beauty and spirit in all the religions he serves, and he does it with equal authenticity.”
Sitting at the pipe organ console above the ark in BHC’s sanctuary, Galdieri looks around and says, “There’s nothing like air flowing through a couple thousand pipes to change the musical and spiritual ions in a room.” He pauses briefly. “Some musicians are soloists or recitalists. Some are ensemblists. I’m a service player. And whether I’m playing a pipe organ, a piano or a digital keyboard, when the congregation is singing, nothing could be better.”
Jonathan Shorr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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