Growing up a southern, Christian homeschooler, I did not interact regularly with many Jewish people. I remember one young lady in orchestra when I was 10 or so who told me she didn’t celebrate Christmas but Hanukkah. I thought, “How sad…no Christmas.” But that was the extent of it.
While I didn’t personally know many Jewish people, the list of Jewish and Israeli musicians that made up the sound track of my childhood was a long one. Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Isaac Stern, Shlomo Mintz, Emmanuel Ax, Zubin Mehta, Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Sherman Brothers… These names are a tiny fraction of those who could be listed among the great performers, composers, and pedagogues who have made music what it is.
When my brothers and I were accepted to Juilliard, I encountered a paradigm shift that gave me a glimpse into why that was. In the Juilliard Pre-College program, there were essentially two primary groups: the Asians and the Jewish people. A large portion of the latter were Korean Christians. I found this to be especially true when I moved to the College program. There, the largest contingency of believers was the Korean Campus Crusade for Christ.
The Israeli musicians had tremendous stature. Many of them were two years older than their school year because they had served the mandatory two years in the Israeli military. When this was mentioned socially, it brought a quiet sense of awe. The sacrifice of military service was a million miles away for most of us.
On the margins of these high-achieving proteges, there was a smattering of people like me who were either American Christian homeschoolers, Indian Hindus (who were all geniuses) and a handful of highly-educated agnostics. I don't recall a single Muslim. I wondered at this unusual cultural and statistical breakdown.
A week into my freshman collegiate classes at Juilliard, 9/11 happened. Looking back, I, like many, see parallels between that shocking event and the brutality of what took place in Israel this past weekend. But in some ways I think what Hamas has done is even worse.
If a plane takes down a building, the perpetrators don’t have to look into the faces of each victim, but for thousands of men to go door to door, look another human being in the eye, and kidnap, murder, and mutilate - that’s a degree of evil that is entirely more malicious.
Here’s another memory. Fast forward a dozen years: the Annie Moses Band is playing a concert in the theater of the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. Before the concert we attempt to make our way through the museum which showcases 15,0000+ instruments from all over the world. The exhibits divide the instruments into continents and cultures, showcasing the historic development of instruments and folk styles. It’s a fascinating place.
For example, in the “Africa” section, there is video of native instruments being performed, and you can even play a few.
I remember when I reached the nation of Israel, I paused. Israel’s native instruments are my own. Violin, viola, cello, clarinet, harp, and mandolin. Their videos are of orchestras and street musicians playing Klezmer and Yiddish fiddle tunes like “Fiddler on the Roof”.
Then it hit me: “The violin exists because of Israel, because of the Jewish people.”
You see, the violin as we know it was developed by a maker named Amati. Prior to that, people played an instrument called the Viol. Before that time, there is evidence that traces stringed instruments back to Jews who fled to Europe in the Diaspora.
Monica Huggett, a violinst and artistic director of the Historical Performance Program at Juilliard says this, “It doesn’t look like the violin is of Italian origin. It looks like it’s of Jewish origin.”
I don’t know why I was surprised by this. If you were comparing religions there is no religion in the world that practices music as a spiritual discipline apart from Judaism and Christianity. For a humorous look into this thought see Steve Martin’s song “Atheists Ain’t Got No Songs.”
Christian worship incorporates and celebrates music based upon the its foundations in Judaism.
We sing in church because Hebrews sang. We play instruments because the Hebrews did.
Standing in the museum, I started to connect the dots of why there were so many Jews at Juilliard.
Fast forward another 10 years. I am a now a teacher of a fine string (no pun intended:) of young violinists at the Conservatory of Annie Moses, and in the last few years I have become fascinated by the “ancestry” of violin pedagogy.
What do I find? the Jewish people have cultivated the discipline more than any other group.
Here is the tip of the ice berg. The progression of Western music flows like this:
From Baroque (Bach) to Classical (Mozart) to Romanticism (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky) to Impressionism (Debussy and Ravel), you find that the wealth of composers, performers and pedagogues were all European. And then, at the turn of the 20th century, the energy moves to New York. What happened at the same time? Well, the Jewish people fled Europe.
The first major migration was from Russia and is called the “Pogrom.” It was the ethnic massacre and persecution of the Jews in Russia and its surrounding countries. It is the story told in “Fiddler on the Roof." The finest violin pedagogues fled Russia to places like Paris then on to New York as Communism and Nazism spread.
They settled there, and the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute became something to talk about.
If you were going to study with the greatest musical masters you were going to America to study with European Jews. Here’s a tiny number of examples:
- The Gershwin brothers’ parents were Russian born Jews.
- Daniel Barenboim, the amazing pianist and conductor, is the son of Russian born, Jewish parents.
- Itzhak Perlman was born to Polish Jewish parents who left Poland in the 30s for Israel, where Itzhak was born. Where did Itzhak go to study? Juilliard.
- Hilary Hahn, arguably the most celebrated violinist of our time, was a young Jewish girl growing up in the 80s. She studied with Jascha Brodsky a very old Jewish man who fled the Communists and Nazis to teach at the Curtis Institute.
The examples are endless.
All this matters to me because my life is dedicated to the cultivation of beauty, because beauty is an attribute of God.
In the violin I have felt the heartbeat of life and beauty that came from Him at the beginning of time when He made us and said “It is good.”
Evil has sought to exterminate the keepers of this beauty since the days of Moses.
And yet, despite all odds, they have cultivated, loved and cherished this beauty over millennia because God gave it first to them, His people, the Jewish people.
I am grateful. Who can imagine what music would be without them?