Major Project: Yiddles and Their Fiddles: Music at the Heart of Jewish Life (2019)

By June 2, 2019 June 26th, 2019 Bnei Mitzvah, Major Papers

The following essay about Jewish music was written by Leo T., a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

[Leo plays first klezmer piece (2 minutes)]

Whenever I walk into a synagogue, my ears are always met with the sound of music bouncing off the walls, echoing throughout the building. This is because music is very important in Judaism, and Jews use music in their everyday lives. Numerous paintings by Marc Chagall illustrate, literally, this phenomenon. Prayer, an important part of daily Jewish life for many, is usually sung rather than spoken.  If you look at movies such as A Fiddler On The Roof and the 1936 movie Yidl Mitn Fidl, there are very strong ties to music and violin. After all, it’s even in the titles.  Additionally, there are countless great Jewish musicians such as Itzhak Perlman, Bob Dylan, and so many others.

I can relate to this topic because I have been playing the violin for eight years and this makes the violin a very special instrument to me. Music has even managed to save the lives of countless numbers of Jews. Jewish music has also influenced other cultures where Jews have settled, such as in China, where my paternal family is from.  One famous song “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” has lyrics drawn from poet Yehuda Halevi, saying “behold, I am a violin for all your songs.”  There are also those who believe the Jews invented the violin, contrary to previous theories. Jews have even invented a special type of music called klezmer music.  The point is that over time, Judaism has been greatly impacted by music, and music has been greatly influenced by Jewish musicians.

Moishe Shagal was born on July 7th, 1887, in Belarus. He later emigrated to France and changed his name to Marc Chagall, eventually becoming a famous Jewish painter.  Although he was not a musician, Chagall still portrayed the connections between violins and music through his art. In a lot of his art, Marc Chagall painted the Jewish villages he remembered from his childhood, and often featured the violin in his works. For example, in Solitude, there is a man holding a Torah, and behind him is a goat holding out a violin. Another one of his paintings called The Falling Angel also shows a man with a Torah along with a violin. In still another painting, called The Fiddler, he combined a village scene with a fiddler as a way to show the Jewish love of music as important to the Jewish spirit. This is because of the fact that Chagall recognized the importance of the violin in Jewish culture, and then painted about it.

Another example of a Jewish relationship to music is that music has always been part of prayer. Simple prayers are sung every Shabbat, and some Jews also pray several times each and every day. Often, during a service or bar/bat mitzvah, people don’t just read from the Torah, they sing from it. In fact, there is a special kind of musical annotation that Jews invented that tells people how to sing the words. These are called te’amim, or trope symbols. The melodies associated with each trope are called “nusah”, and if you learn the tropes, you will know how to sing any word.

Rabbi Tzemah will sing part of the Torah portion that would have been assigned to me if I were having a traditional bar mitzvah, from Hosea chapter 2, to demonstrate. [__] Thank you, Rabbi.

There are also different nusah for different times of the day, so if you were very observant and knew the different nusah, you would automatically know what time of day it was just by hearing the melody. All of these are different examples of how many Jews use music in their everyday lives. This shows that music does impact Judaism in a very important way.

All over the world, Jewish musicians have played for the delight of others. As I mentioned before, there are many Jewish musicians, some more well-known than others. Some of the most famous Jewish violinists include Jascha Heifetz, Bronislaw Huberman, Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zuckerman, Itzhak Perlman, and Joshua Bell. Jacqueline Du Pre was a famous Jewish cellist who played a beautiful and well-known version of Kol Nidrei, a prayer sung on Yom Kippur.  Other Jewish musicians you might know are Drake, Adam Levine, Pink, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, David Lee Roth of Van Halen, Carole King, Lou Reed, and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. I can relate to this because I am a violinist and I also happen to be Jewish. Now, I’m not saying I’m a great Jewish violinist. I’m just saying I’m a Jewish violinist. As you can see, Jewish musicians have made a huge impact on music.

Out of all of these people, I would like to discuss one person in more detail, who was very important. Born in Poland on December 18, 1882, Bronislaw Huberman was one of the greatest violinists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it was during the years leading up to World War II that he conceived of a brilliant plan and made a significant contribution to humanity.  During the time leading up to the Holocaust, Huberman recognized Hitler’s power and what was at stake. He quickly came up with an idea to create a Jewish Orchestra in Palestine, as a way to enable the leading Jewish musicians of Eastern Europe to escape Hitler’s reach and be saved. He traveled throughout Europe and held auditions for Jewish musicians. He recruited Jewish musicians and moved them and their families to Palestine for safety. Along the way, he also paid for the evacuation of many other Jews who were not musicians. In the end, Bronislaw Huberman succeeded in the evacuation of nearly 1,000 Jews. Thus, an “Orchestra of Exiles” was born, known as the Palestine Orchestra, which later became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. I was lucky enough to be able to hear them play with Itzhak Perlman at Carnegie Hall earlier this year. Bronislaw Huberman died on June 16, 1947, and today his Stradivarius violin, called the Gibson ex Huberman, is played by Joshua Bell. Clearly, music has impacted Judaism, and in this example, it ended up saving many Jewish musicians and their families so that they could go on and play even more music.

Those Jews who remained in Europe during the Holocaust also used music in their own ways.  For some, it was a means of survival.  For others, it was a way to resist the Nazis and fight back secretly, like the prisoners at Terezin did when they performed Verdi’s Requiem for their captors. For still other Jews in the Holocaust, music was simply an escape from reality and a way to find the strength to go on for one more day. Some music written in the ghettos and camps became resistance songs, such as Hirsch Glick’s Zog Nit Keynmol (Never Say), which became popular as a hymn of the Jewish partisans.  Oyfn Pripetchik is another popular song about a rabbi teaching young students the alphabet. It was written in 1900 by Mark Warshavsky, and later became a symbol of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.  During the Holocaust, the words were changed to describe life in the ghettos, and it too became a song of resistance.

The book Violins of Hope, by James Grymes, tells the story of an Israeli luthier (someone who makes and restores violins) named Amnon Weinstein.  He dedicated himself to finding and restoring as many violins belonging to Holocaust victims as he could.  In the book, there is a story in which Mordechai “Motele” Schlein, a 12-year old Jew whose family had been killed in World War Two, joined a group of Jewish rebels named Uncle Misha’s Jewish Group. In August of 1943, Motele was able to infiltrate a Nazi Soldiers Club. He was hired to provide entertainment to the Nazis and he did this by playing his violin. Every night though, after playing at the Nazi Club, he hid his violin there and went home with an empty case. The next morning, he would come back with some explosives hidden in his case. One day, some high-ranking officers came in and Motele blew up the entire building. Years after the Holocaust, Amnon Weinstein was able to restore Motele’s violin.  For still other Jews in the Holocaust, music was simply an escape from reality and a way to find the strength to go on for one more day. As you can see, music played an important role for Jews even in the dark days of World War II.

Since I am part Chinese, I would like to discuss some unique aspects of this cultural crossroads. According to most scholars, a community of Jews immigrated to Kaifeng, China in approximately the year 920, possibly fleeing the Crusades.  Not much is known about them since a lot of their history was destroyed in fires over time.  Another 30,000 Jews were living in Shanghai at the time of World War II, with more emigrating there to escape the Nazis.  Among the refugees were over 400 world class musicians, including violinists.  They changed the music in China dramatically by introducing their way of playing to China.  To make a living, they began to teach Chinese students how to play the violin according to their classical tradition, changing the course of music history in China forever.  One Chinese violinist today named Xiang Gao was taught by people who learned how to play the violin from these Jewish refugees.  He is now part of a Violins of Hope concert series called Shalom Shanghai, currently touring the world.  In March of this year, he played at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix.  Gao even got to play on one of Amnon Weinstein’s other restored instruments, named the Auschwitz violin.  Describing that time in China during WWII, Gao said, “Jews had nothing left but music. The Chinese were also under occupation by the Japanese. Two groups of people are victims, but because of music, they survived.” Chinese Jews have their own variations on Jewish melodies and customs. Here is an example of the Hatikvah sung in Chinese:

[play clip: 1:20-2:20 ]

This demonstrates how Jewish music was transformed in China but still remained culturally relevant.

So where did the violin come from anyway, and who invented it?  Most people believed that the Italians invented the violin, until recently, when some scholars proposed that it was the Jews who created it. The violin appeared in the first half of the 16th century, at around the same time that Jews who had been expelled from Spain settled in Italy. According to Roger Prior in Elana Estrin’s “Did the Jews Invent the Violin?” as well as other scholars, the viol, a six-stringed precursor of the violin, seems to have traveled the same path, at the same time, and likely was transformed by them into what we know today as the violin. There is also evidence that many musicians in King Henry the VIII’s court orchestra were Jews originally from Portugal or Spain based on clues such as their Jewish-sounding names. With all this proof and more, some scholars have connected Jews with the creation of the violin.

If these examples don’t prove to you the effects music has had on Judaism and the effects Judaism has had on music, there’s one more important detail I haven’t described yet: Jews have their own genre of music. Alongside music like rock, country, jazz, and classical, there’s a type of music called klezmer. Klezmer is a mix between Jewish folk and jazz. It originated in Eastern Europe and is a blend of Russian, Greek, and Romanian folk music with Jewish prayer elements. The word “klezmer” comes from the Hebrew words “kli”, meaning vessel, and “zemer” meaning music. The word “klezmer” literally means, “vessel of music”. The early klezmer musicians decided to form a guild, and they needed a mascot instrument to symbolize their guild.  As you can probably guess, they chose the fiddle, since that is the instrument most associated with Jewish music over the centuries.  Klezmer music also used clarinets, accordions, flutes, trumpets, and drums — basically anything that was portable and easy to carry around. Klezmer musicians often played at weddings and other celebrations, not in concert halls or theaters. Unfortunately, klezmer musicians did not write down their music, but instead passed it down from one generation to the next by simply playing it.  Because of this, only a small portion of the original klezmer music still exists today.

Klezmer music is very distinct compared to other genres and each piece has its own feeling, but for the most part, klezmer feels happy and lively. I have prepared some klezmer pieces to play for you and while I was selecting music, I gave each one a name based on how it felt to me. For example, I named one piece The Road Trip Song. The piece I played for you at the beginning of this talk is called Bukoviner Freylekhs, which means Happy People of Bukovina. Here is one more piece, called Tate Ziser, or Sweet Father.

[Leo plays 1.5-minute piece.]

As you can see from all of these examples, Jews have greatly influenced music around the world and music has been and always will be an important part of Jewish culture. Music is used in the everyday life of a Jew. Prayers, art, songs, and movies all reflect this connection. There are also many famous Jewish musicians and lots of Jewish klezmer music. Music helps bridge connections between Jews in different countries and from different cultures. Music also literally saved the lives of countless Jews during the Holocaust. Both music and Judaism would look very different without each other because of the fact that they are so related. It’s clear that Judaism has left a mark on music, just as music has left a mark on Judaism. Thank you.