Yidl Mitn Fidl

In a brief footnote to my previous post, on “Bethlehem Unwrapped”, I must mention that one of the “artists” taking part in this anti-Israel travesty masquerading as a “festival” was British violinist Nigel Kennedy.  Kennedy’s participation was hardly surprising, given his extremely negative attitude towards the Jewish state. For years, he has supported a cultural boycott of Israel and in 2007, in an interview with the Israeli left-wing newspaper Ha’aretz, reiterated the “apartheid” calumny and explained that this was the reason he would not perform in Israel.

Kennedy has a reputation as something of an enfant terrible in the classical music world. In his case, this is a euphemism for his boorish ill-manners and use of foul language, not only towards Israeli musicians, but towards conductors, orchestras and anyone else who might not meet his approval. I am therefore not too grieved at his refusal to perform in my country, especially when we have so many excellent violinists of our own.

All of which brings me to the BBC Music Magazine‘s recent list of the 20 greatest violinists ever to have been recorded on disc. It should come as no surprise to anyone that, out of the twenty finally chosen (by 100 of today’s leading players, including the abominable Kennedy), no fewer than thirteen (and all of the top seven) were Jewish or at least partially Jewish.  Jews accounted for nine of the top ten. Three of the Chosen Twenty were Israelis (Ivry Gitlis at no. 14, Pinchas Zukerman at no.12, and Itzhak Perlman at no. 10).

So what is it about Jews and the violin? Why, when asked to name the greatest violinists of the 20th century, are names such as Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, and David Oistrakh, the first who spring to mind?

Is it the way the sobbing tones of the violin so expressively mirror the sorrow and yearning of the long Exile? Is it the fact that a violin is small and portable and could thus, without difficulty, be taken from one exile to another, when – as so often happened – the Jew was forced by pogroms and persecution, to pack up and leave his home? Chagall’s iconic painting of The Fiddler (which gave its name to the no less iconic musical, Fiddler on the Roof)  would seem to lend credence to this view.

Chagall_Fiddler

This would appear to have been the opinion of the legendary violinist Isaac Stern who, when asked why so many Jews play the violin, is said to have replied: “It was the instrument easiest to pick up and run away with.” This quote has also been attributed to another great Jewish violinist, Nathan Milstein (no. 5 on the BBC list).

It has also been claimed that the violin was an instrument conferring a higher status on those who played it and was therefore more popular with upwardly-mobile Jewish musicians than its  klezmer fellows, such as the equally portable clarinet and the bulkier and more unwieldy bass. As such, the Jewish love for the violin has been compared with the surge in the instrument’s popularity among the emerging middle classes of Far East countries, such as China and Korea where many promising young violinists are now flourishing.

Even today, in the 21st century, many of the greatest  violinists are Jewish or of Jewish origin – for example, Maxim Vengerov (who holds Israeli citizenship and served in the Israel Defence Forces).

Besides Vengerov, Israel  has many other fine violinists. In addition to the three who made it to the BBC Music Magazine’s Top Twenty list, we can boast such luminaries as Hagai Shaham, Gil Shaham (no relation)  who was born in the United States to Israeli parents, and Shlomo Mintz, whose family made aliyah to Israel from the former Soviet Union when he was two years old.

In short, the violin remains a “Jewish instrument” par excellence, no less than it was in the days when Molly Picon, star of the Yiddish-speaking theatre and cinema, made her most famous movie, Yidl Mitn Fidl  (“Yidl with his Fiddle”back in 1936.

So eat your heart out, Nigel Kennedy. Who needs you?

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About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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13 Responses to Yidl Mitn Fidl

  1. Rick Bailey says:

    Great post, Shimona. This is something I’ve often wondered about, and had discussions with my fellow musician-friends. We’ve wondered together why there are so many great Jewish violinists. I’m not sure your post covers all the reasons, but then, I’m sure I don’t know all of the reasons either. Certainly gifts of music and intelligence are, in some ways, how God recognizes and blesses His ancient people.

    • You’re also a musician? I didn’t know. Are you a singer or an instrumentalist and, if the latter, what do you play?
      As to the reasons – “gifts of music and intelligence”, maybe – but why the violin in particular?
      BTW – did you know that the modern Hebrew word for violin, kinnor, which King David was said to have played, originally signified a kind of harp?

  2. Thank you for this post. It makes absolutely sense. My husband´s great uncle was an excellent violin player in Prag. His violin is all that has remained of him in our family since WW II.

  3. Rick Bailey says:

    There are many great Jewish pianists as well. I really don’t know the reasons – it’s just an observation. I’m a trombone player, guitarist, and (retired) conductor.

    • That’s true. If you were to ask most people who were the greatest pianists of the 20th century, I’m pretty sure most people would instantly think of Arthur Rubinstein, Artur Schnabel, Vladimir Horowitz, Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu, Myra Hess, Clara Heskil, Marta Argerich, Murray Perahia, etc. But the instrument itself – the piano – doesn’t resonate with “Jewish soul” the way the violin does, somehow. Still, maybe I’ll write an article some day soon about Jewish pianists…

  4. Ian G says:

    Me, I’m just a gentile guitarist. I love Klezmer, but I have to search the internet to find it. I used to have red hair and brown eyes. I still have the brown eyes and I play a six-stringed instrument so I look to David; ruddy, beautiful eyes and a six-stringed instrument. Well, one can dream.

    The guitar is also a portable instrument. Famous Jewish guitarists?
    Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits – and from the North-East of England as I am. – I wish I could play like him. Peter Green of the original and best ‘Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac’. Paul Kossoff of ‘Free’. His father David Kossoff’s retelling of Bible stories has been a major influence on my approach to retelling scripture.

    • There was also Marc Bolan of T. Rex (born Marc Feld) – partially Jewish on his father’s side – but I’m not at all sure I would like to “own” him 😉
      The truth is, there have been many outstanding Jewish musicians, on all kinds of instruments, including the vocal chords. But still, the violin seems to be most associated with Jews.
      BTW – I also used to play (classical) guitar. I don’t think, however, that I could manage more than a few chords nowadays.

  5. Carolyn says:

    Kennedy is a boor!

    I have a recording of Perlman playing Oskar Reiding’s violin concerto in B minor which I first heard when my nephew played it on my grandfather’s violin. It is such an evocative piece!

  6. pwlsax says:

    Now why were so few jazz violinists Jewish? Joe Venuti, easily the great of all time, was first generation Italian – Stephane Grappelli was French – Eddie South and Stuff Smith were Black. I think it was a secular sacredness that made first generation American Jews who wanted to play jazz – Goodman, Shaw, Max Kaminsky, Bud Freeman – choose other instruments. Only today do we have figures like Andy Stein, Lennie Solomon and Jenny Scheinman, who mix freely with jazz, folk and classic pop players.

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