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.
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?