Dedicated by Rachel Shlomo and family, in loving memory of her mother Naomi bas David, in honor of her Yartzeit on Simchas Torah. Her soul radiated joy to all around her.

Simchas Torah/Shavuos Essay
Joshua Bell’s Violin—and the Music of Jewish History
The Story of a Stradivarius which Escaped Nazism

The Experiment

It is an incredible story.

Twelve years ago, an intriguing experiment made news. The experiment – arranged by the Washington Post to study how people react to unexpected, out-of-context art – called for Joshua Bell, the Jewish world-renowned violinist, to stand in a Washington D. C. subway and play classical music.

It was January 12, 2007, on a Friday morning. Bell played for about 45 minutes, during which time more than a thousand people passed by. Ordinarily, when Bell gives a recital, he earns about a thousand dollars a minute (not bad for a nice Jewish boy).

How many people, do you think, stopped to hear the brilliant music? How many people were moved by the masterful renditions of Joshua Bell?  0.006 percent of the people who passed by paused to absorb the magic.

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for one minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run. Throughout the entire time, there was never a crowd, not even for a second. In the 45 minutes he played in the subway, only 27 out of the 1,075 passersby threw a donation into his violin case, netting him a grand total of $32.

In its aftermath, scores of articles were written about the experiment, and all kinds of questions were asked. Have we grown so superficial as to not appreciate art without a frame? Beauty without PR? Is there really no truth left if it is not "advertised" as such?

Why would people shell out upwards of hundred dollars a ticket to hear Josh Bell play and not stop to listen when the music was free? Is it all part of our herd mentality –if we aren’t told something is good, we cannot realize it is good?

When you watch the video of the event, it is sad. It is sad to observe the opportunities that slip through our hands never to return; the rush of life which sucks up the essence of life itself.

The Taxi

In a wonderful article in Ami magazine,[1] Roizy Waldman highlighted a trivial detail that the Washington Post mentioned. Bell, the paper reported, took a taxi from his hotel to the subway station, merely three blocks, because his violin was too expensive to risk walking with on the street. What kind of violin was this to merit such care and protection?

As it turns out, the writer explains, the answer to this question leads us not only to the story of the violin, but also to a story about courage, perseverance, and the making of history!

The Story of Bronislaw Huberman

Bronislaw Huberman playing his StradThe story leads us to the previous owner of the violin, another Jew by the name of Bronislaw Huberman.

Born in 1882 to a secular Jewish family in Poland, Bronislaw Huberman’s musical genius was discovered early. At that time, classical music was the music that mattered. He gave his first public concert at the age of 7. When Bronislaw was 11, he garnered the support of arts patron Count Zamoyski of Paris, who gave young Bronislaw a gift of a Stradivarius violin.

A Stradivarius is an instrument made by Antonio Stradivari, an Italian craftsman born in 1644. During his lifetime – he died in 1737 – he crafted more than 1,100 instruments. Of those, 540 violins, 50 cellos, and 12 violas still exist today. A “Strad” (as it is called in short) produces the most magical tones, unequalled by any other stringed instrument. An ordinary violin you can buy for 70 dollars; a Strad sells today for 5 to 20 million dollars!

(Though many have attempted to reproduce the exact sound, none have succeeded yet. Over the years, music historians and researchers have come up with various theories about why a Stradivarius produces such exceptional sounds. Some claim it’s the wood Stradivari used; others say it’s the varnish, and still others believe it’s the waters of Cremona, the city where Stradivari lived. While others say it is all fantasy. Yet it still sells for millions.)

The Stradivarius gifted to Huberman by Count Zamoyski was crafted by Stradiveri in 1713 (the Baal Shem Tov was 15 at the time; George Washington, l’havdil, was not born yet), making it more than three hundred years old now. He soon became one of the greatest violinists in Europe. Playing in the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Huberman became world famous.

But then darkness descended. The Nazi Regime came to power. “The true artist,” Huberman once said, “does not create art as an end in itself; he creates art for human beings. Humanity is the goal.” And he lived up to his words. In 1933, as Hitler took control of Germany, Jewish musicians who’d been employed for years by the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra suddenly found themselves jobless. Each month, Hitler ordered more and more Jewish musicians to be fired, and no other orchestra was allowed to hire them. However, to preserve his reputation among foreign countries, Hitler tried to retain a handful of the most famous Jewish musicians in the orchestra. One of the musicians he was persuaded to keep was Bronislaw Huberman.

The orchestra’s conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, sent Huberman a personal offer of employment. He would be from the few Jews allowed to remain. But Huberman refused, and even issued a public letter denouncing Nazism.

But he did something else truly remarkable—and for this he shall always be remembered, not only as a great violinist, but as a great human being and a glorious Jew. Realizing that Jews will face danger in Germany, he created, for the first time ever, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, inviting all the victimized Jewish musicians to join. In order to be granted entry, refugees had to demonstrate that their prospects of earning a living were strong. The soon-to-be Palestine Symphony Orchestra ensured that these refugees would be gainfully employed.

Huberman insisted that the musicians could only emigrate if they were accompanied by their spouses, siblings, children, and parents, and so managed to snag certificates for all of them. Unlike many who believed that this European anti-Semitic wave would soon pass, just as earlier anti-Semitic waves had, Huberman believed that Jews were no longer safe in Europe. He worked tirelessly to rescue as many people as he could from the Nazis clutches. He ensured the British government that he’d employ many more people than he possibly could.

While Huberman was struggling to persuade cultured musicians to make their home in a virtual desert, while he toiled to procure their visas, while he dissembled to the government in an effort to wrest more and more Jews away from Europe’s ever-increasing perilous situation, he also had to put together the orchestra itself. Money was needed. The musicians’ morale had to be maintained. A venue had to be found, a conductor procured.

On the latter front, Huberman lucked out. Italian Arturo Toscanini, one of the most renowned conductors in Europe, agreed to conduct the orchestra’s first few performances. Toscanini, who wasn’t Jewish, was a special soul, who despised Nazism and Fascism. He courageously spoke out against the Nazis and Fascists even at the cost of his personal safety. In fact, after one such outburst, a group of Fascists beat him bloody. But he refused to be silenced.

Toscanini traveled to Israel (than Palestine) in 1936 to train the orchestra and ready them for their first performance. In keeping with his idealism, he declined payment for his work, even paying for his travel expenses himself. “I had to show my solidarity,” he said. “It is everyone’s duty to help in this cause according to one’s means.”

Toscanini cemented the orchestra’s reputation. He was held in such high regard that as soon as it became known that he would be the orchestra’s conductor, fund-raising become easy, musicians clamored to become part of the orchestra, and people bought tickets to the concerts. In no time, nine concerts – in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Cairo and Alexandria – were sold out.

“One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism,” Huberman once said. “A first-class orchestra would be that fist.”

The first concert took place on December 26, 1936, in Tel Aviv. Crowds of people who couldn’t get tickets stood outside the windows and climbed up onto the roof to be able to hear the gorgeous music. When the concert was over, the audience gave the musicians a standing ovation that lasted close to thirty minutes—unheard of in the history of concertos.

Indeed, a first-class orchestra it became! The Palestine Symphony Orchestra toured the entire world, wowing audiences with their beautiful performances. In 1948, when the United Nations recognized Israel as a country, the orchestra changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which plays to this very day. Huberman died a year earlier, in 1947.

The Stolen Violin

But the story is not over.

On February 28, 1936, Huberman came to New York to give a recital at Carnegie Hall. Huberman always carried a double violin case, in which he kept his expensive Strad and another cheaper violin.

That night Huberman chose to play the second half of his concert on his “other violin,” a Guarneri del Gesu. In middle of the performance, the Strad was stolen from his dressing room. When the theft was discovered, the police were called while Huberman tried not to panic, continuing optimistically with his encores. The instrument had previously been stolen in 1919 from a hotel room in Vienna but was recovered days later when the thief tried to sell it. This time, Huberman was not so lucky.

Heartbroken, Huberman never saw his Stradivarius again. However, his great dream was fulfilled when the new Palestine Orchestra made its debut in December 1936 with the great Toscanini on the podium.

50 years passed. It is now 1985. A New York Violinist, Julian Altman, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. As he lay dying, he called his wife to his deathbed and told her he had stolen the violin from Huberman’s room at Carnegie Hall back in 1936. Altman died.

His wife eventually returned the violin to Lloyd’s of London and received a finder’s fee. The instrument underwent a nine-month restoration by J&A Beare Ltd., which noted it was like “taking dirt off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

The violin was soon sold to a British violinist, for 1.2 million dollars. In 2001, Joshua Bell paid almost four million dollars for the violin.

“This violin is special in so many ways,” Bell said at a recent concert.[2] “It is overwhelming to think of how many amazing people have held it and heard it. When I perform in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic, I am always touched to think how many of the orchestra and audience members are direct descendants of the musicians Huberman saved from the Holocaust — with funds raised by concerts performed on the very same instrument I play every day. Who knows what other adventures will come to my precious violin in the years to come? While it certainly will be enjoyed and admired long after I am not around anymore, for the time being I count myself incredibly lucky to have been its caretaker on its 300th birthday.”

Now, I understood why Joshua Bell took a taxi from the hotel to the subway station in Washington; he did not want to take chances with Huberman’s Stradivarius.

A Parable for Judaism

It is a magnificent story. But, in my mind, it is also a parable for the story of our people from Sinai till today. Does it not capture the essence and theme of Simchat Torah?

Thousands of years ago, at the foot of Sinai, we were given a “Strad violin,” an instrument to generate the most exquisite music the world has ever heard—music for our souls, for our homes, for our communities and for our world. “Your laws have been symphonies for me,” King David sings in Psalms. Life is a powerful symphony and you can contribute your sonata. The objective of Judaism is to allow each person, and each creature, to express their deepest music. It sees each of us as a “violin,” capable of producing our unique ballad. In the famous words of 12th century Spanish poet Rabbi Judah Halevi (which made their way into the song Jerusalem of Gold) “ani kenor lesherayich,” I am a violin to your melodies.[3]

And just as the chords of a violin must be tied down to allow the music to play, Torah mitigates and restricts certain behaviors, not in order to tie us down, but rather to allow our music to play.

Our violin—our Strad—has endured a lot. Just like Huberman’s violin, our violin too was exiled, stolen, and almost disappeared. Our faith and our Torah came close to extinction, through Nazi and Soviet genocide on one hand, and mass assimilation on the other. 

But the unpredictable happened. The violin was recovered—and today it plays in Jewish homes and communities all across the globe. We have “Joshua Bells” all across the world playing that ancient violin, with splendor, beauty and exquisiteness. Judaism has experienced a renaissance. Jews are studying Torah; celebrating Mitzvos and living a Jewish life.

Yet, so often the music can be playing right near us, yet we ignore it. We can have one of the greatest violinists on the subway playing the most beautiful ballads, but we are too busy, too stressed, too rushed, too lazy, too callous, too overwhelmed to even stop and take it in.

We were given the Torah—the most time-tested violin, not 300 years old, but 3000 years old. And it produces the most profound music—not only classical music to enrich the spirit, but Divine music to give meaning to life, to offer depth, hope, vitality, spirituality, to life; Divine music to keep families together, marriages fresh, intimacy alive; Divine music to be able to find happiness and joy in a world of chaos, depression and confusion; Divine music to offer perspective, vision, wisdom, guidance in a time of moral ambivalence; Divine music that allowed us to stay the course and thrive over three millennia, despite endless challenges and savage suffering.

The music is right here, right now. But we can just pass buy and ignore it. Not because we are bad, but simply because we are in a rush or we are just too entrenched in our comfort zones.

On Simchat Torah we dedicate a day to dance with our eternal and sacred Torah. “Sisu V’simchu B’Simchat Torah,” rejoice and celebrate with the joy of Torah.

Take pause and celebrate the music which has allowed our souls to soar and touch heaven, every day, every moment.

Happy Simchat Torah![4]

 

[1] Here is a link to her article, much of which I copied in the subsequent story: https://www.aish.com/ci/s/The-Violin-that-Witnessed-History.html

[2] https://csosoundsandstories.org/how-a-once-lost-stradivarius-found-its-way-to-joshua-bell/

[3] The Baal Shem Tov teaches, that Halacha is the acronym of “Hareoo L’Hashem Kal Haaretz,” "let the whole earth sing to G-d.” For the function of Halacha, Jewish law, is to synchronize our lives with the symphony of nature.

[4] I have used these sources for the story:
https://www.aish.com/ci/s/The-Violin-that-Witnessed-History.html
https://csosoundsandstories.org/how-a-once-lost-stradivarius-found-its-way-to-joshua-bell/
https://rhapsodyinwords.com/2015/08/24/the-astonishing-300-year-history-of-the-gibson-ex-huberman-stradivarius/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/style/wp/2014/10/14/gene-weingarten-setting-the-record-straight-on-the-joshua-bell-experiment/

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Class Summary:
Twelve years ago, an intriguing experiment made news. The experiment – arranged by the Washington Post to study how people react to unexpected, out-of-context art – called for Joshua Bell, world-renowned violinist, to stand in a Washington D. C. subway and play classical music. In the 45 minutes he played in the subway, only 27 out of the 1,075 passersby threw a donation into his violin case, netting him a grand total of $32.

When I initially read about this experiment, I noticed a trivial detail. Bell, the Post claimed, took a taxi from his hotel to the subway station, a distance of merely three blocks, because his violin was too expensive to risk walking with on the street. What kind of violin was this to merit such care and protection?

As it turns out, the answer to this question leads us not only to the story of the violin, but also to a story about courage, perseverance, and the making of history. The story leads us to the previous owner of the violin, a Jew by the name of Bronislaw Huberman. He was one of the greatest violinists in Europe before the war, Hitler allowed him to stay in Berlin, but instead he went on to create the Philharmonic Orchestra of Israel.

It is a magnificent story. But is it not also an appropriate parable for our entire people and our entire narrative from Sinai till today? Does it not capture the essence and theme of Simchat Torah? Thousands of years ago, at the foot of Sinai, we were given a “Strad violin,” an instrument to generate the most exquisite music the world—music in our souls, in our homes, in our communities and in our world.