You might have heard about the Asian xylophone. You might have also heard about the African xylophone known as marimba.
But did you know that there is also a Jewish xylophone?
Its architect is my dear friend, Alex Jacobowitz. Alex is not the first Jew who has played this ancient instrument. Already in the 1830’s, the instrument had been popularized to some extent by Michael Gusikow, a Hasidic Jew from Belarus. Gusikow had set the concert halls of Europe on fire by playing a five-row xylophone made of 28 crude wooden bars arranged in semitones in the form of a trapezoid and resting on straw supports. “I take his model,” Alex tells me. “If he could make it, so can I!” Other past Jewish xylophone players include Jakob Eben and Samson Jakubowski.
What, then, makes Alex’s xylophone a Jewish instrument?
In two words, Alex Jacobowitz.
“My music is different,” he tells me “in the sense that I am continuing in the same classical music I was trained in and applying it to Klezmer music, a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, that most people of my generation have already forgotten. Klezmer music,” he continues, “is my music. I am this music.”
What makes Alex’s xylophone music even more Jewish is that, for him, playing this music is not merely a means to earn a living. As an Orthodox Jew, it carries a much higher purpose, a much more noble aspiration. For him, his music and his instrument symbolize the Eternal Light that burned in the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, in Jerusalem. “Through my xylophone, through the music I play on it, I am able to bring myself to higher levels of Jewish spirituality and closer to G-d,” he tells me as a wide grin spreads over his happy face. “My kipah, my beard, my tsitsis — these are not props,” he says. “They are part of who I am.”
But what could make one more Jewish than living and personifying the eternal role of the Wandering Jew?
Alex is first and foremost a street performer. He and his wandering xylophone spend eight months of the year on the road. They roam the streets of Europe where he plays alongside other street performers, and where he engages the onlookers and pleases the ears of those who stop to listen to his music.
Alex has consciously chosen to make Berlin, where he owns a small apartment, his seat and first base, the nest to where he occasionally returns to plan his future round of performances.
“Why Berlin, why Germany?” I, a daughter of two Shoa (Holocaust) survivors, cannot help but ask him.
In a very calm manner, Alex explains to me that “the name ‘Ashkenaz’ was originally applied in the Middle Ages to Jews living in Germany, and even though the center of Ashkenaz later spread to Poland-Lithuania, the term “Ashkenaz” became identified primarily with German customs.
“I choose to make the point and consciously and deliberately choose to perform in the countries where the Holocaust took place and where Jews and Judaism are still very much alive,” he proudly tells me.
Street performances, however, are not all that Alex engages in. In recent years he has also performed in various places around the world, performed with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and the Berlin Kammerphilharmoniker. He is also the recipient of a “Meet the Composer” award and won competitions in Montreal (1981), Lucerne (1994), Ludwigsburg (2004) and Osnabrück (2007).
So next time you travel in the streets of Europe and run into Alex, his Jewish xylophone and their radiating joy of Klezmer music, know that you have been blessed. You will have had an encounter with one of the guardians of Jewish music and its Eternal Light.