Last Sunday night I was in the presence of three outstanding Jews, whose contribution to society has spanned decades. Two still alive and active and one recently passed. All three received high honours (two Lords and Knight) from their host nation, in one case the country of birth and the other two as country of adoption.
As the evening ended, I was moved by the aggregated contribution of these inspiring individuals and started to consider how Jewish history judges our own legacy after we reach 120.
Pirkei Avot to Carnegie Hall
Murray Perahia has played in every major concert hall and with every important orchestra. He has won competitions and awards and is famous as a pianist and conductor the world over. This past week I had the enormous privilege of attending a very intimate recital he gave.
Upon arriving at Spencer House, I bumped into the Director of the Jerusalem Music Centre, in whose benefit the recital was taking place, who said that Murray had been practicing like mad. A world famous musician, having achieved all there is to achieve in his chosen art and still after 40 years he is practising as if it were his first concert.
Apart from the sublime, perhaps even divine, music there was a collection of people, heritage and Jewish history and culture that struck me as something of a relic, and more worryingly, somewhat hard to see who can carry forward this type of Jewish cultural connection into the next generation.
The concert itself took place in the Great Room of Spencer House. The house is a prominent building and a very famous one. It was one of the first to be built in that area of London (next door neighbours with Prince Charles and the Queen) way back in the late 1700’s. For most of the intervening 250 years the building belonged to the Spencer family, a prominent family in the British aristocracy, best known for one Diana Spencer. As with much (though not all of the British aristocracy) they fell on less wealthy times, and thus sold the house to Lord Rothschild (actually owned by RIT Capital plc, an investment company managed by the Lord Rothschild) 30 years ago, who proceeded to restore it to its former glory (and it is magnificent inside!).
Now why a recital by a great pianist at the London home of a British Jewish aristocrat? (Lord Jacob Rothschild is actually the 4th Baron, and hales from the Rothschild family as far back as the 1760s German Jewish banking family).
Well, as most of you will know the Rothschilds have been involved in Israel since long before its establishment. In fact, as far back as the 1880s, the Rothschild’s were helping Jewish Russians to settle in Israel.
The current Lord Rothschild has continued the connection to Israel that the family established and more specifically taking over from his great aunt Dorothy de Rothschild, the running of Yad Hanadiv, one of the family’s philanthropic bodies in Israel. Under Dorothy’s leadership and in partnership with Isaac Stern, Teddy Kolek the Jerusalem Music Centre was founded. Yad Hanadiv has remained the major financial benefactor ever since (even though the initial commitment was supposed to last only 3 years).
This connects us to the Maestro Murray who has for the last several years been the President of the JMC.
73.5 percent English
The final part of the story includes a British civil servant, academic and proud Jew, Baron Claus Moser, who had come to British shores fleeing Nazi Germany in 1936 with his parents. As a close friend of Jacob Rothschild, Murray Perahia and the JMC it was fitting that the recital was given in his memory.
In an interview given to the Independent in 1992, Moser was asked will he write his memoirs.
“No, I don’t like writing and I’m not very good at it. But I do read and talk and think a great deal about what happened to the Jews, and I plan to devote more time to Jewish causes. I’ve never been very religious, but I have become more conscious, more proud and more involved in matters Jewish.”
Clearly he took this very seriously as he became involved in many Jewish and particularly Israeli institutions, including the Technion, Israel’s Open University and for 20 years as the chairman of the board of the Jerusalem Music Centre.
Why this long preamble?
What is striking about these two prominent even great Jews, Jacob Rothschild and Claus Moser (at least to me on such an evening) was the fact that they both intermarried, hence ending the Jewish lines they carried. This was absolutely no barrier to being very committed to their Jewish heritage being active in promoting and helping Jewish and Israeli causes. The amazing contribution in their lifetimes, and in many ways the legacy that they will leave (the building of Israel’s Supreme Court, the establishment of the National Library of Israel, the JMC, the Open University etc) is formidable and will stand for generations, this notwithstanding the own personal our familial Jewish continuity.
Touching the Divine
In the program notes for the event, Perahia (who has referred to his own line tracing back to the Perahia of the Pirkei Avot) writes “The Jewish People have a long and proud history of great instrumentalists.” He then traces the great musicians from Joseph Joachim of the 19th century through the wonderful generation of Israeli stars (Perlman, Barenboim et al). He continues “Music is as much a part of our spiritual legacy as is science, technology and medicine; not to mention Jewish ethics, law and tradition. These are the things that make Israel so important in the world, and things that have to cultivated and maintained.”
When Perahia plays he is not playing music, he is reaching out to the infinite boundaries of our existence. In that moment he manages to touch, briefly, something beyond our physical being, the things that can be measure or described. In the room there with him, he allowed the rest of us to vicariously sense the same feeling. Even as a second-hand experience, the feeling is strong and could almost be touched.
Whilst playing Mozart and Chopin may not seem an overtly Jewish activity, for me it seems obvious that this links perfectly to Perahia’s Jewish identity, indeed his musical work at the Jerusalem Music Center nurturing the next generation of great Israeli musicians is a core part of that identity.
Will those who came for a fundraising event be touched to give generously? Will it bring them a flash of inspiration to continue building another chain in the age-old Jewish link?
We certainly need in this and the coming generations Jews of stature and commitment like the wonderful Baron Moser and Lord Rothschild.
I hope that sitting in a 250-year-old Great Room, listening to music from one of the world’s great musicians, and in my humble opinion a great Jew, this will not be an experience that becomes part of history. Instead it should help inspire us towards music, culture and learning in the great Jewish tradition.
Philanthropy and Chopped Liver as Jewish Identity
Perhaps one of the lessons can be best summed up by a sermon given by Elliot Cosgrove, rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. In referring to the recent passing of Rabbi Dr Eugene Borowitz he referred to a prize winning book of Borowitz published in 1973 — The Mask Jews Wear: The Self-Deceptions of American Jewry. In the book, Borowitz refers to the many American Jews involved in great civic and philanthropic works. Without going into the details, he makes the claim that this while important cannot on its own fully sustain Jewish life, and it certainly cannot be described as a full Jewish existence.
Doing great works, being philanthropic, academic, or on a more crass level eating chopped liver and liking Jewish jokes will not be enough to sustain Jewish life. We need all of those things, but we need Jewish engagement and learning, we need Jewish literacy.
In a way, Murray Perahia manages to bring his deep Jewish engagement right into the room with him, perhaps one of the reasons he still has the same passion for his playing as he has had for the past 40 years, and by coincidence or other there will in addition to his musical legacy be a next generation of Perahia’s with a connection to Israel and Judaism.