Joella Klinghoffer

Fiddler on the Metro: Lessons from a Lion of God

On a journey to re-think her future, Joella Klinghoffer found a musician who chooses to link his life to Judaism and Israel

With anti-Semitism and certainly anti-Zionism on the rise throughout Western Europe, it may surprise some folks to learn that, not too long ago, in the jewel-like Swiss city of Lausanne, home of the International Olympic Committee and a growing Muslim population, the citizenry who went about their daily commute on the state-of-the-art Metro system, often did so to the background melody of the Hatikva, the national anthem of the State of Israel. It is the signature piece of a violist who, as one of the regular Metro musicians who ply their art at the busiest central station, made sure to play it at least once a day; often more.

Some passers-by recognized it; most didn’t. Many, including Arab women in veils, would drop some coins for the fiddler in appreciation of the soulful sounds, without the least suspicion of their significance. Other times, the anthem was recognized, and political arguments, often heated, ensued. But, I was told, they had all been relatively respectful; an exchange of views that actually furthered some understanding rather than inflaming ingrained resentments. And so far, they had all been completely peaceful. At least that’s what the fiddler said. His name was Ariel.

A man like Ariel is certainly not whom I was expecting to meet during my brief sojourn to Lausanne in the spring of 2011. I was a bit of a traveling cliche, a single, thirty-something New Jersey attorney, who, somewhat depressed and dissatisfied with certain aspects of my current lifestyle, impulsively cashed in some unused vacation time to embark on a month of independence and European adventure. Ironically, Lausanne had recently beaten out the Swiss city of Basel on my itinerary, partly for its natural beauty, but also because Basel to me meant Theodore Hertzl, the First Zionist Congress, etc. and given current political difficulties I wasn’t sure whether those were emotions I was in any mood to explore.

My budget being far from unlimited or lavish, I’d been spending most nights in hostels and was pleased to find the hostel in Lausanne, with its sparkling facilities and lavish breakfast spread, a welcome change from my recent more challenging digs in downtown Paris. Staying in hostels can be a blessing when it comes to socializing on the road, and my first morning I soon fell into conversation with a pleasant-looking young man seated near me, who to my surprise turned out to be an Israeli doing some post-grad research at the local university. My university friend was not around the following morning however, and after quickly scanning the dining hall for someone else who appeared to be on their own, I soon settled upon a distinguished-looking white haired gentleman who was placidly working his way through some coffee and pancakes. He turned out to be a Swede, and like most Scandinavians one meets abroad, spoke English with ease and fluency. We chatted companionably about this and that; it was clear from his conversation he was an educated and well-read man – in the old-fashioned European sense.

At some point in the conversation which I don’t quite remember – perhaps he inquired about the origins of my name? – I mentioned that I was Jewish, and to my surprise his eyes lit up. “Really, I’m Jewish too,” he exclaimed with a broad smile. I looked into his blue eyes and burst out laughing, telling him he was now the second person I had met in Lausanne and both were Jewish! What were the odds of that?

His name was Ariel, he said. Actually he was not really a Jew in the strict Rabbinic sense, though he self-identified as one. His mother had been a Swedish Christian; his father a Jew, a Holocaust survivor. He was proud of the heritage, though, and seemed thrilled with our common bond. As we continued our chat and I learned that he was a musician with a love of the classics, a sudden idea hit me. I had picked up a listing of the week’s local events upon my arrival at the train station and circled a classical guitar concert that was scheduled for that evening. Would he like to accompany me to the concert? It was something I had wanted to do – but not particularly alone.

Absolutely, he was interested, and we quickly made plans. We could meet up at the central downtown metro station that evening and then go together to the concert, which was being held nearby. He surprised me a bit when he explained that he would be playing his violin at the metro that day anyway, so it was an easy meeting place. Hmmm… that was a bit strange; I’d assumed my companion was a tourist like myself. I wasn’t quite sure what was up, but then again I’d seen Harvard professors sometimes play music in the street for fun. I didn’t think much of it.

After a day filled with sightseeing, I showed up at the metro stop at the appointed time and there was Ariel, playing away on his violin, the instrument-case replete with coins. He caught my eye and immediately launched into Hatikva, never my favorite of Israeli patriotic songs, but strangely moving in that simple solo. My hand itched towards my camera to photograph the scene, but I resisted the urge; it’s not my practice to “objectify” people I meet while traveling by photographing them unawares. When he was finished, Ariel called out to me cheerfully, explaining that he had “good and bad news.” The good news, he stated, was that he had earned enough coins throughout the day to pay for his nightly board at the hostel, as well as concert tickets for the two of us. The bad news was that there would not be enough money left over to take me out to coffee afterwards.

So there we were. Ariel was no tourist at all, but a street musician who played daily for his keep. Of course being a properly brought up American girl, I remonstrated that I’d be happy paying for my own concert ticket at least, but that fell upon deaf ears. Ariel explained that while he “believed in feminism” he was old-fashioned enough to want, as the gentleman, to pay for the lady. There was really no way to argue, though it was hard to know where to look when we arrived at the concert venue and he took out his little sack of coins and painstakingly counted out the correct amount for the two tickets. Due to a misunderstanding, the music turned out to be different from what we had anticipated, but was excellent none-the-less.

As was our conversation, which ranged in topic from high-end mathematics to Jewish writers like Maimonides, whose work Ariel was currently studying. He told me more about his history: his father had never emotionally recovered from the trauma of WWII and abandoned the family when he was young. Yet, like Barack Obama, the heritage and culture of the absent father exerted a powerful hold on Ariel’s emotional world, so much so that during his university years he’d gone door-to-door raising funds to assist the young State of Israel during the Six-Day-War. At the moment, he was hoping to move permanently to Lausanne and establish a business there teaching music, but was relying on the subway-playing to pay his keep in the meantime. He’d also managed to befriend a fellow “half-Jewish” lady with whom he met regularly to study Hebrew and Jewish texts.

My short visit to Lausanne soon came to an end, and on the last morning I took a pleasant walk with Ariel along Lake Geneva before he saw me off on the train. I confided in him that I had wanted to photograph his subway-playing but hadn’t felt comfortable doing so. He got excited at the idea. He would love to be photographed, he insisted. It would be a pleasure for him to know that people in the outside world would see who he was and what he was doing. So we planned on staging the picture at the main station on my way out of the city. But we’d enjoyed each other’s company and talked so long that I was already running late, so we settled instead for an impromptu photo shoot in a tiny local metro stop as I nervously awaited transport. He played Hatikva of course.

Ariel, the Fiddler on the Lausanne Metro (photo: Joella Klinghoffer)
Ariel, the Fiddler on the Lausanne Metro (photo: Joella Klinghoffer)

Well, I made my train on time and continued on my travels. Yet somehow, despite a month’s worth of fascinating experiences and adventures, it was the tale of my friend Ariel the Jewish fiddler of Lausanne that was and still is my favorite. Ariel means lion of G-d in Hebrew and my mother suggested at the time that perhaps in this day and age that means playing Hatikva in public in Western Europe. Maybe she’s right. What I do know is that whenever I see our staged photos in my digital camera I feel a sense of guilt that so few have seen them outside of my immediate circle of family and friends. He deserved greater acknowledgement. So here, belatedly, is his story officially in print. If I was searching for something in my month of travel, one lesson I learned is that there is no one set way to lead a life; the opportunities are infinite, as are the choices which confront us. But if a person conducts himself with courage and dignity there is no reason to ever be ashamed.

My best wishes to my friend Ariel, and happy birthday to the State of Israel, which despite serious challenges and difficulties remains a source of pride and hope for the Jewish people, both sixty-five years ago and today.

About the Author
Joella Klinghoffer is a free-lance writer and a certified Philadelphia tour guide; She lives in New Jersey.