In 1926, superstar violinist Jascha Heifetz visited Israel and, famously, played in a stone quarry (my play on the subject, “A Walk With Mr Heifetz,” is shortly to open Off-Broadway). In 2017, I went in search of that stone quarry.
I don’t know why I hadn’t done it before, I have no real answer for that. Israel is a small country, and jumping into a car and driving the — what, 90 minutes? — would have been easy at almost any time. And it seems a pretty obvious thing to do. I mean, I’ve spent the last three years of my life working (alongside my “day job,” in classical music) on a play that I wrote, called A Walk With Mr Heifetz, that deals with the reverberations of a visit by the superstar violinist Jascha Heifetz to Ein Harod Kibbutz. More specifically, a concert that he gave in 1926 (his first-ever in that country, not yet a country) at a stone quarry there. The kibbutz has split since — the famous schism of the 1950s — but Ein Harod survives, albeit in two parts. Half of it higher up the mountain, half lower down, and either open for me to visit. So why hadn’t I?
Was it because I knew that things would be different? That the kibbutz (whichever half I chose) in 2017 would belong to a different world from that of 1926, only five years after Ein Harod was founded? That I didn’t want a contemporary vision of kibbutz life to distort the world I had cultivated in my mind and in my play? I think it was those things, and I think I probably would have gone on not having visited for quite some time, were it not for the fact that the play is shortly to have its world premiere, with the Off-Broadway theatre company Primary Stages at the fabled Cherry Lane Theatre in New York, and also that one of its cast members — the brilliant Israeli-born actor Yuval Boim — was making a visit back to Israel for a family occasion. So I felt I should take Yuval somewhere interesting and relevant for the play, and the impending opening was accentuating my sense of foolishness for not having made the effort to see Ein Harod. It turned out to be a day I won’t forget.
It started with the drive. There is a slight feeling of not being in Kansas (or Tel Aviv) anymore once you turn off of smart, modern Route 6 to drive through several picturesque Arab villages with their very different architecture and seemingly haphazard urban planning. There is a beauty and a slight wildness there that seems to belong to another era.
That feeling of displacement strengthens as you drive through the deep countryside and it continued when I arrived. Yuval, I learnt from a glance at WhatsApp, had gone to Ein Harod Meuhad (the one lower down the mountain) while I had headed for the art gallery at Ein Harod Ihud, above him. “Wait at the gallery,” he messaged, “I will come to you.”
As I trudged across grass towards the gallery, for all the lovely and modern houses that pepper the kibbutz, I felt an odd sensation. I had read plenty about the arguments that divided Ein Harod, arguments that were replayed all across the kibbutz movement in fact, but nowhere as dramatically as here. Here, where families were split by loyalty either to the severe, Stalinist doctrine of socialism (Stalin’s true, murderous nature was not yet widely believed), or Ben Gurion’s new, America-focused vision. These kinds of idealistic debates are not uncommon in Israel but that they would divide families and cause people to move house — to my generation, that feels right out of a history textbook. But being here, where it happened, where its effects are still felt, I started to feel as though I’d just jumped into one.
Yuval turned up, excited to research his character, and we introduced ourselves to the surprised guide at the gallery. Presumably, it’s not every day that strangers arrive to say that they’re doing a play set in your home and it’s being produced in New York.
Here’s what I haven’t said yet. We had a mission. Anyway, I had. Not just to see Ein Harod, but to find the actual stone quarry where Heifetz’s concert took place. Because the play details a remarkable encounter that apparently took place right after the event. Of the thousands who had come from across Mandate Palestine to attend, one, Yehuda Sharett — kibbutznik, composer (most famously of the song Ve’ulai) and brother of Israel founding father Moshe Sharett — is said to have requested and, incredibly, been granted, a private walk with Heifetz. The pair talked for hours and at the end of the night, so the story goes, Yehuda created some measure of a sensation when he arrived back at his own kibbutz, Yagur, in the West, in a taxi (there were hardly any in the country in those days) and wearing no shoes. That encounter is dramatized in my play. If Yuval (our Yehuda) and I could stand where they stood, see what they saw, well, I could discover whether I had ‘got it right’, and Yuval’s interpretation would be immeasurably enriched.
But I hadn’t seen any hint of a quarry on my drive. Not a sign, not a clue.
When I said all this to the guide, she excitedly made a phone call and asked us to wait. A few minutes later a lady, elderly but sharp-witted and in good physical shape (that’s what kibbutz life on a mountain will do for you) appeared and introduced herself. “This lady,” beamed the guide, “knows everything about that time.” The lady, Ayala, nodded. She had known Yehuda (in fact her father, Moshe Carmi, had played in a local string quartet with him) and she knew plenty about the famous concert.
In those days, she explained, there were few cars and only the train that would arrive from Haifa provided regular mechanized transport. Lots of the audience for the concert arrived that way. It was the very same train that her father had loaded up some months earlier with musical instruments brought from Germany, a gift from him to the children of the kibbutz. “From its founding,” she said, “culture, music were very important values here.” That it was Ein Harod that eventually created the first purpose-built art gallery in the country, had been no accident.
But Carmi had been unable to procure a piano, or at least one decent enough for Heifetz’s accompanist. It had thrown the kibbutz into some turmoil ahead of his visit, until a solution was found. “They brought a piano, not a grand piano, but a little upright, the day before on a horse and cart.” explained Ayala. Were there smooth roads, I ask? “Not really,” she answered, “It would have been very bumpy.”. Not very good for the sound of the piano. She smiled and shrugged. “That’s what we had.”
The big question. Did she know where the quarry was? Up here in Ihud? Or down in Meuhad? No, no, she chuckled, taking me by the arm and leading us outside, into the little garden that borders the entrance. She pointed across the valley. “Back then the whole kibbutz was over that side, on that mountain.” Blinking into the sun, I stared, making out only grass and flowers. Ayala directed us back to our car and told us to climb to the top of her hill, where there is a lookout site designed for visitors to the kibbutz’s holiday cabins.
She thanked us for our interest in the period. She meant it. The Heifetz concert was the beautiful time for the kibbutz, before the break-up. The memory of those darker days is present still, and stings. “The argument happened between generations,” said Ayala, as we parted, “It divided parents and children.” She sighed, deeply. “For years they didn’t even speak.” She gazed back at the gallery behind us. “This art gallery, it is the only thing that was left where members of both kibbutzim could meet. We all co-owned it, so it became neutral ground. It’s all that kept any of us in touch.”
As we got into the car we promised to keep her updated of our quest to, well, backdate. We reached the top, walking the last yards to the very peak, crested by large, ornamental windchimes that sang to us, and a sculpture that from certain angles suddenly becomes a Star of David. We gazed across the valley. Yuval picked up a kumquat. Here they call them Chinese oranges, and indeed it does look like a tiny orange, the size of half a thumb. He popped one into his mouth and offered me another. “They’re native here, and very good. A bit sour.” I bit down, then spat it out (he wasn’t kidding about the sourness). Curiously, it felt like another piece of history, even though I now knew, courtesy of the folks at the art gallery, that in 1926 there was no grass in these hills. It was all swamps and earth, and only one thing, figs, would grow.
But as we gazed across at that gorgeous view one thing stood out. A patch of white, a mountain away. We’d spotted our quarry.
Some quick calculations (and anguished conversations with Waze) later and we were driving down, then across, then up, up to where my car wouldn’t ascend further. We walked around a corner and then, finally, we stood in front of a huge white cliff, its natural contours long-since cut out of it. We looked around. The place was deserted. My mind was racing — racing back 91 years, to that night, to before that night, to the days of preparation, the putting out of chairs, the piano turning that same corner on its cart. To Heifetz himself, arriving in a chauffeur-driven car, and looking around at this place, so different from New York, from Carnegie Hall, so timeless that it must have seemed to him unchanging, as it seemed to me now.
Except that now it wasn’t surrounded by swamps and the odd fig tree. Except that the world had indeed changed. But maybe, I thought, I could do one more thing to understand, to feel that day in 1926. I looked at Yuval. “Shall I check the acoustics?” Someone must have checked the acoustics. I chose, for no other reason than that Peter O’Toole had done so in Lawrence Of Arabia, a cheerful old British song “The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo”, and heartily belted out a verse or so. The reverberation was incredible. Had we returned two days later, it seemed, the song would probably still be echoing around. Switching from O’Toole to Anthony Quayle, I applauded myself (if you’ve seen the film you’ll understand that this was fanboy imitation rather than hubris). Our mouths dropped open as it seemed that a hundred pairs of hands were suddenly applauding all around us. Purely sonically, that concert must have been some experience.
The sound still had enough life in it that an official-looking van with flashing lights was suddenly speeding towards us. It was the quarry’s foreman, looking stern. “Can I help you?” Once we explained our mission, he grinned widely. It turned out that he was an amateur historian — of course he was — and only too pleased for the rare chance to share his research. He told us that he had made a “little history book” of the quarry and invited us to his house for coffee and where he would give us a copy.
We went instead to his office, a largeish hut at the quarry’s entrance, where his assistant was similarly delighted with our news. “So,” said the assistant, “you come in, we make you coffee, and you read the play to us!” I explained apologetically that we appreciated the offer, but really didn’t have time (we really didn’t) but he insisted on making a fresh pot and using takeaway cups, so we could leave whenever we wanted and still enjoy the coffee (we really did; strong, with grains, sugar and cardamom).
His boss gave us the background to the kibbutz. It was founded for a specific purpose. The soldiers of the Jewish Legion, the Palestinian Jews who fought for the British in World War One, had returned after the war and had nothing to do and no money. Ein Harod was created to put them to work, so they could mine the quarry and use the stone to build roads in the area, and at the same time they’d have food and board. But it was a hard life. In those early days, they lived in small tents on the side of the mountain (now a village). Just to repeat for emphasis. They lived. In small tents. On a mountainside.
Yuval and I stood quietly for a moment, while the man printed out his history pages for us. The valley was almost silent. “Imagine,” I said, “if it is this quiet here now, what it must have been like then. The occasional rumble of the train heard all around these mountains, but in-between its visits, silence. Silence until Jascha Heifetz started to play. Imagine what that was like.” As we drove off, past orange groves, bright flowers, across grassy plains, we knew that, having been here, having somehow jumped back nearly a century, we wouldn’t now have to imagine quite so hard.
We had driven for 90 minutes to get there that morning. We met some fascinating people and we listened, and we absorbed. And maybe it won’t be clear why I won’t forget that morning. And I understand if it isn’t. I really do. Because, I now know, you have to go there to get it. You have to go.
A Walk with Mr. Heifetz is presented by Primary Stages at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre on January 31st, and will play until March 4th. For more information and tickets visit http://primarystages.org/shows/current-season/a-walk-with-mr.-heifetz/