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DID YOU FIND THE PRICELESS VIOLIN?

Wednesday, 11 October, 2017 - 12:44 pm

A very successful businessman had a meeting with his new son-in-law. "I love my daughter, and now I welcome you into the family," said the man. "To show you how much I care for you, I'm making you a 50-50 partner in my business. All you have to do is go to the factory every day and learn the operations."

The son-in-law interrupted, "I hate factories. I can't stand the noise."

"I see," replied the man. "Well, then you'll work in the office and take charge of some operations."

"I hate office work," said the son-in-law. "I can't stand being stuck behind a desk all day."

"Wait a minute," said the father-in-law. "I just made you half-owner of a moneymaking organization, but you don't like factories and won't work in an office. What am I going to do with you?"

"Easy," said the young man. "Buy me out."

What is the essence and theme of Simchat Torah?

Ten years ago, the Washington Post arranged and reported on a recent experiment done to study how people react to unexpected, out-of-context art. On January 12, 2007, a Friday morning, Joshua Bell, world-renowned violinist, stood in a Washington D. C. subway and played classical music for 45 minutes. During that time, more than 1,000 people passed by.

Ordinarily, when Bell gives a recital, he earns about $1,000 per 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 stopped to hear him play.

In the 3/4 of an hour that Joshua Bell performed, seven people stopped what they were doing to take in the performance, at least for a minute. 27 gave money, most of them on the run. Not even for a second did a crowd gather. He earned a total of $32.

No wonder the experiment caused a sensation!

In its aftermath, scores of articles were written about the experiment, and all kinds of questions were asked. What happens to art without a frame? Can people not recognize quality art on their own? Is it all part of our herd mentality–if we aren’t told something is good, we cannot realize it is good?

These are fascinating questions. But when I initially read about this experiment, I noticed that the Post wrote that Bell 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?

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 a previous owner of the violin, a Jew by the name of Bronislaw Huberman.

Born in 1882 to a secular Jewish family in Poland, 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. At 11, Bronislaw garnered the support of arts patron Count Zamoyski of Paris, who gave young Bronislaw a gift of a Stradivarius violin.

Italian-born Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) crafted more than 1,100 instruments. Of those, 540 violins, 50 cellos, and 12 violas are still in existence today. A Stradivarius, or “Strad,” produces the most magical tones, unequalled by any other stringed instrument. An ordinary violin today sells for $70; a Strad sells for $5-20 million!

The Stradivarius gifted to Huberman by Count Zamoyski was crafted in 1713. Huberman became one of the greatest violinists in Europe. Playing in the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra earned him worldwide fame. “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.” He lived up to his words.

Darkness descended in 1933, when 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, enabling him to be one of the few Jews allowed to remain. But Huberman refused, and even issued a public letter denouncing Nazism.

Then he did something else truly remarkable. For this, he will always be remembered, not only as a great violinist, but as a great human being and Jew. Realizing the danger Jews would face in Germany, he created the Palestine Symphony Orchestra and invited the victimized Jewish musicians to join. In order to be granted entry to [then] Palestine, 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, or parents, and so managed to snag certificates for all of them. Unlike many people, who believed that this European anti-Semitic wave would soon pass, just as earlier ones had, Huberman believed that Jews were no longer safe in Europe. Consequently, he worked tirelessly to rescue as many people as he could from the Nazis’ clutches. He assured the British government that he’d employ many more people than he possibly could.

While Huberman struggled to persuade cultured musicians to make their homes 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.

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, despised Nazism and Fascism. He courageously spoke out against these groups 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 (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 explained. “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 became easy, musicians clamored to be part of the orchestra, and people bought tickets to the concerts. Nine concerts–in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Cairo and Alexandria–were quickly sold out.

The first concert took place on December 26, 1936, in Tel Aviv. Crowds of people who couldn’t get tickets stood outside and climbed 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 30 minutes!

“One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism,” Huberman once said. “A first-class orchestra would be that fist.” Indeed, a first-class orchestra it became! The Palestine Symphony Orchestra toured the world, wowing audiences with their beautiful performances. Huberman died in 1947. In 1948, when the United Nations recognized Israel as a country, the orchestra changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which still plays today.

However, prior to his first concert with the PIO, on February 28, 1936, Huberman gave a recital at Carnegie Hall in New York. He always carried a double violin case in which he kept his expensive Strad and another cheaper violin. For some reason, he decided to use the other violin for this recital and left the Strad in his dressing room. When he returned to the dressing room, the Strad had been stolen.

It was never found or returned.

50 years passed! A New York violinist, Joshua 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. The violin was soon sold by the insurance company to a British violinist for $1.2 million. In 2011, Joshua Bell paid almost $4 million for the violin.

Now the world–when it’s able to stop and listen–gets to hear the magnificent music played by a master on this historically rich Huberman-Bell Stradivarius.

This is why Joshua Bell took a taxi from the hotel to the subway station; he did not want to take chances with Huberman’s Stradivarius.

It is a magnificent story. But is it not also an appropriate parable for our entire people and our entire narrative from Sinai until 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, our homes, our communities and our world. King David sings, “Your laws have been symphonies for me.”

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that Halacha, law, is the acronym of “Hareoo L’Hashem Kal Haaretz,” “let the whole earth sing to G-d.” The objective of Judaism is to allow each person, and each creature, to promote their most beautiful and inspiring music. It sees each of us as a “violin.” In the famous words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, “Ani Kinor Lesherayich”—I am a violin to your melodies.

Just as the chords of a violin must be tied down to allow the music to play, parts of Torah restrict and “tie us down,” not allowing certain behaviors, not in order to limit us, but rather to allow our music to resonate loud and clear.

Our violin—our Strad—has been through a lot.

Like Huberman’s violin, ours was exiled, stolen, and seemed to have vanished. It was destroyed in Europe, made its way to Israel and America, but then it was lost. The violin of Torah and Mitzvot, of real Jewish pride, was abandoned. Modernity and assimilation had snuffed out its sounds.

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

Yet, so often the music can be playing right near us, but we ignore it. We can have one of the greatest violinists right on the subway playing the most beautiful ballads, but we are too busy, too stressed, too rushed, too dead, too lazy, too callous, too overwhelmed to just stop and take it in. If I am not told by the press, this is cool, I just move on.

We were given the Torah—the most amazing violin, not 300, but 3,000 years old. It produces the most incredible music—not only classical to enrich the spirit, but divine music to give meaning to life, to offer depth, hope, vitality, spirituality. 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 and depression and confusion. Divine music to offer perspective, vision, wisdom, and guidance in a world often gone mad. Perhaps most important, divine music that allowed us to stay the course and survive and thrive over three millennia, despite endless challenges and savage suffering. The single factor to which we owe our survival is this Strad—this Torah.

The music is right here, right now, but we can just pass by and ignore it, simply because we are rushing or just thinking about other things.

On Simchat Torah, we dedicate a day to dance with our eternal “Stradivarious,” with our holy Torah. We celebrate it, as it celebrates us.

A story is told about an old Yerushalmi man. Reb Yehoshua Cheshin was about to walk into his Beit Medrash during the dancing on Simchat Torah when he saw two very modern-looking Jews at the door, timid about entering. He approached and invited them to come join in the dancing. One said, “Honestly, rabbi, we hardly studied any Torah this past year, so we do not feel such a connection to the celebration of the completion of the Torah.”

Reb Yehoshua explained to them, “We have two grooms on Simchat Torah: Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit. Who heard of two grooms at a wedding?!

“The reason is, there are two types of Jews. The Chatan Torah is the Jew who studied a lot of Torah the previous year and he celebrates that connection. He is indeed the groom of Torah.

“The Chatan Bereishit is the Jew who did not have such a strong connection to the Torah the prior year, but wants to start at Bereishit, at the beginning of the new cycle of the reading of the Torah. He wants to enter into a new relationship with Torah now.”

He looked at them and said, “Why don’t you come in as Chatan Bereishit!”

Every Jew has the potential to learn more Torah in the coming year and be a Chatan Bereishit. We can all establish specific plans to learn a bit more this year than last year. Through that, we have a relationship with the Torah and Hashem that will stay with us.

This is the message of this special day. Do not ignore the music playing near you all year round. Seize that violin, listen to it, cherish it, make it part of your life, study it, and study it more, and as you carry it, it will carry you. Let us open ourselves this year to the music of Torah.

Happy Simchat Torah and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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