Joshua Bell’s Violin—and the Music of Jewish History

The Yeshiva:

The Story of a Stradivarius which Escaped Nazism

The Experiment – It is an incredible story.

Twelve years ago, an intriguing experiment made news. The experiment – arranged by the Washington Post to study how people react to unexpected, out-of-context art – called for Joshua Bell, the Jewish world-renowned violinist, to stand in a Washington D. C. subway and play classical music.

It was January 12, 2007, on a Friday morning. Bell played for about 45 minutes, during which time more than a thousand people passed by. Ordinarily, when Bell gives a recital, he earns about a thousand dollars a 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 paused to absorb the magic.

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for one minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run. Throughout the entire time, there was never a crowd, not even for a second. In the 45 minutes he played in the subway, only 27 out of the 1,075 passersby threw a donation into his violin case, netting him a grand total of $32.

In its aftermath, scores of articles were written about the experiment, and all kinds of questions were asked. Have we grown so superficial as to not appreciate art without a frame? Beauty without PR? Is there really no truth left if it is not “advertised” as such? Why would people shell out upwards of hundred dollars a ticket to hear Josh Bell play and not stop to listen when the music was free? Is it all part of our herd mentality –if we aren’t told something is good, we cannot realize it is good?

When you watch the video of the event, it is sad. It is sad to observe the opportunities that slip through our hands never to return; the rush of life which sucks up the essence of life itself.

The Taxi

In a wonderful article in Ami magazine,[1] Roizy Waldman highlighted a trivial detail that the Washington Post mentioned. Bell, the paper reported, took a taxi from his hotel to the subway station, 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?

As it turns out, the writer explains, 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!

Details of this Magnificent Story

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A Parable for Judaism

It is a magnificent story. But, in my mind, it is also a parable for the story of our people from Sinai till 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 has ever heard—music for our souls, for our homes, for our communities and for our world. “Your laws have been symphonies for me,” King David sings in Psalms. Life is a powerful symphony and you can contribute your sonata. The objective of Judaism is to allow each person, and each creature, to express their deepest music. It sees each of us as a “violin,” capable of producing our unique ballad. In the famous words of 12th century Spanish poet Rabbi Judah Halevi (which made their way into the song Jerusalem of Gold) “ani kenor lesherayich,” I am a violin to your melodies.[3]

And just as the chords of a violin must be tied down to allow the music to play, Torah mitigates and restricts certain behaviors, not in order to tie us down, but rather to allow our music to play.

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The violin was recovered—and today it plays in Jewish homes and communities all across the globe. We have “Joshua Bells” all across the world playing that ancient violin, with splendor, beauty and exquisiteness. Judaism has experienced a renaissance. Jews are studying Torah; celebrating Mitzvos and living a Jewish life.

Take pause and celebrate the music which has allowed our souls to soar and touch heaven, every day, every moment.

Happy Simchat Torah!

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