Israel Philharmonic Orchestra: A gift for all ‘Seasons’

When the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) performs Vivaldi’s evergreen “The Four Seasons” at a benefit at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Oct. 30, the orchestra won’t be made up of its 100-plus players. Instead, the event, which is a fundraiser for the orchestra and its only Los Angeles appearance this year, will offer donors a rare opportunity to engage with some 15 members of the orchestra’s string section, as well as a harpsichordist.

The strings form the heart of any orchestra, producing its distinctive sound, and that’s especially true of the Israel Philharmonic. New York Times music critic Bernard Holland once commented on the IPO’s tonal beauty: “From top to bottom, the strings made sounds different from any orchestra I can think of. You hear it even as players tune their instruments.” 

The Los Angeles festivities will also include a cocktail party and dinner, along with introductory words about the program from conductor John Mauceri, and a reading of mood-setting poems before each season of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” by “Breaking Bad” actor John de Lancie. 

But underneath all the celebration lies a hard truth, an ongoing history that cannot be denied. 

“The Israel Philharmonic is a very specific institution,” said violinist Julian Rachlin by phone from Munich, where he is performing with his mentor, Lorin Maazel. Rachlin has toured extensively with the Israel Philharmonic as both soloist and conductor. “It is much more than just an orchestra. It is a symbol of a country that is surrounded mostly by enemies. It is the cultural ambassador of Israel.”

The great Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman created the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in 1935 out of historical necessity, along the way saving many German and Eastern European Jewish musicians and their families — and a good part of Jewish musical culture in the process.  

“One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism,” Huberman, who died in 1947, said. “A first-class orchestra will be this fist.”

Renamed the Israel Philharmonic  Orchestra in 1948, when Israel achieved statehood, the musicians gloved that fist with a reputation for delivering ravishing accounts of symphonies by Brahms, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, to name just three composers who became specialties of the orchestra under renowned conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta and, more recently, guest conductors like Gustavo Dudamel.

Rachlin, now 38, has toured with the IPO since he was 15. He will conduct “The Four Seasons” at the benefit concert and perform the score’s demanding violin solos. 

“We know that Israel is always in a state of tension,” Rachlin said, “and that most of the money goes to the army, and rightly so, to defend and make sure that this country continues to exist. So there is very little state funding that goes to the orchestra.”

David A. Hirsch, president of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (AFIPO) board of directors, said that 30 percent of the orchestra’s budget is financed from private sources, with 14 percent coming from the government. Earned income from recordings, TV appearances, DVDs and concert ticket sales make up the remaining 56 percent.

“When the IPO travels, it brings a message of peace,” Hirsch wrote in an e-mail. “The musicians of the orchestra are priceless cultural emissaries for Israel, yet the costs of touring are astronomical.”

AFIPO fundraisers “underwrite international touring, as well as music education programs, which the orchestra facilitates for thousands of Israel’s young people annually, including immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia and children from disadvantaged homes,” Hirsch added.

At Huberman’s request, the first benefit for what became the Israel Philharmonic was chaired by Albert Einstein in New York in the 1930s. Huberman also had little trouble persuading Arturo Toscanini, a fervent anti-Nazi, to lead the Palestine Symphony’s first concert in December 1936. 

“Since then, the orchestra has relied on similar annual benefit events to help meet their annual deficit,” Hirsch said. “It would be hard for the orchestra to manage without this American support.”

Ilya Konovalov, the IPO’s concertmaster, who will perform at the New York and Los Angeles benefit concerts, called Rachlin “a fantastic musician. It’s interesting to see how he changes every time he conducts.”

The Siberian-born violinist was just 20 and fresh out of the Vienna Academy of Music when he became the orchestra’s concertmaster. “It’s a great responsibility, but when you’re 20, you’re ready to take risks,” Konovalov, 36, said. “Maybe more than I am now,” he added.

Konovalov said younger musicians are keeping the orchestra vital. “It’s an exciting period in the Israel Philharmonic,” he said. “Almost every year, we see five or six new musicians. The orchestra is more flexible than it used to be. The younger musicians are more interested in trying new things, not always playing the same material in the Philharmonic’s style, which I think will make us sound even richer.”

Rachlin agreed. “Interestingly enough, there are also a lot of Israeli players,” he said. “There is a very nice mix of the older generation, which still carry on this great tradition and have experience of the sound of the Israel Philharmonic, and younger musicians learning from them.” 

Meanwhile, Konovalov said the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is happy to be back in its renovated home, the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv. “We started our season, and it looks good. There are many new conductors, and new faces in the orchestra and audience. Many changes look promising at the moment.”

But the violinist said the financial health of any orchestra is always a work in progress. “You never know,” Konovalov said. “Every benefit concert is important. Once you think one is less important than another, you are going down.”

Pro-Palestinian groups protest Israel Philharmonic in Buenos Aires

Pro-Palestinian groups held an anti-Israel demonstration outside a Buenos Aires theater during a charity concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO).

Some 50 demonstrators outside the Colon Theatre on Aug. 26 called for a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions against Israel.

A statement from the Federation of Palestine-Argentinian Institutions and the Association for Human Rights in Palestine — the groups that organized the protest — said Israel “kills one Palestinian child every three days” and that Israel is carrying out a policy of “ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.”

The demonstration did not interfere with or interrupt the performance by the orchestra and conductor Zubin Metha on behalf of the Tzedaka Foundation.

On Aug. 25, the IPO performed in a Tango Dance Festival and World Cup of Tango in a free concert at Puente Alsina Public Park before a crowd of 20,000.

The performance was covered by local media and broadcast live by Todo Noticias, a 24-hour news channel. Zubin Mehta was a trending topic on Twitter in Buenos Aires.

Maarat Ayin: Eduardo Saverin’s decision to renounce his U.S. citizenship

By now everyone has heard that Eduardo Saverin, one of the co-founders of Facebook, filed legal papers in September 2011 to formally renounce his American citizenship. Brazilian by birth, Saverin became an American citizen in 1998. Born in Sao Paulo, Saverin’s father was, according to press accounts, a wealthy Jewish industrialist with varied interests in clothing, shipping, real estate and commercial exports.

Many of the press reports are focused on the financial implications of this move. Jim Cramer, appearing on “Meet the Press” last weekend, called the Facebook IPO a total fiasco, “one of the worst-handled things I’ve ever seen” because the stock only climbed just over 0.6 percent in its opening. Others disagreed, arguing that the successful launch of a stock that is now just starting to be publicly traded is not determined by how much the stock rises in the first few days but by how it does over the long term. As a rabbi, I am not equipped to discuss the pros and cons of what constitutes a successful IPO.

What I am qualified to comment on is how we should act in various given situations. Religion is not just something that we should do in synagogue. It is not even something that we should do primarily in our homes. Rather, Judaism should guide us in our actions every moment of every day. This is a difficult concept to implement, especially for Reform Jews such as myself who do not see the halachah as binding. Without rules that we need to follow, how are we to put this concept into practice?

Much of our ethical teachings may seem visionary and inspiring, but frequently are theoretical and not easy to apply in many of the situations that we are most likely to face. The historical precedents that we can draw upon are also not always helpful because the historical circumstances that our ancestors faced — even as recently as 50 years ago — were in such a different context that they seem antiquarian.

That is why Saverin’s decision to renounce his U.S. citizenship is an opportunity to look at how we might — and perhaps should — behave under a given set of circumstances. Granted, we are unlikely to face this particular set of circumstances. Saverin was one of the four co-founders of Facebook along with Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes. Although he owns slightly less than 5 percent of Facebook, his net worth is still about $2 billion. But while we are not likely to be in his exact financial situation, the principle involved is universally applicable.

What loyalty do we, as Jews, owe to our country? Saverin — full name Eduardo Luiz Saverin — was not born in the United States. In the 1990s, again according to press accounts, Saverin’s family discovered that their son Eduardo was on a list of potential kidnapping victims. During this period, gangs throughout Central and South America were kidnapping the children of rich families for ransom. The Saverins, not wishing to risk their son’s life, moved to Miami. Shortly thereafter, Saverin became an American citizen.

It may be necessary to remind ourselves that the concept of giving citizenship to Jews is a relatively new idea. In the Renaissance period, Jews were forced to live in a particular area, which was called a ghetto. The term was originally used in Venice to describe where the Jews were forced to live in that city. Jews in various parts of Europe were not granted citizenship and were only allowed to reside in a given city or region on the agreement of the local nobility. This agreement could, however be rescinded at any moment, and it was, with Jews being expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306 and again in 1394, and various other localities with depressing regularity.

In 1781, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, a German political writer who was influenced by Moses Mendelsson, wrote a three-volume work titled, “On the Civil Improvement of the Jews,” which argued for Jewish political and civil rights on humanitarian grounds. This began a debate, which sometimes became quite bitter, over whether the Jews deserved to be emancipated. In 1791, France became the first Western nation to emancipate its Jews. When Napoleon conquered other European countries, he brought emancipation with him, literally breaking down ghetto walls.

Unfortunately, when France withdrew, this new legal status was withdrawn as well. Central European Jews had to struggle for many decades to try to achieve the civil and political status that we take for granted today. Which brings us back to the admittedly unusual case of Eduardo Luiz Saverin. A Jewish boy from a foreign country, he arrives in our country to escape physical threats and the possibility of being murdered. He attends a top, private school in South Florida and is accepted into Harvard University, one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the United States.

After studying and working in our country for a number of years as a citizen, he makes a fortune and, according to press reports, moves to Singapore in 2009. Two years later, he files the papers to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Possibly his accountant advised him to do so. Maybe he felt that since he was not living in the United States anyway, holding American citizenship was a financial liability that would not serve his interests. Is he not free to act in his own best interests, financial or otherwise?

I would argue that while he is capable of doing so, renouncing his U.S. citizenship is contrary to his obligations as an American Jew. We need to be loyal to our country and we also need to give the appearance of being loyal to our country. While it is wonderful that anti-Semitism has declined to such low levels that identifiable Jews can do terrible things without generating any discernible hostility toward us a group, that does not excuse us from our obligation to be loyal citizens to the country that we are either born in or that we embrace. Saverin voluntarily accepted our citizenship, and he should not abandon it just because it is convenient to do so.

While we Jews tend to be rather cosmopolitan, meaning that we feel at home in many different parts of the world, we need to balance that characteristic with a rooted loyalty to our host country. Taking and returning citizenships like greeting cards is, at the very least, a form of maarat ayim — the appearance of impropriety. This concept, infrequently mentioned outside of Orthodox circles, is the concept that we should avoid doing things that may look like we are doing something wrong, whether or not we are actually doing something wrong.

When Mark Cuban Tweets that “This pisses me off: Just in Time For A Facebook IPO Tax Break, Eduardo Saverin Renounces U.S. Citizenship,” Ilyse Hogue titles her commentary on this issue “Lessons in Disloyalty,” and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) calls it “outrageous,” Saverin should have realized this is a step that is not good for his personal reputation and not good for the potential influence that it may have on others, particularly young people. As Jews, we have an obligation to try to set a good example. This means not only trying not to do bad things but also trying to avoid doing things that might be perceived that way.

Facebook IPO: Good for the Jews?

If the Talmud were written today, would it look like Facebook?

First, the rabbis of the Mishnaic period post a Jewish legal rule. Then, Talmudic sages weigh in with their comments, all pithy and lacking punctuation. Almost immediately, the comments grow far longer than the original post. Eventually, outside links to the Shulchan Aruch and Maimonides’ compendium of Jewish law appear on the right side.

It may sound too cute by half, but if you look closely, the Talmud and Facebook actually share similar layout.

They also share a few basic ideas about commentary and community. The Talmud enabled scholars who lived in different times and different places to argue with each other, creating a virtual community. Facebook allows people who live in different places and may not know each other to do the same.

“Every piece of information that’s offered opens up the opportunity for commentary, for amplification—whether it’s a link from The New York Times or something that happened to you at the Israeli Interior Ministry or an idea that you simply want to express.” said Esther Kustanowitz, a Jewish social media expert who works part time for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “And Facebook doesn’t just amplify the message, it expands the conversation.”

On the eve of Facebook’s initial public offering, scheduled for Friday, Jews—like everyone else—are still figuring out how Facebook can serve their personal or professional needs.

What started out in a college dorm room in 2003 as a way for Harvard students to rate women’s comparative “hotness” (it was then called has morphed into a medium for more than 900 million people worldwide to communicate with each other, rally support or opposition, publicize news, make money, flirt and fulminate in ways both profound and mundane about the million and one things happening at any given moment.

For a few in the Jewish community, Facebook’s IPO raises the $64,000 question—or in this case, the $64 billion question—of how much of that newly created wealth will go to Jewish causes. The jury’s still out on whether Facebook’s Jewish creator, Mark Zuckerberg, will turn into a major Jewish giver following the IPO, when the just-turned 28-year-old figures to become one of the richest people in the world.

But the real story of Facebook’s impact on the Jewish world ultimately is likely to be more about the ways it is prompting Jews to change the way they think, behave, organize, and even mourn and celebrate than it will be about Zuckerberg’s tzedakah.

Facebook helped thousands of Israelis coordinate last summer’s socioeconomic protests, the biggest in Israel’s history. The site helped J Street turn from a fledgling, little-known upstart into a broad-based, left-wing alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Most Jewish community institutions, however, haven’t yet figured out how to maximize the potential of Facebook, according to Lisa Colton, president of Darim Online, a Virginia-based company that helps Jewish organizations adapt to the digital age.

Partly, Colton says, that’s because Facebook is inherently threatening to institutions.

“Facebook is about people more than it is about institutions. It supports individuals connecting with and learning from each other,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way for individuals to circumvent institutions.”

Facebook enables Jews to construct communities organized around areas of interest rather than geography, religious denomination or institution.

When Hindy Poupko Galena and her husband, Seth, began using Facebook to update friends and family about their year-old daughter’s fight against a rare bone marrow disease, a community of sympathizers quickly emerged that included thousands of people who had never met the toddler, Ayelet.

Strangers reached out to the Galenas—members of the Modern Orthodox community on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—not just with messages but with care packages.

“It allowed people to connect with what was going on on a very deep and real level,” Hindy said. “So many people came out of the woodwork and emailed me and said, ‘I had a sick kid and never told anyone about it, but I now feel that I can tell people about it.’ ”

Even now, months after Ayelet’s death in January at age 2, the Facebook-based community, which they call Ayelet Nation, serves as a source of sympathy for the Galenas.

“For a girl who only lived two years, it’s very comforting to know that people know her name, and I think that was only possible because of Facebook,” Hindy said.

Whereas many Jewish institutions define their community by who’s inside and who’s out—synagogues, JCCs and the Israeli Rabbinate, to name just a few—Facebook offers an opportunity for Jewish community with no bounds.

“It can take Jewish leaders off their pedestals and get them to interact with real people and real life in a multidimensional way,” said William Daroff, the director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America who has more than 3,000 “friends” on the social networking website. “And it’s not just about the Jewish world, but a place for us to talk about our kids and our dogs and the games we like to play and who we really are.”

As Facebook evolves, the Jewish communities it enables will change, too.

“I think it really is analogous to having phone lines, which later enabled faxes and early Internet,” Colton said. “With Facebook, it’s not about what we see and use today, it’s about what its foundations and widespread adoption make possible in the future.”

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