Versatile Israeli Violinist Gains ‘Dream’ Hip-Hop Hit

Perusing the hot R & B/Rap Billboard charts, one does not expect to see a red-headed Israeli artist — replete with a classic “Jewfro” mop of curls — represented by the No. 3 song. ” TARGET=”_blank”>Miri Ben-Ari, however, doing the unexpected is standard fodder; so it should come as no surprise that her new single, “Symphony of Brotherhood” (featuring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech weaving in and out of an extended string solo) topped the charts just one month after its radio release.

Given the violin diva’s penchant for multitasking high-profile projects, it also should come as no surprise that topping the charts is just a drop in the bucket for Ben-Ari. Since April, she has been featured on billboards internationally as the poster girl for Reebok’s “I Am What I Am” campaign; in May, she and Israeli hip-hop mogul, Subliminal, recorded a video, “Classit VeParsi” (Classical and Persian) — which topped Israel’s video charts.

Next Ben-Ari went on national tour with the popular hip-hop group, The Roots, even as she was getting ready to release a hip-hop single about the Holocaust. Meanwhile, VH1 announced her as a new artist working with its Save the Music Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to restore instrumental music education in U.S. public schools.

For many, it’s exhausting just to read Ben-Ari’s list of accomplishments, but the artist is full of energy. She is, after all, on a mission: “I want to bring music back,” she said matter-of-factly. “In an era where everything is music samples, I’m representing a movement that’s turning to live music again.”

Ben-Ari grew up as a classically trained violinist in Israel, and as a child prodigy, she caught the attention of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. Though she bowed to the top of one music competition after another, Ben-Ari was convinced that the classical scene was not for her.

“The whole time, I knew I wasn’t going to be a classical violinist,” she explained. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I was really good with the violin. It was fun playing so fast on the instrument — almost like a sport. But I wasn’t feeling the orchestra thing.”

At 17, Ben-Ari won a scholarship to study music in Boston, where she was exposed to jazz for the first time. After hearing a Charlie Parker CD, she knew where her future lay.

“I had to study whatever it was that Parker was doing,” she said. “I had to be able to improvise like he did. I had to learn that language!”

Following obligatory service in the Israeli army, Ben-Ari packed her bags and moved to the Big Apple — where she hustled gigs every night. “If I walked into a club, and there was a stage,” she said, “I’d pull out my violin and play. If there was no stage, I’d still play. At first I’d get my ass kicked. But you go home, practice all day and go out and get your ass kicked again.”

Persistence and gutsy acts — which Ben-Ari attributes to Israeli chutzpah — got her noticed by jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis and the late Betty Carter, as well as by hip-hop moguls like Kanye West and Wycleff Jean. Once the heavyweights got into her act, it was not long before Ben-Ari had played Carnegie Hall, The Apollo, and Jay Z’s Summer Jam — where she received a standing ovation from 20,000 screaming audience members.

“I was a nobody,” Ben-Ari chuckled, “but I had the second feature, after Missy Elliot.”

Since then, Ben-Ari has gone on to record and perform with pop icons like Alicia Keys and Britney Spears, and she won a Grammy in 2004 for her violin chops on Kanye West’s smash-hit single, “Jesus Walks.”

It is heartening to know that someone so openly Jewish and Israeli can receive so much love from the non-Jewish world.

“Wycleff Jean and Jay Z put me on the map,” Ben-Ari said with passion. “They were not Jewish white people. I’ll never forget that. This is also why I relate to [African American] history. I’ve been working with them. I got embraced by the black community, more than any other community — including the Jewish community. They loved me like one of their own.”

The fact that she is Israeli, Ben-Ari continued, actually strengthens her connection to African Americans, whether Jewish or not. “Struggle relates to struggle,” she said. “They appreciate that I’m from Israel, because I’m coming from struggle.”

That mutual struggle, Ben-Ari continued, was in fact the inspiration for her recent hit single: “MLK is the hero for the black American struggle. Of course, if you’re coming from a struggle yourself, you can’t help comparing…. It always crosses my mind — if we had MLK in Nazi Germany, would it have helped?

Would it have affected the outcome of the Jewish Holocaust?”

These kinds of questions are what led Ben-Ari to work on the Holocaust hip-hop single, due to be released in the coming months.

“It’s almost like they say, ‘music is therapy,'” she explained. “It’s a way to deal. There is no other way for me.”

Sex, Drugs and…Lots of Jews?

Sex, Drugs and…Lots of Jews?

In the introduction to his new book, Guy Oseary – the maverick Maverick music exec responsible for signing Alanis Morrissette and Prodigy onto Madonna’s label (which he now runs) – writes, “I was born in Israel and moved to the United States when I was 8 years old. I can still remember how excited I was when I learned that some of my favorite musicians were Jewish – it made me feel proud of my Judaic background and where I came from.”

Now others can share that same Jewish pride via Oseary’s just-released paperback “Jews Who Rock” (St. Martin’s Press).

Sex, Drugs and…Lots of Jews?

With a humorous forward by movie mensch Ben Stiller and an afterword by Peretz Bernstein (better known as Jane’s Addiction lead singer Perry Farrell), “Jews Who Rock” entertains as it informs, with tidbits and trivia about musicians – many of them pioneers and legends – who happen to have Jewish background.Sure, the Jewishness of many in the book, such as Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, may be common knowledge by now. But Manfred Mann, Rush front man Geddy Lee, and Mick Jones of The Clash?

The book also outs a roster of younger, cutting-edge Jews which The Journal has reported on in recent months, such as Beck, Save Ferris’ Monique Powell, Lenny Kravitz, and Slash (of Guns ‘n’ Roses). If the book has one glaring flaw, it’s that more ink is spilt recapping career highlights than on information about the Jewish backgrounds from which these popular musicians derive. With figures like Sex Pistols founder Malcolm McLaren and Courtney Love, such insight might have been welcome. Nevertheless, for any Jew who’s ever played the name game (i.e. every single one of you), “Jews Who Rock” is a brisk, eyebrow-raising read. Big bonus feature: reprinting the entire lyrics of Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song.” – Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

Say It Loud, I’m Half-Jewish and Proud!

Married authors Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst know what it’s like to experience the half-Jewish dilemma. Several years back, their half-Jewish daughter, now 21, experienced some discrimination during a trip to Israel.

“Samara had a terrible time at a kibbutz in Israel where they basically said she was not Jewish,” said Klein, “despite the fact that she had a Bat Mitzvah and spoke Hebrew.”

Klein, who is Jewish, and Vuijst, who is Dutch Protestant, decided to address half-Jewish issues and celebrate half-Jewish pride and culture in their new collection of tidbits, trivia and tongue-in-cheek tips, “The Half-Jewish Book” (Villard Books).

Vuijst – whose parents helped hide Jews during wartime – told The Journal that, sometimes, comments emphasizing continuity within Jewish culture not only hurts the half-Jewish offspring, but the non-Jewish parent.

“It is troublesome when you’re a non-Jewish partner,” said Vuijst, “and you’re made to feel like you’re doing something wrong, something detrimental to the Jewish culture” by marrying a Jew. However, Vuijst added that she has not experienced such resentment within the Jewish community of the small Massachusetts burg where the authors now reside.

What Klein and Vuijst could not foresee prior to researching their book was the kindred spirit half-Jews shared; a sort of unofficial network of bonding based on shared injustices and cultural ambivalence. Klein even believes that many “half-Jews are more likely to get a Jewish education with one parent than those with two Jewish parents,” who might take their Judaism for granted.

“One thing that all of them spoke about is a heightened sense of duality,” said Klein. And the authors feel that half-Jews are “more tolerant of other cultures and points of views,” perhaps explaining the plethora of half-Jewish talent. Adam Sandler touched on this cornucopia of celebrities in “The Chanukah Song” when he put together half-Jews Paul Newman and Goldie Hawn to make one “fine-looking Jew.” Now Klein and Vuijst take it one step further in their book, as they lionize the long list of famous half-Jews, such as Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz, each of whom has an African-American parent, and half-Jewish/half-Irish Protestant Daniel Day Lewis, who married half-Jewish/half-German Protestant Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller.

In fact, the half-Jewish factor has produced many of popular culture’s sexiest thespians in recent years – Noah Wyle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Harrison Ford, David Duchovny, Matthew Broderick and his wife Sarah Jessica Parker, and the Arquettes (including Rosanna, Patricia and David) all have half-Jewish heritage; of another generation, Anthony Newley and Joan Collins, each half-Jewish/half-WASP, and comic actor Peter Sellers was half-Jewish, half-Anglican.

Since the book’s publication, Klein says that he has been flooded with e-mail from people pointing out the half-Jewish celebrities their list excluded, such as Robert De Niro, Andy Garcia. However, “The Half-Jewish Book” is not short on witty inclusions, such as Amy Irving, the half-Jew best known for portraying Jewish women in “Crossing Delancey” and “Yentl,” and Tommy Pickles of “The Rugrats,” the first-ever animated half-Jew, created by the now-divorced couple Arlene Klasky (Jewish) and Gabor Csupo (not). And “wannabe half-Jew” Howard Stern, who has routinely claimed to be part Italian, is outed as the full-blooded Jew he really is. Readers will also find an extensive interview in the book with author Judy Blume discussing why she made her eponymous character half-Jewish in “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.”

Perhaps shedding some light on the absurdity of prejudice, the authors rightly include the famous words of Groucho Marx, who was stopped from swimming at a restricted country club’s pool because of his religion: “My son’s only half Jewish – can he go in up to his waist?”- Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

Prairie Jews

There are two ways to compose a book on the Jews of Wyoming: superficially, as in Gee whiz, Jews in cowboy hats!, or thoroughly, as in the way photo-journalist Penny Diane Wolin created “The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora” (Crazy Woman Creek Press, 2000). Wolin’s subjects, posed against wide-open expanses or amid the plain furnishings of prairie life, seem to embody the joy of frontier freedom and the yearning for a life with more of their people.

But the book goes well beyond portraiture. It includes documentary and oral histories of the successive waves of Jews who settled in the Western state, first as Spanish and Portugese secret Jews in flight from the Mexican colonial Inquisition, then as Western and Eastern European immigrants “spilling over” from urban centers, and now as second-homers looking for a bit of big sky. Their stories are all here, along with many of the photos – a fascinating read. For information,go to or call (707) 829-8568.