Itzhak Perlman, wearing a cream-colored dress shirt and looking younger than his 70 years, rides an electric scooter up on to a Jerusalem stage for a meeting with journalists sponsored by the Jerusalem Press Club.
“OK, you want me to read my speech now?” he asks Press Club founder Uri Dromi. “It’s very long and profound.” He waits just a beat, makes a funny face, says “nah” and bursts out laughing.
The world-renowned violinist is in Israel, where he was born, to accept the Genesis Prize, a one million dollar prize whose goal is to “foster a sense of pride in being Jewish among millions of Jews worldwide, to enhance their sense of belonging to the Jewish nation, and to set unaffiliated young Jews on a journey of re-discovery and reconnection with their Jewish identity.”
“I am both humbled and honored to receive this award,” Perlman said. “It really touches my heart. The Genesis Prize is particularly meaningful as it’s given here in Israel in the country of my birth. It is connected to Jewish values and the very spirit of the Jewish people which inspires me in all I do personally and professionally.”
Perlman is the third recipient of the prize following former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and actor Michael Douglas. The recipients are “strongly encouraged” to re-gift the money.
“Unlike most prizes you don’t get to just rest on your laurels,” Perlman said. “You get the prize and give it right back. That’s what makes it so Jewish. Here it is…there it goes.”
Perlman, who had polio as a child, has already founded an institute, where he teaches each summer, that offers training to exceptional young string players. He said he would use some of the prize money for music education and some to helping institutions become handicapped accessible.
“I envision a society where if I want to go to a concert I shouldn’t have to call and ask 'is it accessible?'” he said. “And I don’t want an answer like 'sure it’s accessible. You can go through the kitchen, or through the basement.' I need access with dignity.”
Perlman has won dozens of prizes and been awarded three Presidential Medals, the most recent the Medal of Freedom given to him by President Obama. Yet he seemed genuinely touched by the honor of being awarded the prize and excited to be back in Israel, where he lived until he was 13.
“Coming to Israel for me has always been coming home,” Perlman told The Media Line. “Whenever I come back, I love the atmosphere and the smells. I feel so comfortable here. Playing with the Israel Philharmonic is like playing with mishpocha,” he said, using the Yiddish word for family.
Perlman will receive the prize from Dame Helen Mirren, who is also a fan of Israel. She told journalists that she first came to Israel in 1967, with her Jewish boyfriend, and volunteered on Kibbutz Ha’on near the Sea of Galilee.
“We had to comb the grapes with a big plastic comb,” she said laughing. “After one day they sent me to the kitchen where I had to wash all the dirty dishes.”
Mirren, who is not Jewish, said she has long been a supporter of Israel and opposes all boycotts.
“I’m a believer in Israel,” she told the crowd in Jerusalem to applause. “This is an extraordinary country full of extraordinary people.”
Wearing a gold, green and yellow brocade dress, she admitted she had never been the MC of an event and was a little nervous about the following day’s prize ceremony.
“There are so many complicated names,” she said. “Ne-tan-ya-hoo she said carefully, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in her lilting British accent. “I don’t want to get that one wrong.”
Netanyahu will present Perlman with the prize, which is financed by a one hundred million dollar endowment from the Genesis Prize Foundation. The Prize is a partnership between the Prime Minister’s Office of the State of Israel, the Genesis Prize Foundation, and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
One of the founders, Stan Polovets, said that all five of the founders are Jews of Russian heritage and originally focused on Russian-speaking Jews.
“The prize began with the idea of recognizing someone who is extremely successful and is willing to talk about the importance of Jewish values,” Polovets told The Media Line. “We hope we can inspire young people who feel ambivalent or neutral or really don’t care about their Jewish identity. Everybody wants to be on the winning team. If you are an aspiring actor who is not engaged jewishly at all and you hear Michael Douglas talk about Jewish values, it will have an impact.”