What’s so Jewish about the fiddle? Okay, the violin. You do know that even classical players of this little box are known to call it a fiddle, right?
Of course, the title of the Broadway show about the one on a roof has been embedded in contemporary Jewish consciousness for 50 years. You’ve probably seen Marc Chagall’s cockeyed, colorful image of that fiddler. Why did the creators of a show about Sholem Aleichem’s decidedly non-fiddle-playing farm papa, Tevye, choose to evoke that image? Well, I’ll tell you: Tradition.
“It was a lot easier to schlep a fiddle than a string bass or cello,” says Temple Beth Am’s music director Wendy Marcus. A career klezmer fiddler and Yiddish culture maven, she’s quick to point to the obvious: During our long years in Eastern Europe, we often had to move. Quickly. With big families and little baggage.
Opportunities for shtetl dwellers to attend, say, a concert by a piano virtuoso with a resident orchestra? Pretty unavailable. But a traveling klezmer band could show up, wedding or no wedding, play, and move on. Hard to carry a piano around with a band like that, although the fiddler might show up with a keyboard player strong enough to hold up an accordion.
So while Bach composed and performed at magnificent organs installed in imposing buildings, and Mozart developed his genius at delicate harpsichords available in every royal patron’s household, the fiddlers whose names we will never know developed certain music to delight people longing for the comfort of a home.
Portability is one thing. The comfort of familiarity is another. The sound of the violin is the closest instrumental sound to the human voice, as both Marcus and my own music theory teacher, Sandra Layman, remind me. Steeped in fiddle playing from klezmer to Romanian, Greek, Turkish and Hungarian, Layman’s album “Little Blackbird” still startles me with how these four little strings can imitate the expressions of the human vocal cords.
“The violin can get close to the krechts,” that catch in the throat that American country music also uses, “and microtones of the voice,” says Layman.
“Of course,” she adds, “the voice was especially important because of its preeminence in synagogue services. Oh, and the voice is usually portable, too.”
As Marcus puts it, “The voice and the violin — so alike and so revered in the Jewish tradition — infuse the heart with fire and magic.”
Well, yes, and even with humor. Once upon a time, no less an American Jewish musical wit than George Gershwin had fun with the predominance of Jews among the star violinists of his time. In a 1921 song called “Mischa Jascha Toscha Sascha,” George and lyricist brother Ira tossed off lines like, “We’re not highbrows, we’re not lowbrows…we’re He-brows from the start,”
Those lines got laughs at parties — particular the heady ones attended by these very virtuosos — Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel, and Sascha Jacobson, all Russian-born marquee names of the day. (Hear it in a classic recording by a cheekily named group, “The Funnyboners,” on a CD set called “From Avenue A to the Great White Way: Yiddish and American popular songs, 1914-1950.”)
Which brings us, once again, to Itzhak Perlman, playing Benaroya Hall on Feb. 19, with just about 200 tickets left to go toward a sellout of a hall that holds 2,481 people. And it’s not even with the whole Seattle Symphony: It’s a recital! Just one fiddler with one pianist. Despite Perlman’s delight in his late-career “roots music” experiments with the Klezmatics, Andy Statman, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band — the “In the Fiddler’s House” projects — Perlman in recital remains close to his own personal musical roots. He’ll play Beethoven, Franck, and a phenomenal virtuoso showpiece by Fritz Kreisler, the guy the Gershwins’ song calls “Dear Old Fritz.”
And not to be forgotten is this: Perlman is a sabra, born in 1945 in Tel Aviv. One of the great Jewish heroes of the baby boomer generation, he’s teaching, conducting, and performing not just great music, but a great message. A mensch like this sings out to the world in a voice that feels like the best, and most comforting, of the land that we call home.