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Jewish World Review March 19, 1999 /2 Nissan 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Jewish Art, Jewish Artists:
Making beautiful music is no guarantee of goodness

(JWR) ---- (
A FAVORITE GAME FOR MANY JEWS has always been to list the name of celebrity artists and state how many are Jewish. While some of their connections to Jewish identity are so tenuous that it isn't even mentioned in their obituaries, for others, such as Yehudi Menuhin, there is no escaping the Jewish label.

Menuhin, who was born in New York in 1916 and died in Berlin last week at the age of 82, was one of the great musicians of the century. Named Yehudi, the Hebrew word for Jew, the onetime prodigy who grew into a revered violinist and conductor had a troubled relationship with the Jewish world.

Though it is difficult to think of any 20th-century American performer who was more identifiably Jewish than this boy named "Jew," few lives better illustrate the difficulty of defining the term "Jewish artist."

In a century filled with glorious soloists, Menuhin stood out both as a young artist and as a mature superstar performer. But he also was exceptional as a very public Jew who had no qualms about placing himself in opposition to Jewish causes.

Though he claimed to oppose all nationalisms, Yehudi, over his anti-Zionist father's protests, actually did perform at benefit concerts for Jewish causes during and after World War II.

Menuhin's interests were mainly universalist, bringing to mind writer Edward Alexander's quip that "universalism is the parochialism of the Jews." In the name of that universalism, Menuhin wound up performing concerts as often for the cause of Palestinian Arab refugees as for Israel.

Though in this post-Oslo era such an attitude may seem broad-minded, doing so at a time when all such "refugee" groups were dedicated to the eradication of Israel (as many still are today) cast a shadow on his reputation as a Jewish role model.

Two incidents in particular stand out.

In 1975, Menuhin was the president of the International Music Council of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

UNESCO had refused to admit Israel as a member and conducted a bogus propaganda campaign against Israel's archaeological and renovation efforts in newly reunited Jerusalem. Conductor Leonard Bernstein and 100 other musicians and dancers asked Menuhin to join them in boycotting UNESCO.

Menuhin refused and added that he, too, was opposed to Israeli activities in Jerusalem.

Another incident tells us more not only about the man, but about the culture that made him an icon.

In 1947, Menuhin embroiled himself in the controversy over the career of legendary German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886-1954). Furtwangler was the pre-eminent conductor of classical music in Germany of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. But Furtwangler chose to remain in Nazi Germany under Hitler as a pet of the Nazi elite. Furtwangler held onto his post at the Berlin Philharmonic, even as his Jewish colleagues were being forced out. He was not a Nazi party member and did some favors for Jewish friends and musicians. But he did not speak out and allowed himself to serve as an artistic symbol for the Third Reich.

After the war, when Furtwangler attempted to resurrect his career, it was none other than Yehudi Menuhin who publicly embraced him and supported his unsuccessful candidacy for the post of music director of the Chicago Symphony.

For Menuhin, as for his friend Furtwangler, art was too important to sacrifice for politics or even the plight of the Jews.

As much as Menuhin may have personally embraced the Zeitgeist of New Age fads later in life (i.e., yoga, vegetarianism), one can only truly understand him as a product of one of the most successful religious movements of 19th century: Art.

That is Art with a capital "A." Art as an end in itself. Art as a mythic force in the world, which has the power to redeem and ennoble humanity. Art whose mystical power transcends even the Holocaust.

While the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said that truly great art could not, by definition, be anti-Semitic, he was wrong. Leave aside the debate about whether Richard Wagner's operas reflect his virulent anti-Semitism or if American poet Ezra Pound's overtly anti-Semitic work has any value in of itself. All one need do is to read the beloved William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." Centuries of apologies for the work notwithstanding, it is clear proof that outstanding dramaturgy and beautiful poetry can still serve an anti-Semitic theme.

The opposite is also true. Devotion to laudable religious -- and even specifically Jewish -- values is no guarantee of artistic value.

In the past two centuries, the list of Jews who were able to achieve fame in the world of classical music is long and distinguished. Some among them even attempted to inject specifically Jewish themes into their works, a choice the internationalist Menuhin rejected.

Some are serious, if not entirely successful, works such as Swiss composer Ernest Bloch's (1880-1959) "Hebrew Rhapsody" for cello and orchestra, titled "Schelomo." Arnold Schoenberg charted his own return to Judaism in his opera "Moses und Aron."

Others, like French composer Jacques Fromental Halevy's (1799- 1862) monumental and somewhat goofy opera "La Juive," are more interesting for their curious philo-Semitism than as examples of great art.

Another example is the contemporary opera "Dreyfus" by George Whyte and Jost Meier that was performed at the New York City Opera in 1996. Its polemical libretto was an accurate portrait of French anti-Semitism in the 1890s. But it flopped, despite a large audience of sympathetic Jewish opera fans, because it was burdened with an awful score and bad direction. What these Jewish artists ran up against is that while it is possible to integrate Jewish motifs into their art, such endeavors cannot be justified by their political or religious merit. They rise or fall on musical value and stagecraft alone.

While we have a large repertory of Jewish liturgical and cultural music to be performed and enjoyed, it is a mistake to believe that we can ever fully integrate our Jewish values with those of Art, which exist in a moral vacuum.

Personally, I cannot imagine living in a world without music. Like other music fans, I, too, have worshiped in the concert halls and opera houses that are the shrines of the cult that claimed Menuhin as one of its high priests. And there are Jewish artists, such as Yitzhak Perlman, whose politics and personalities are easy to admire.

The problem is the persistent popular pretense that Art can substitute for morality.

Those who have fiddled while civilization burned in this century proved that as nice as it would be to be able to pretend that art transcends all, it cannot. As much as we may love music or even treasure the recordings of a Yehudi Menuhin, we ought not to put the idol of Art back on the pedestal from which it was toppled a half-century ago.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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©1999, Jonathan Tobin