Sunrise, Sunset: the Special Relationship between Jews and Violins

March 11, 2014, 10:52 AM · For the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, the 1890 Census was a wake-up call. For anyone interested in Jews and violins, this year’s Menuhin Competition might at least be a kick in the collective consciousness. 

The Census confirmed that there was no longer a Western frontier. The competition, the biennial commemoration of a patron whose very name - Yehudi, the Jew – was programmatic, produced plenty of talent, 22 and under. But of 42 competitors, one and maximally two might possibly have been Jewish.

For Turner, the passing of the frontier meant the end of a formative experience after almost 300 years. For the inhabitants of Planet Violin, the entry list was strong evidence that the Jewish fiddler, a virtual icon till deep into the 20th century, was fading fast.

For as far back as anyone could remember, the special relationship of Jews and violins seemed as self-evident as Americans’ special relationship to the frontier. Heifetz, already a sensation on his arrival in New York at 17, and still news fit to print on page one when he died 60 years later, practically personified it.  

Jascha Heifetz

A GI from the rural Midwest, George Haines was so moved by one of some 300 concerts Heifetz played for the troops between 1942 and 1945 that, after returning home and fathering a family, he made his daughters take violin lessons. “Thank you, Jascha Heifetz,” said the youngest, two generations later. Now a lawyer and mother of college-age kids, she was still grateful and wistfully envious of Jews.  

“The violin has always been a Jewish instrument," Vadim Gluzman told an interviewer. “I hope I’m not perceived as chauvinistic, but it’s a fact of life.” Born in 1973, Gluzman was a Jewish lion by any standard. But he was no longer a young one. His colleague, Philippe Quint, only a year younger, was another. Gidon Kremer was already 67. Ilya Kaler, in earlier years the violin world equivalent of an Olympic gold medalist, was already 50. Joshua Bell continued to qualify as younger generation at 46, Gil Shaham at 42, Maxim Vengerov at 39, Nikolaj Znaider at 38.

But then what? Itzhak Perlman and Zukerman, still cherished as younger generation by fans who were their contemporaries, were now elder statesmen. Stern, a generational bridge whose roster of protégés extended from the teenage Perlman to the teenage Gluzman, died in 2001 at 81. Menuhin, his fellow San Franciscan and a secular prodigy long since become a British institution, preceded him by two years at 83.

It was usually forgotten that scarcity had once been the default position. To mid 19th century audiences, who took violins and violinists as seriously as they took constitutional reform and steam locomotion, the idea that Jews, and particularly Russian Jews, would become a nation of world-class fiddlers would have seemed as exotic as the idea that Japanese, Koreans and Chinese would one day do the same.

For most people back then, the division of labor was as clear as Britannia rules the waves. Britain and Russia imported instruments and players. Italy, France and Germany exported them. There was room at the margins for Ole Bull and a cohort of talented Belgians. 

But Jews? Like most empires, theirs started small. But it gathered strength as it moved eastward where the badchen, a professional entertainer, was a fact of life and Mittenwald, Markneukirchen and Mirecourt put cheap fiddles in reach of fiddlers on every shtetl roof.  

The descent from the roof began with Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst and Joseph Joachim. Respectively a Jewish virtuoso who made even Paganini blink, and a protégé of Moses Mendelssohn’s grandson, Felix, both found their way to the modern world with a minimum of Jewishness.  

Joseph Joachim
Joseph Joachim

Documentation of Ernst’s Jewish roots vanished between 1939 and 1945. Joachim disposed of his Jewish roots while concertmaster at the Hanoverian court. Over the next half-century, Joachim, the onetime Wunderkind from the Austro—Hungarian borderlands made his way to the Lutheran state church, the Prussian civil service, and the cemetery of Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, where he was buried in 1907.  

Meanwhile, as the modern world crept eastward, Joachim's shadow led the way. In the 1860’s, the great pianist, Anton Rubinstein, persuaded the Russian establishment that it needed a conservatory if the West were to take Russia seriously. A few years later, he hired Leopold Auer, 23, a Joachim protégé and assimilated Jew like himself, to head the new violin department in St. Petersburg.

Some 30 years passed before Sophie Jaffe of Odessa, an improbable twofer as both woman and Jew, beat Carl Flesch, another Jew from the Austro-Hungarian borderland, for first prize at the Paris Conservatory.  

A decade later Auer discovered Mischa Elman, 10, almost by chance on a tour of southern Russia, and one prodigy led to another. By 1917, when Heifetz made his New York debut, the superiority of the Russian-Jewish violinist seemed as obvious as the sunrise.

We’re not high-brows, we’re not low-brows.
Anyone can see,
You don’t have to use a chart
to see we’re He-brows from the start,
Mischa [Elman], Jascha [Heifetz], Toscha [Seidel], Sascha [Jacobsen],
Fiddle-lee, diddle-lee, dee.

Composed around 1922 by Gershwin, it only affirmed what much of the world already took for given.

So what was it about Jews?

Heifetz’s playing, like Paganini’s, could turn the listener’s thoughts to magic, just as his reflexes and small muscle coordination could turn their thoughts to genetics. But neither was a likely explanation of why Jews took to and excelled at the violin.  

Anti-Semites and even Jews speculated on a putative Jewish soul and echoes of the synagogue. But religion was another dead end. Mischa, Jascha et al. shared affinities of culture and language, even if the language was likelier to be Russian than Yiddish. But the synagogue was hardly among them, and even if it were, it had little to do with what they played and how they played it.

What mattered plenty, on the other hand, was emancipation. A reflex of 1776 and 1789, it set Jews on the road to civil society and from there to secular culture, education, careers, and - the violin. 

By sheer chance, emancipation coincided with an eruption of musical creativity that led to orchestras and operas from St. Petersburg to San Francisco, a mass audience and a concert industry with global reach, unprecedented demand for string players, and conservatories to supply them.  

A fascination with the violin as collectible, with the prodigy and the virtuoso who played it, even with music as religion by other means, were also in the package. Think Joachim playing the Beethoven concerto on a Strad.  Add incentives that appeal to most people at most times: money, fame, respect, not to mention an admission ticket to the social and civic inside for a nation of desperately poor outsiders.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, Central Europe amateurs followed their favorite soloist, conductor or quartet as others followed a football team. But for an East European Jew and his parents on the cusp of the 20th century, the violin’s appeal was existential, like a basketball to an inner city African-American. At the least, a conservatory diploma meant tax breaks, draft exemption, and the right to live anywhere one wanted.

A full-service teacher, Auer made sure that his prodigies were properly connected, had access to good instruments, stayed in school, and learned languages, table manners and how to dress. If all went well, St. Petersburg led to the world.  

For those who remained or were born after 1917, the incentives were even greater.  Like mathematicians, chess masters and hockey players, musicians were among the Soviet Union’s few world-class products, with cars, dachas and foreign travel for the winners. “They send us their Jews from Odessa, and we send them our Jews from Odessa,” quipped Isaac Stern as cultural exchange took off in the post-Stalinist 50’s. The end of the Cold War was the end of all that. There were still plenty of Russian Jewish players. They were just no longer in Russia.

But there are other and larger reasons than Gorbachev and Putin to account for the vanishing Jewish frontier. An obvious one was receding popular fascination with the violin. In 1872, a benchmark exhibition of old Italian instruments not only drew crowds for week after week to what would become London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Charles Reade, the novelist, covered it in four New Yorker-length pieces for the Pall Mall Gazette. In 1971, when Sotheby’s sold the Lady Blunt Strad for a record $200,000, the story appeared on page one of the Times of London, and the New York Times covered it on four columns. By contrast, 40 years later, when the Lady Blunt was sold again, this time for $15.9 million, the story failed even to qualify as news fit for a by-line.

A second reason is receding fascination with the players. In 1830, Vienna received Paganini like a rock star. In Paris, pregnant women were urged to get themselves to his concerts, so their unborn infants could one day say that they had been there too.  In 1844, Mendelssohn personally introduced Joachim, 12, to Queen Victoria. Sixty years later, on Joachim’s retirement, adoring fans, including Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, presented him a Strad. 

Between the wars, photographers with Speed-Graphics saw Kreisler and Elman off to Europe, or greeted them on their return. In the early postwar years, a Kansas City cabbie and a TWA counter clerk, both Heifetz fans, scrambled to get him a train ticket when bad weather rerouted his flight to a recording date in Chicago. In 1958, when prime time was still prime time, Ed Sullivan presented Itzhak Perlman, 13, to a nationwide TV audience.

A half century later, documentary film makers caught the young Hilary Hahn and the venerable Ida Haendel trudging through airports unmet and unrecognized, and Joshua Bell played one of the world’s great Strads unnoticed and unrecognized in the Monday morning rush hour at Washington’s L’Enfant Plaza Metro station.

A third reason is the changing status and priorities of Jews. On the threshold of the 20th century, a living room quartet of Jewish doctors anywhere between the Rhine and the Black Sea confirmed that you were in Central Europe. In 1912, Sol Hurok launched a legendary career as impresario by engaging Efrem Zimbalist to play for fellow immigrants at a Socialist fund-raiser. 

Much reduced, the amateur quartets still existed on the threshold of the 21st century. But they were now in Los Angeles or Tel Aviv, and the doctors were likely to be retired. The immigrants’ children and grandchildren could still be found on a Friday night in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. But they might or might not fill the seats.  

The Russian tradition could still be seen and heard in Israel, where earlier immigrants joked that newcomers without violin cases must be engineers or doctors. But if American immigrant experience was any indicator, things might well look different to a successor generation ever more distant from Oistrakh and the Borodin quartet.

“What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States…,” Turner concluded in 1893. 

Since Mendelssohn took Joachim to London, the violin had been to Jews what the frontier was to Turner. But American Jews, long since insiders, are also becoming a vanishing frontier, according to a recent, widely-reported, Pew survey. Israel is now a global start-up capital whose per capita median wealth, according to Credit Suisse, exceeded America’s. There are fewer Jews in Russia than in France.  

Like Periclean Athens and Renaissance Florence, a century and a half of Jewish violinists left their monuments, footprints and fingerprints – Joachim and the Brahms concerto, Heifetz, Milstein, Oistrakh, and the young Menuhin, Huberman’s Israel Philharmonic, Chagall’s goats, lovers and fiddlers on refrigerator doors around the world, “Sunrise, Sunset” in rural Nebraska high schools culturally equidistant from Ukraine and Broadway.  

In a world where the Chinese economy is the world’s second largest, the world’s largest violin collection is in Tainan, and the Berlin Philharmonic is on its second Japanese concertmaster, it looked more and more like others’ turn to play first fiddle.  

* * *

David Schoenbaum is the author of The Violin: A Social History of the World's Most Versatile Instrument.


March 11, 2014 at 10:14 PM · “The violin has always been a Jewish instrument", yes, but invented and made mostly by Italian Catholics!!! At least the old ones.

March 12, 2014 at 12:51 AM · Thank you very much for this entry - very interesting, and apparently very well researched! One minor correction - Chi Mei Museum, where the world's largest rare violin collection is located, is in Tainan, which is a southern city on the island, not Taipei, which is in the north, and the capital of Taiwan.

March 12, 2014 at 01:17 AM · Corrected!

March 12, 2014 at 09:32 AM · “The violin has always been a Jewish instrument,"

I find this kind of hasbara propaganda rather disgusting, as if there were no non-Jewish violin players and violin virtuosi since the time of Corelli and Mozart, totally disregarding musical and violinist and fiddle traditions of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, England, to say nothing about America. Anybody can publish such biased data, luckily these days, the era of the internet, which is not owned by any entity unlike Hollywood and public media publishing, it is much easier to see through such biased claims.

March 12, 2014 at 04:18 PM · "I find this kind of hasbara propaganda rather disgusting"

Did you read the article? Mr Schoenbaum takes the claim that the violin is a Jewish instrument and dismantles it, outlining the undoubted contribution of Jews to the history of the classical violin but also putting it into a wider context.

March 12, 2014 at 04:36 PM · >“The violin has always been a Jewish instrument," Vadim Gluzman told an interviewer. “I hope I’m not perceived as chauvinistic, but it’s a fact of life.”<

The story is a little bit deeper than the violin being a Jewish instrument. The violin has always been an ORIENTAL/MIDDLE EASTERN instrument, and wherever you find Jews or Muslims travelling through and settling in Europe you would find stringed instruments going back for over 1000 years.

I would actually argue based on history that the violin's introduction into Europe has as much to do with Arabs as Jews (and Gypsies, who also played an important part in the deal). The origin of the violin is in the Arabic rebab and its variant the rebec. The rebec was introduced into Europe by Muslim musicians from the Almoravid Dynasty in West Africa (who brought the rebab and rebec into Iberia) and by Arab and Romani/Gypsy musicians who travelled through Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire, a European Dynasty that had close ties to Arabia and Persia going back to the end of the Roman Empire. The introduction of the rebab and rebec happened as a result of the Hejira and the spread of Islam into Europe. Jewish people had already been in Europe for many centuries at that point, and because the largest Jewish populations in the world at that time were in Germany and Iraq, there was a lot of crossover where Arabic culture was brought to Europe. At that time Islam was not considered antisemitic; that division came later.

In the time of the Moors and Ottoman Turks, Arab scholars and Jewish scholars brought Middle Eastern and North African culture to many European centres. The development of the rebec into European and Romance instruments happened over many centuries and involved many cultures: Black West Africans in Mali had an orchestra of rebecs in Timbuktu and in Morocco; Italian Jews in the Catholic Church and Arabs and Jews in the Eastern Orthodox Church developed many forms of preclassical music for the temples using the Arabic instruments, leading to the development of instruments such as the vielle in France and the gambas in Italy, and the Byzantine lira, which when imported to Italy developed into the lira da bracchio, the direct precursor of the Italian Violin.

The reason i believe Jews (and Gypsies as well, do NOT forget the Gypsy when it comes to the violin!) played such a visible part in all of the violin's history is because Jews in the Dark and Middle ages had no homeland. As people who had no homeland they brought their ideas with them wherever they went, and they were adept at assimilating into the local culture. Wealthy Arab dignitaries would hire the most skilled Jewish musicians to perform for them when they were homesick in Europe, and in the Ottoman and Almoravid regions Jews had much more freedom to practice their art much of the time than they did in Europe due to antisemitism. Arabic musicians did not develop in the way the Jews did when it comes to the violin simply because Islam forbids music; Jews would be called in to do the lowly duty of being musician class, which in Arabic culture is put on the same social class level as slaves or prostitutes. So the violin became the de facto instrument of Jewish musicians. Add to that the fact that the violin is quieter and when played well is much more pleasing to the ear than the true Jewish instrument (the Shofar), you have a Jewish dominance in violin playing in Europe, and a Gypsy dominance in violin playing in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

To this day you hear the different types of playing in classical music: the more restrained and soulful violin playing style that developed in Italy and later in Paris around the Conservatoire, and the bolder, wilder Gypsy style of the Eastern Europeans, which you hear in the Hungarian and Russian players. That goes not just to classical music but also to the sephardic music of the Western part of the continent as well as the czardas and zigeunerweisen as well as lautari from the East.

A parallel development in Jewish culture is the development of Jewish horn and woodwind players. As i stated before, the traditional Jewish instrument is not the violin, but the Shofar, a type of horn with no stops or tuning valves. The development of the horn and woodwind instruments through European Jewish history is seen through lautari in the East and the Sephardic music of the West, and those styles transformed over the centuries to beome modern Klezmer music, which greatly informed American Jazz at the turn of the 20th century when many Eastern European Jews began emigrating to New York City. Benny Goodman's clarinet playing is every bit as important to the 20th century as Heifetz' violin, and in his prime, Goodman was even more popular than Heifetz as Jazz was more popular music than classical before World War II. Goodman and Heifetz represent two sides of art music Jews brought to Europe and America that have a common origin: Goodman's clarinet style is a direct descendent of Klezmer riffing derived from woodwinds played in lautari, and Heifetz' own playing has echoes of the bold Balkan violin playing in Hungary, Ukraine, and western Russia. Both of these styles traditionally have roots in skilled Jewish players being hired by wealthy Arabic Muslims in European cities to play music that reminded them of back home (Arabia, the Middle East, and the Levant).

Gluzman is partially right. The violin has always been a Jewish instrument, but it was equally an instrument of the Gypsies in the Balkans and its spread into Europe and eventually worldwide is a direct result of the spread of Islam.

In the end, the story is actually more complex and interesting than just Jewish violinists dominating 19th century classical music. It goes back a lot further and travels a lot further than that.

March 12, 2014 at 08:06 PM · Great post, thank you Dion.

March 13, 2014 at 12:45 AM · I read somewhere that Sanctus Seraphin (1699-1776) was Jewish.

Thanks for including that music link! Arnold Steinhardt mentions it in "Violin Dreams" (in fact, the chapter is "Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha". It was great.

March 13, 2014 at 02:14 PM · "The violin has always been a Jewish instrument."

Being non-Jewish, and a violin-player since childhood, I was ready to protest this statement, considering it chauvinistic, indeed. But by the end of the article, I saw, as a previous poster mentioned, that the author had dismantled this idea.

Of the major violinists who influenced my formative years, at least two had Jewish backgrounds -- David Oistrakh and Isaac Stern. I heard them through their vintage recordings. Since they've both passed, I can't thank them here, but I plan to do so on the other side.


The text mentions Heifetz's "arrival in New York at 17" and then mentions "when he died 60 years later." Shouldn't this be "69 years later"? He was 86 when he died in 1987.

March 13, 2014 at 02:53 PM · Yes, music was a low-status profession, and as out-groups it offered welcome income-making opportunities to the Jews and the Gypsies who had no access to high status professions. They operated both as rural musicians and in urban cafes.

I have a friend who is a Gypsy historian, who says there is a long tradition of interaction between Jewish and Roma musicians in many parts of Eastern Europe.

On another tack, here's a little-known example of the affinity between Jews and bowed instruments before the violin. Scholars have recently discovered that Henry VIII imported a number of Jewish musicians from Italy to form a viol consort. As Jews were still officially banned from England, he forged Christian identities for them! The families were involved in English court music for some generations.

March 13, 2014 at 03:27 PM · Hi David - I just finished reading your terrific book. I was nearly overwhelmed with the amount of detail. You must have spent ab incredible amount of time researching this. I certainly highly recommend your tome for everyone remotely interested in violin or music history!

March 16, 2014 at 08:50 PM · Dear Friends.

I think Shlomo Mintz deserves to be mentioned.

Best regards and congratulations for the article.

March 16, 2014 at 09:01 PM · Very cool. Thrilled you included my Sony Legacy reissue of the 1933 recording of "Mischa-Yasha-Toscha- Sascha" by The Funnyboners. Interestingly, the violin on that previous unissued 78 is not a Jew but a Joe: Joe Venuti.

Henry Sapoznik

March 17, 2014 at 03:32 AM · I believe the most revered violinist of the last century, Fritz Kreisler, was Jewish.

A special favorite, Israeli born Ivry Gitlis, plays Bartok like a gypsy.

Milstein's wife said Nathan had Gypsy eyes. He certainly had a slavic soul.

I remember watching Sullivan, Bell Telephone Hour, and Carson for violinists. And recently I've seen Perlman and Hahn on the PBS Tavis Smiley Show!

Thanks for the great blog!

Stephen Kelley

March 17, 2014 at 01:53 PM · One point in this discussion that seems to be missed is the role violin playing had in helping people out of poverty and into a middle class life.

I'm a Jew who once could actually play the violin, despite my lifelong struggle to force myself to practice. My uncle was a career orchestra violinist. My favorite violinist these days is Rachel Barton Pine, not a Jew.

300 years ago Jews were extremely limited when it came to career paths. By the first half of the 19th century one proven route out of poverty and into a middle class existence was as an accomplished musician. Supply and demand taught that most solos were written for violin or piano. If somebody wanted to be a working soloist, he had the best chance playing either violin or piano. Many Jews, who could not afford to buy a piano, could afford to buy a violin for their kid to learn to play. And so they did.

The dedication to hard work in order to get ahead was as much a part of life as was breathing. Violin was one route to the goal of earning a decent living. These days, with more options open, more people choose from a much wider variety of choices than they did 200 years ago.

I once heard a study of how certain occupations served as a way for ethnic minorities to succeed in life. Boxing, which was created as a spectator sport in the mid-19th century by, among many others, a Seneca Native American from upstate NY by the name of Lewis J Bennett, was used by Irish, Italian, and African Americans as a route to celebrity status. What we saw in Jewish violinists of the 19th and 20th century playing their fiddle to celebrity, we now see in other ethnic minorities - such as Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

The Wallis Presents

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine