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United by a Niggun

Barbara Bensoussan

They both have roots in Poland and grew up in Tel Aviv, but the musical career paths of violinist Itzhak Perlman and Chazzan Yitzchak Meir Helfgot couldn’t have been more different—until those paths met a few years ago for a performance that took place, of all places, on the White House Lawn. Now they’ve joined forces once again, this time on a new CD that will be released by Sony Music on September 4. The behind-the-scenes story about this unusual collaboration.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

jewish men with violinIt’s not commonly known that the wife and children of violinist Itzhak Perlman enjoy regular Tanach study sessions with a teacher named Judy Geldzahler, who Perlman describes as “quite frum.” One evening, Mrs. Geldzahler mentioned that she had to run out to a concert after the class. “Who’s giving the concert?” Toby Perlman, herself a musician, wanted to know.

“Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot,” Mrs. Geldzahler said. “He’s amazing!”

“Toby and I are big fans of great singers,” explains Mr. Perlman, who is himself possessed of a resonant bass voice — in fact, he has gamely sung minor operatic parts a few times, as well as duets with opera stars Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. “After one of those duets, people asked me what I planned to do afterwards,” he says with a grin. “I told them it was my ‘farewell debut.’ ”

At any rate, the next time the Perlmans were in Tel Aviv for an engagement with the Israel Philharmonic, they heard Helfgot would be singing at the Mann Auditorium. “He was phenomenal,” Perlman recalls. “After that, I approached him and said, ‘Let’s do something together.’ ”

You might say that Perlman and Helfgot are two sides of the same Jewish musical coin: Although one wears casual button-down shirts and no yarmulke, while the other dons a long frock and tucks his pants into his socks, both are Israeli, from the Tel Aviv area, and from Polish backgrounds. Perlman was born to parents who heeded Herzl’s call and left Poland in the 1930s, settling in Tel Aviv; Helfgot’s grandparents heeded the Gerrer Rebbe’s warning to get out of Europe and also left in the 1930s, when his father was a little boy and his mother not yet born. Perlman was “discovered” as a musical genius and brought to the US to study at the Juilliard School after his bar mitzvah; Helfgot, after becoming bar mitzvah, was sent to Jerusalem to learn in Yeshiva Sfas Emes.

In the past few years, the two have come together as performers to share what unites them, something dear to both their hearts: traditional Jewish music. During Hanukah of 2010, bundled against the cold, the two performed together on the White House Lawn at the lighting of the national menorah. In March of 2011, they did a concert in Los Angeles’s Saban Theatre entitled “The Soul of Jewish Music,” benefiting the Bet Tzedek Holocaust Survivors Justice Network. Then, in what might be called a leap of faith, Sony Music approved Perlman’s idea to make a CD featuring them performing Jewish music. Entitled Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul; it’s due for release on September 4, shortly before the Yamim Noraim.

Helfgot’s fellow cantor at the Park East Synagogue, Cantor Benny Rogosnitzsky, says that Sony is usually geared to the youth market, but “they believe in Perlman, so they believed in the project. When Perlman first proposed this shidduch, the folks at Sony didn’t even know what chazzanus was.”

They had never heard of Helfgot either. “But then they heard him sing,” Perlman says. He chuckles and adds with wry understatement, “That didn’t hurt.” 


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