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The Gift of Music

Rachel Aptowitzer

A niggun. An embrace without form. A song without words. Coaxing memories from near oblivion, it laces smiles with tears and fills the heart with tender longing. Nowhere does it burn more intensely than in the icy clutches of anti-Semitism, the bedrock of Jewish misery. It warms the frigid, subzero temperature; it feeds the soul for lack of bread. It links the generations together in a bond of love and simple truth. This is a tale of courage and sacrifice, of destiny and Providence. It begins with a n

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


It was the festive morning of Shabbos Chol HaMoed Pesach on the Lower East Side. Among the shtreimlach and beketshes in a chassidishe shtiebel, a distinguished-looking man was seen making his hesitant way to the back bench. His life was far from observant, his expression uncertain. Yet his neshamah was sure. The man was Ernest Bloch, the famous Jewish, Swiss-American composer.

In a heartfelt letter to his mother, Bloch described the bare room, the pious congregants: “What music! Neither organ, nor instruments, nor choir. Everyone his own orchestra … I

dissolved with emotion … I assure you that my music seems to me a very poor little thing beside that which I heard. I would have been able, as a single man, to plunge myself into this Truth even at my age.… Alas, I can’t.… All that will remain is the shadow of what I could have been.”

Bloch’s stirrings of spirituality inspired him to compose a group of short pieces for violin and piano entitled the Baal Shem Suite: Three Pictures of Chassidic Life. They include “Vidui,” “Nigun,” and “Simchas Torah”; the beautiful “Nigun” being the best known and most often played as an independent piece.



A young woman walked briskly through the airport terminal. Destination: Moscow. Zina Schiff was a budding Californian concert violinist of 19, selected to compete in the International Tchaikovsky Competition, one of the fiercest competitions in the classical music world. Jascha Heifetz, her Russian-Jewish teacher and one of the greatest violinists of all time, strongly advised her against participating in the competition. Another world-class musician, the Russian-Jewish cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, also warned her not to go. He had recently returned from the USSR and reported the Soviets were clamping down on the Jews in the heat of the Leningrad trials. 

Yet they only knew half the story. The competition provided the ideal cover for Zina and her mother to visit Tante Chantshe, her mother’s sister, and the two cousins trapped behind the Iron Curtain. They went laden with gifts for the Jewish community: Inside its case, Zina’s treasured violin was wrapped in two talleisim; hidden in her music bag were siddurim disguised as diaries. As they boarded the plane, the fear of being caught subsided.

To be able to compete, Zina had submitted an application form detailing her repertoire. The second round required a contemporary piece from her country of origin. She had recently played a beautiful piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra by an American composer. The only concern was that it carried a distinctly Jewish-sounding name and was banned in Soviet Russia. “Nigun,” from the Baal Shem Suite by Ernest Bloch, had captured Zina’s heart, and despite the risk involved, Zina longed to share it with her Russian audience. On the application form, she wrote “Bloch Suite” and left out the revealing name “Baal Shem.” It was accepted.

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