Even Peter Simon isn't exactly sure when he became a "Zionist." The American concert pianist's youthful face belies his 57 years and appears momentarily contemplative as he tries to recall just what spurred him to organize a recent multi-week tour of Israel benefit concerts, master classes and workshops.
"In America, where it's safe, you can talk, but that's all it is - talk," says the Jewish musician. "My parents believed in the State of Israel, but it was just talk from far away."
That distance, Simon notes, his wide smile returning, wasn't bridged by his formal education. "I did my graduate studies at The Catholic University of America, [in Washington, DC]. I played intramural football there and was known as 'the fighting Jew of Catholic U.'"
The turning point, he suggests, came in 1991, two years after he quit the "stifling and corrupt" halls of academia, where he had been a professor at the Universities of Iowa and Tulsa. It was then that he visited Israel for the first time to give a concert. The Gulf War was about to break out, and Simon was impressed by the Israeli determination to go about daily life, despite the threat that "they could die tomorrow." But when he returned to the US, he was disillusioned by media reports on Israel.
Things haven't improved much since then, he adds.
"The media is always negative. They blow things way out of proportion, and certainly, that is the case when it comes to Israel...In the US, people blame Israel for the war in Iraq. I'm tired of people blaming the Jews for everything.
Through his concerts in Karmiel, Tiberias, Netanya, Kibbutz Ramat HaNegev and the US ambassador's house in Herzliya Pituah, Simon raised funds for music scholarships that will benefit Israeli students and to support Israeli youth orchestras. In his master classes he tutored students in public venues so that all in attendance could benefit from his expertise.
Whether performing at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center or throughout Europe and Asia, it's on stage that Simon reveals his magic. His brief, folksy introduction to each piece, in which he outlines composers' lives and times, leaves the audience unprepared for his intense, passionate interpretations of their work.
Topping off his program with a beguiling version of the Gershwin classic, Simon leaves no doubt that giving of his talents to help Israel is, for him, pure rhapsody.