Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman said on Tuesday that receiving the 2016 Genesis Prize was “an incredible honor” because he would be able to give away the million-dollar award to philanthropic projects promoting music and to people with disabilities.
“It’s a very prestigious prize, but there’s a privilege to the prize, and that is I can do tikkun olam and give tzedaka,” Perlman told The Jerusalem Post in an interview at the King David Hotel. “What could be better for the human spirit? That’s my prize.”
Asked what he would speak about in his address at the Genesis Prize Ceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday night, Perlman said: “My message is that giving is very important. Giving is a Jewish thing, and I like to talk about that. There’s nothing more important, personally, for anybody than being able to give. That’s what I feel, and that’s what I’m going to talk about.”
Perlman, 70, has been disabled since contracting polio at the age of four. Although born in Tel Aviv, he has spent most of his life in the US. He lives in New York with his wife, Toby, with whom he has five children.
“Israel is the country of my birth,” he said. “When I come here, I feel I’m coming home. Politically, there are things I agree with or I disagree with, and I keep this to myself. When people say, ‘What’s going to happen?’ I say, I’m a constant optimist.
“You know, things are difficult. Certain things are not what I would like them to be. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to talk about the fact that I am here as a son of Israel, and I’m hoping for the best.”
He noted that he has often played with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and regularly teaches in the Perlman Music Program for students in the US and Israel, started two decades ago by his violinist wife.
Although he has been decorated with many awards, from 16 Grammys to the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President Barack Obama last year, Perlman said he considered the Genesis Prize special.
“Some prizes you either get a medal or a bunch of money. My prize is to be able to give charity to whatever I feel is needed. It’s a prize that actually makes you work. It’s a challenge,” he said.
Perlman hasn’t decided yet exactly what he will do with the prize money.
“The two main goals are to give the money, number one, for music, and the second, to persons such as myself, who have a disability. That’s a huge challenge.
“The thing about all these challenges is that there are many, many worthwhile organizations that work for these things. It’s like going to a restaurant that has a menu with incredible dishes, and now what do you choose?” Perlman voiced the hope that he could use the prize “to change the attitudes of society toward people like myself, who have a disability.”
He added: “I have a very simple philosophy. One has to separate the abilities from the disabilities. The fact I cannot walk, that I need crutches or a scooter or whatever it is, has nothing to do with my playing the violin.
“People say, ‘You know, you’ve been such a hero, having a career despite the disability.’ “That’s nothing to do with it. If I didn’t play well, disability or no disability, I don’t think people would judge me by the fact that I could not walk. I always said, ‘Don’t look at that. Look at the way I play. If you don’t like the way I play, fine! But if you do, forget about the other stuff.’ “The other stuff is just an unfortunate thing that I have, and that I have to deal with, and I can deal with this just fine.
“This has to do with how my parents dealt with it. If I was misbehaving by not practicing enough, they could have said, ‘Oh, he can’t walk.’ But no, they didn’t say that.
They said, ‘You better practice because if you want to do well in music, you have got to practice,’ which is what I say to my students.”
The Genesis Prize Ceremony will be hosted by British actress Helen Mirren, and Perlman will be presented the award by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Will he play the violin? “No, that’s one of the things that makes this a good prize. I don’t have to play. I just have to talk and I’m very happy. It’s going to be very exciting.”