Lehitraot, maestro!

Zubin Mehta and his wife, Nancy Kovack, at Tandoori on October 17 (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
Zubin Mehta and his wife, Nancy Kovack, at Tandoori on October 17
(photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
In Hebrew, there is no actual word for goodbye.  There are two options when taking leave of someone in Hebrew – Shalom, which means peace; or Lehitraot, which means till we see each other again. In other words, there is no finality, just the continuation of a renewing circle, as is the case in so much of Jewish, and by implication, Israeli tradition.
Thus when maestro Zubin Mehta, 83, announced that he would be retiring from his position as musical director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra after 50 years, no one in his wide circle of Israeli friends and admirers wanted to say goodbye, and the numerous farewell events at which he was feted, and where the common language was English, speakers repeatedly remarked how welcome he will be when he comes back.
With the appointment of Mehta’s successor, Lahav Shani, 30, Mehta’s ill health and advancing age, they realized that there was only a faint chance that he might once again conduct the IPO, but it was something no one wanted to acknowledge.
Indeed, it was just as difficult for Mehta to part from the IPO as it was for the IPO to part from him. He conducted the orchestra for the last time in Tel Aviv’s Charles Bronfman Auditorium on October 20.
Mehta apologized to the audience that among “all the things I was able to achieve in the past 50 years, there is one thing I could not accomplish: I cannot speak Hebrew.”
At a farewell dinner three days before, the mutual affection between Mehta and the musicians was undeniable, and emotion hung thick in the air. For Mehta, the venue at the Tandoori restaurant in Herzliya Pituah, was also emotional because it belongs to his close friends Reena and Vinod Pushkarna, who like Mehta himself , were born and raised in India, and became an extension of his family in Israel, even though Mehta is a Zoroastrian of Parsee descent, Reena Pushkarna is Jewish of Iraqi decent, and Vinod Pushkarna is a Brahmin, whose family has a long history in India.
At the event, after several musicians told Mehta that were it not for him their careers would not have progressed to the extent that they have, he said he would remember each and every one of them.
He made special mention of the Pushkarnas, calling them “my family in Israel,” and even thanked them in Hindi. He said that he enjoyed dining at their restaurants in Tel Aviv and Herzliya Pituah, where he could savor both good Indian food and genuine Indian ambience.
Of all the non-Israeli musicians who have come to Israel, the most iconic figure of all is Mehta, who is so respected and beloved that he is one of the very few non-Israelis to be awarded the Israel Prize, which was conferred on him in 1991 in recognition of his deep devotion to Israel. In 1995, he was made a Wolf Prize laureate for his contribution to the arts, and he has also received honorary degrees from the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute.  In addition, he was made an honorary citizen of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
Mehta, who took the IPO on tours around the world, quipped that its members were not easy to travel with because they all had special demands. Fortunately, this did not affect the quality of their playing.
In 1987, he took them to Poland, the birthplace of IPO founder Bronislaw Huberman. Among the many other places to which he took the orchestra were China and India. For Mehta, taking the orchestra to Mumbai (Bombay), the city of his birth, was a personal triumph. His one regret is that the IPO has yet to play in Cairo. Mehta is hopeful that under Shani, the IPO will play not only in Egypt, but also in other countries in the region.
Like his good friend Daniel Barenboim, the director of the Berlin State Opera who flew to Israel for Mehta’s farewell concert, Mehta draws a clear distinction between Richard Wagner, the composer of beautiful music, and Wagner, the antisemitic nationalist greatly admired by Hitler who is banned in Israel.
Mehta hopes the day will come when Israelis will be able to appreciate Wagner’s music, even if they abhor the man who wrote it. Wishing success to Shani and all his colleagues at the IPO, he said, “I’m finally saying goodbye to my family. Shalom, mishpaha sheli!” (my family in Hebrew)