Raising the curtain

Haredi girls in J'lem learning Classical music are now able to earn BAs and turn their passions into parnassa.

February 5, 2010 18:19
After hours, a Beit Ya'acov school in Jerusalem tu

haredi girls piano 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

A visit to the Ron Shulamit Music Conservatory in the haredi Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem may not melt away the animosity an anti-haredi feels toward the community, but it will certainly force him to use more than one flashlight when illuminating its largely veiled world. Besides training haredi girls to play and teach classical music and opening the doors for potential careers in the arts or music education, the 15-year-old institution is slowly changing perceptions – that of the girls and their families toward the outside secular world of culture, and also of society’s accepted but tainted view of the haredi world as a backward society where culture is disdained and scorned.

Maybe somewhere, a middle ground exists where the truth lies. And if the Ron Shulamit conservatory is involved, then surely there’s music playing.“It’s a quiet revolution in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox community of Har Nof, as well as in broader Jerusalem and beyond,” says Shira Barzily, the young, energetic outreach manager of the conservatory, as she leads me into Har Nof’s Beit Ya’acov elementary school, where the conservatory exists after regular school hours.

There, some 500 female students, ranging in age from seven through adulthood, immerse themselves in the world of classical music.

For a quiet revolution though, it sure is noisy. The sounds of string instruments being tuned, piano scales being played and accordions meshing in various combinations seep through classrooms in all corners of the old-fashioned school. A look inside any of the rooms will reveal not starchy, mustached egghead musicians, but young, innocent-looking girls in long skirts, long shirts and ponytails.

It’s no secret that you don’t have to be a pure person to create wondrous music – in fact you can be a horrible human being. No need to look any further than Richard Wagner or Ike Turner for examples of that.

But what happens when you go to the other extreme and you place violins, flutes, oboes and accordions in the hands of wholesome youngsters, filled with hearts and minds relatively untarnished by the grime and distractions of the modern world?

According to Arieh Chasid, the founder and director of the Har Nof conservatory, the results can be exquisite.

A concert pianist before and following his initial years of aliya from Moscow in 1974, Chasid began working for the conservatory in 1988, and launched the Har Nof branch in 1994. To his flock of impressionable students, the 62-year-old Chasid is like a stern but lovable grandfather who metes out both praise and criticism in the same, calm voice. The students treat him with reverence, awaiting his approval of an upturned eyebrow or a small smile.

“We’re the first music conservatory in the haredi world,” Chasid says, sitting in his austere office on the first floor of the Beit Ya’acov school. “It’s been called a renaissance of the haredi world, and I totally agree with that assessment. What happened in Italy and Europe is exactly what’s happening here.”

While it may not be that far-reaching, Chasid has certainly helped to shake things up. The sight of the girls, who until now were mostly stuck at home after school helping their mothers with their younger siblings, suddenly walking around with violins, flutes and oboes and spending day and night at the conservatory is indeed a turn of events in the haredi world, where traditionally the names Mozart and Bach had been ignored in favor of Rashi and Rambam.

According to the Ron Shulamit philosophy, the girls are becoming agents of social, educational and cultural change in their community. Coming from homes mostly bereft of television, secular music and books, the girls are taking classes on music theory and history, and as a result, learning not just about music, but about the world beyond their insular environment.

“There was definitely a need for it, but it took a while until the haredi public got it, realized it, and until they started making use of it,” says Chasid. “There wasn’t any opposition, there was just suspicion at first. But today, we’re accepted by all facets of the haredi public.”

THAT’S CLEAR from a recent visit to the conservatory, which was alive with the sounds of music and dance – created by haredim from all parts of Jerusalem. Along with Chasid and Barzily, I traipse from classroom to classroom and sit in on a wide range of activities – from a beginning ballet course to rehearsals of a four-piece string ensemble, a piano duet and a complete 25-piece string orchestra.

The rabbinical decree adhered to by the conservatory, in which women are forbidden to perform publicly in front of men – whether they’re playing an instrument or singing – is waived for both Chasid and a visiting journalist.

We stop in first at the rehearsal of the string quartet taught by Vera Vaidman, a world-renowned violinist originally from St. Petersburg, who has been teaching at the conservatory for five years.

She runs through Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture with her quartet a few times until it sounds something like music from the heavens – thanks, in part to the violins of sisters Rachel and Rifka Aptovitzer.

Both residents of Har Nof, Rachel, 21, but looking 15, has been playing for 14 years, while Rifka, 19, but looking 12, has been playing for nine.

“They are quite exceptional,” says Vaidman, pointing to the sisters during a break in the rehearsal.

“I’ve been hearing classical music since I was a baby,” says Rachel, admitting that she’s had an advantage over other girls who haven’t been exposed to non-liturgical music at home. “Our mother plays cello and our father is a cantor.”

This sisters are currently enrolled in the conservatory’s BA program and hope for a career in music. Carried out under the auspices of the Levinsky Institute in Tel Aviv, the Ron Shulamit BA program exposes the haredi students to the outside world – including master classes taught by secular professors, performances by non-Jewish musicians, discussion groups where the students perform and exchange ideas with secular music students from conservatories throughout Jerusalem – all of which, Barzily says, challenge the stereotypes the groups may have about each other.

There have already been two graduating classes and the new teachers have gone on to open music programs for haredi girls in Beit Shemesh, Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem and other haredi communities.

“We’re teaching the second generation now,” says Chasid. “This generation is totally different – it’s another world. They have so much more knowledge about music.”

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REACHING MUCH farther back than two generations, the origins of the Ron Shulamit Music Conservatory begin in 1910 and the first music conservatory in Palestine founded by Shulamit Ruppin. The conservatory enjoyed immense popularity, and its student concerts became major social and cultural attractions in Jaffa.

In 1938 the Ron Conservatory was opened in Tel Aviv by a graduate of Shulamit named Yariv Ezrachi. Decades later, in 1968, the two institutions merged to form the Ron Shulamit Music Conservatory. The institution has seen prestigious graduates, including violinists Itzhak Perlman and Shlomo Mintz and viola player Daniel Binyamini.

Eventually the Tel Aviv conservatory closed, and by the early 1970s, with the emergence of new neighborhoods in Jerusalem and a booming population, two branches of the conservatory were opened in the capital. In 1980, they consolidated into one conservatory in Beit Hakerem where it continues to operate.

Chasid opened up the all-haredi Har Nof branch in 1994, in response to the growth in Jerusalem’s haredi neighborhoods and the need for music education and career options for haredi girls.

“The value of culture has no contradictions to Judaism or being observant. Culture is one of the strongest tools we have in education,” says Chasid.

“The problem was that there weren’t professionals in the haredi community that were able to establish something like this. When the aliya from Russia began, it opened up the possibility to create something like this.” He notes that almost every teacher at Ron Shulamit is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union or from the US.

Within a few years, the number of students reached more than 500, and three orchestras were formed: Zmora – a professional women’s string orchestra – a student chamber music orchestra and Accordi-Ron, an accordion orchestra.

It’s what Chasid expected, but what proved to be the surprise was the tenacity with which the girls latched on to the music, as if it was a life preserver tugging them to an outside world. He also didn’t anticipate how much it would change their lives.

“The students here are like sponges, they absorb everything,” he says. “I also work with our conservatory in Beit Hakerem which is geared to secular students. And I’ve found out that it doesn’t really matter whether a student grew up with music in their home or not. They quickly fill in the gap.

“In the nonreligious world, there’s so much competition for their time – computers, Internet, TV, soccer, a million things that leave little time for work and dedication in music. Learning music is a difficult profession. In the secular world, a student may have learned music from his parents from day one, he has talent for it, happened on good teachers. But even with all the advantages, many of them drop out along the way. That’s the situation in Beit Hakerem – very few students continue to make it their profession.”

He notes that over 50 percent of the Har Nof students continue taking classes after five years, and 15% continue into the BA program.

“There are girls that study once a week, and there are those that live here. After school, they come here and stay until 9 p.m. or later – until the guard kicks them out,” adds Chasid, as Ruth Polatov enters the room.

Polatov, 26, from the poor Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood of Jerusalem, started learning to play the flute at Ron Shulamit in fifth grade. She became one of those ’round the clock students Chasid spoke about, and now she teaches there and performs in the student chamber music orchestra.

“Her family sent her here, even though they had absolutely no connection to music or even awareness of it,” said Chasid. “Her big sister also learned oboe here, and now teaches here and another sister learned violin and now teaches as a profession. It’s transformed the family culturally from a family from Shmuel Hanavi to a family from North Tel Aviv.”

Polatov is cheery and self confident, and thanks music for her positive outlook. “My parents were very supportive, even at the beginning when the sounds you make practicing the flute aren’t so pleasant. But they always encouraged me,” she says.

“I’m teaching as well as performing with the orchestra. I always try to make sure I can combine the two.”

Barzily later explains that Polatov came to the school with little self-confidence and an inability to stand in front of an audience.

“It was the music that gave her the self-confidence – helped her and her sisters really advance in life,” says Barzily. “Not just he confidence you get from mastering an instrument, but the care that the teachers instill in them – they’re like their children and they look out for them, not just that they progress academically and musically, but also socially so that they end up becoming mensches who can make a contribution when they go out.”

THE CONDUCTOR of Camer-RON, the student chamber music orchestra, Rina Schieffer, feels the same way. An alumna of the University of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra before making aliya in 1993, Schieffer is a firm believer in the conservatory as a life-changing force.

“So many haredi girls marry young, have many children and support their families, they don’t really have a chance to get in touch with their own special talents within themselves. So I think this gives them the chance to discover themselves, when they don’t really have any other way,” says the modern Orthodox Schieffer, who also conducts the conservatory’s professional women’s orchestra, Zmora.

“It’s just a pleasure working with them because you feel that it’s so special for them. It’s the one thing they have outside of the structure of their daily lives that’s really special.”

Schieffer, as well as Chasid and the quartet teacher Vera Vaidman, concur that teaching music to haredi girls – through their prism of a limited exposure to the outside world – is far different than working with secular musicians.

“It’s a generalization, but I think the secular students, because they have so much more available to them, can be less serious. Music is just one of the things that occupy their spare time. With these girls it’s the thing – the only thing,” says Schieffer.

“In addition, this exposure to music is very new in the ultra-Orthodox world. So the girls, when they hear a piece of music, this is the first time they’re hearing it – and their reaction is ‘wow!’ It’s a discovery. Everyone’s heard Beethoven’s Fifth a million times, but for these girls, it’s all new. They play in an exciting manner and are interested in all the details.”

“From musical standpoint, there’s no difference in teaching secular and observant students,” adds Vaidman. “But from all other points of view, yes. They all know to have a career is terribly difficult. Secular musicians think about publicity, career moves, things far away from music. Here they don’t and it is so nice, it’s much purer. So many musicians get confused – there’s music and there is everything around, and the girls here don’t get caught up in that.”

Chasid attributes the ability to focus on the music and not the trappings to the girls’ values reinforced within their haredi world. “The competition, the crazed pace of modern society, the chase for money, these things are not part of their makeup. This society knows about doing something not for the financial good, but for the spiritual side,” he says.

WHEN THE 25 women that make up Schieffer’s Camer-RON orchestra – some girls, some adults, including Polatov and the Aptovitzer sisters – sit down to perform the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms, all the theories go right out the window, and the music takes over.

Like a 50-armed beast, the women and their stringed instruments cover the parts of bassoons, French horns, trombones and tympani, in addition to their own violin, viola and cello parts, with the results being a sublime blend of perfection.

“We’ve been working on this piece for half a year,” says Schieffer. “They may be missing some basic music background when they started, but whenever I bring something to them, it’s always fresh and new and exciting.”

As demure, modest and God-fearing as they are in discussion and in the rest of their lives, they perform with an abandon and passion that’s contagious.

With hearts still pounding, we leave the rehearsal room and return to Chasid’s office.

“The success is something that until today I don’t understand. It’s extraordinary. The development of the girls, and the integration of their families in the development has produced different people. They’re much richer – richer in the good things in the world,” he says.

Helping Chasid achieve his dream of emancipating haredi families through music is Naomi Perl, the director of the conservatory’s BA program. A graduate of the Mandel Leadership Institute, Perl sees music as a means of achieving dialogue between different social groups. And she’s seen as the heir apparent to take over from Chasid as he moves closer to retirement.

“Talk about loneliness, I felt very alone as a child – nobody else was playing music,” says Perl, who was raised in a haredi environment but studied at the Rubin Academy. “When I saw an ad in Hamodia back in 1994 looking for teacher for a new conservatory for haredi girls, I knew that it was for me.”

“Naomi’s the one that worked intensively with the Levinsky Institute to get our BA program recognized, because she wanted the girls to have a degree at the end of their studies so they could go and work,” says Barzily. “Students in their teens would say to Naomi, ‘Why are you doing this to us – giving us this knowledge with nowhere to take it? What are we going to do now? We can’t go to a regular school and get a BA.’ And enough students came and demanded it, which was also an indication of the love of music that was being built.”

The students don’t just stay sequestered within their classrooms. The conservatory’s outreach includes performances at nursing homes, community centers and schools where they’ll often provide a first introduction to classical music. The orchestra also performs annually at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Music Center, and has won the prestigious Keren Sharet prize.

The only fly in the ointment is that even though it reaches out to the outside world, the Har Nof conservatory is only stretching its hand to a feminine recipient. But even though performances in front of men, including fathers and siblings, is forbidden, Chasid is convinced that his music conservatory has found the lost chord of coexistence.

“I think if the public knew about what we’re doing, it would have a positive effect on religious-secular relations in the country. I’ve never heard that there have been wars fought over music. Music, in this respect, is a fantastic tool. There are no differences of opinion.”

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