Aliya Stories: On a musical note

A Hagana fighter’s daughter discovers that sometimes you have to go halfway around the world to meet your soul mate.

January 19, 2017 11:47

Gila Perach Hirsh. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Shmuel Yosef (Joe) Perach, Gila Perach Hirsh’s father, was born in 1923 in Tel Aviv.

Joe had a Hagana background and fought in the 1948 War of Independence. He was a typically outspoken Israeli who came from a secular, strongly Zionist home. His father, Moshe Pinchas Kwiat, had abandoned his Gur Hassidic roots as a young immigrant back in 1921, changing his name to Perach.

After being admitted to New York University, Joe spent a summer working in the Catskills. There he met Barbara Relkin when he was recruited to even up gender numbers at a Young Hadassah social.

Relkin was a cultured Manhattanite and a graduate of Columbia University from an academic and extremely musical family. She and her siblings had all attended the well-known High School of Music & Art. At the time they met she was working as a dental hygienist in her father’s clinic. This couple with their contrasting backgrounds married in 1950. Both completed advanced teaching degrees and made their professional lives in education.

As his degree had included a gifted and talented track, Joe was naturally ambitious for Gila, the first of his three daughters.

“He wanted me to become the first female president of the USA,” she reveals with a smile.

Not only did Joe send her to a Jewish school in Newark, New Jersey, he also sent the 10-year-old on a solo summer trip to Israel to meet his relatives. However, when the Perachs moved to Woodbridge, NJ, just before the 1967 race riots in Newark, the fourth-grader found herself in an uninspiring public-school environment. She took refuge in acting and music, traveling back and forth to Manhattan School of Music to learn clarinet, piano and theory from age 15.

At 21, she graduated with a BMus in piano performance.

When her parents’ marriage dissolved in 1970, Perach stayed with her father briefly until finishing high school. Unfortunately, her home life now lacked stability, so she sought solace in intensive music studies abroad during the next decade.

She spent two years in Paris studying composition with the famed Nadia Boulanger and piano with Gaby Casadesus, and in 1978 entered the prestigious Academy of Music in Vienna, where she made her home for the next 38 years.

In the mid-1970s and early 1980s she returned briefly to the US to work on her master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Colorado. In 1980 she married a non-Jewish Canadian musician in Vienna and gave birth to her only child, Michael, in 1987.

Perach’s career in Austria went well.

Besides composing and performing music, she enjoyed lecturing, teaching, and writing and working with the Federal Theaters as a rehearsal pianist. This included a five-year stint at the Vienna State Opera and one year at the Vienna Light Lyric Opera. She opened a studio in a prime location downtown next to the State Opera, where she taught children of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra.

Later she moved her home and studio to the trendy Naschmarkt neighborhood where she taught until making aliya.

However, her personal life was tempestuous.

“I spent 14 years in hell yoked to someone not my portion, followed by a five-year custody battle,” is how she explains it. After her marriage broke up in 1993, her son chose to switch to a Jewish school. He had attended the Vienna Boys’ Choir boarding school, spending half the year studying and the remainder on tour. However, Michael’s voice broke at the early age of 11, actually a fortunate occurrence that promoted their return to the Jewish community.

Michael’s change of schools gradually ushered in a better era for mother and son during the eight difficult years she spent alone, which she terms “my earth phase – after hell and before heaven!” Certain Viennese families, particularly the Moskowitzes and the Zinners, were wonderfully supportive and hospitable.

“They surrounded me like dolphins and held me up and I became part of their families.”

She taught piano to the Zinners’ gifted daughter for 15 years, which proved to be a mutually rewarding relationship.

“She reminded me of who I was,” Perach says.

She met her husband and soul mate, 53-year-old Arthur Hirsh, on the eve of Yom Kippur in 2001 at Or Chadash, the Reform temple where she served as music director on Friday nights and holidays. Perach, 48, sat on the dais at the electric piano, which she had scrupulously turned on before sunset.

Hirsh, a newcomer, walked in and their eyes met.

“When I saw him enter, I immediately recognized him as my beshert [destined partner]. My first thought was: ‘Where have you been?’” Their meeting occurred at the right time of life for both, “as we had just finished making our mistakes!” Shortly afterwards the couple married in an Orthodox ceremony in Vienna’s Stadttempel.

Hirsh, a PhD in modern European intellectual history who had taught at Boston U and administered at Virginia Tech, was chosen in a worldwide search for director of the Webster University satellite campus in Vienna. From June 2000 on, he developed the university into a thriving, accredited research and teaching institution. His last contribution was moving the campus into a renovated palace building downtown.

As it happens, both Hirsh and Perach were employed at the university campus around the same time, but never met.

She was hired there as an adjunct professor of applied piano that September.

Perach made aliya last year after bringing her father’s body here from New York for burial. She now lives in Ra’anana with her husband, who is commuting to Vienna as a part-time consultant to Webster, and her mother (87), who made aliya five years ago.

Her son, Michael, remains in Vienna, where he is a lawyer in the district attorney’s office and an award-winning public speaker.

The new project Perach has undertaken for the next phase of her life is Kol Avi (My Father’s Voice), in honor of her late father. She plans a series of concerts to bridge the worlds of Torah learning and classical music by synthesizing them in a lecture-cum-recital format. Her first concert in Israel last year, hosted by Matan director Oshra Koren and presented by Emunah Women, was titled “Music of the Masters and Works of Gila Perach.”

Now married to Hirsh for 15 years, Perach declares this Jewish marriage with her beshert to be “heaven on earth.”

She is proud to say that her husband, a former agnostic who married out in his former existence, now says the morning prayers every day.

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