Pulling at heartstrings

Grammy-winning hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari shifts her focus to family history.

violin 88 (photo credit: )
violin 88
(photo credit: )
It was a simple sixth grade assignment: Go home and trace your family tree. For 11-year old Miri Ben-Ari, however, the exercise was traumatic: "My family was almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust," she recalls. "I never knew that before the assignment. Both my parents started crying when they told me. I was just a little kid, I was like, oh s**t, something crazy is going on here! I was the only one they told the story to - Holocaust survivors don't like to talk." Nowadays, Ben-Ari finds herself talking far more about her music than her family. Despite being a white, Israeli-born female who doesn't even rap, she was awarded a Grammy for Rap Song of the Year last year. As the instrumentalist who wrote, produced, arranged and performed all the strings on rapper Kanye West's platinum debut disc The College Drop Out, she is the first Israeli to win a Grammy in the hip hop category. With her win, Ben-Ari proved that hip-hop transcends color and culture - and it has certainly put the 20-something violinist on the map. Now the pioneering musician is returning to her Polish roots, teaming up with Israeli rapper Subliminal to launch a music video project about the Holocaust. But delving into her family's dark history wasn't an easy decision. Many of today's teens and young adults are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, comments Ben-Ari, but "everyone handles it differently. Many teenagers who [discover the truth about] the Holocaust want to explore it. I was the opposite. I was so traumatized and felt so violated, I didn't want to hear or talk about it. I would be in tears every time." Ben-Ari's paternal grandfather - the sole survivor of his family - had been on the last boat the British let into Palestine. Her paternal grandmother, from a neighboring town in Poland, was also the sole survivor of her own family. The two met after their arrival. To this day, the maternal side of Ben-Ari's family remains a mystery; Ben- Ari's mother is reticent to talk about it. Throughout Ben-Ari's childhood in Ramat Gan, Israeli television regularly screened Holocaust documentaries. Watching those movies as a young girl was upsetting even before she knew her personal connection to the Holocaust. "Once I made the connection that it was actually my family that was affected, I started having nightmares about the Holocaust - really bad ones, over and over," she remembers. "It was very hard for me." Since that time, Ben-Ari has avoided anything Holocaust-related. Even during the past few years, she says, "I couldn't watch movies like The Pianist. Adrian Brody [its lead actor] is a friend of mine, and I still couldn't watch it." After a deeply moving trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, however, Ben-Ari began a journey back to her roots. "I was like, f*** it, I need to deal with that part of me," she says. As a way to pay respect to her family and to all other victims of the Holocaust, Ben-Ari began to compose. "My story is such a common story," she says emotionally. "It's almost like they say, 'music is therapy'. It's a way to deal. There is no other way for me. The Holocaust is something that a normal brain cannot conceive. I can't - when you read or watch a documentary about it, it's so detached from reality. This is not a regular war story. It's so distorted. It's racism to its fullest." Ben-Ari will not yet disclose details about her song or plans for its release, "except for the fact that the recording process has been very emotional and very hard on a personal level," she says, "because of my family history and the nature of this project." Having lived in the United States for over a decade, Ben Ari flew to Israel in April to shoot the video. ("Anything about the Holocaust must be done in the Jewish homeland," she emphasizes). After working with Alicia Keyes, Britney Spears, Brandy, Janet Jackson Jay-Z, and Twista, Ben Ari is no longer any anonymous musician at home. Upon returning, the Hebrew media took notice of the burgeoning star. Having grown up feeling socially awkward and isolated, the flurry of attention still surprises her: "It's funny, because you always think that you're going to get the last laugh," she says thoughtfully, "and you think you're going to get a kick out of it. What happened to me is that instead of giving me the last laugh, the experience humbled me...The more successful you are, the more responsibility you have. I am privileged to have this responsibility." Ben-Ari feels especially honored to represent Israel abroad, reflecting that her relationship to Israel and Judaism has evolved over the past decade: "You can't escape who you are," she says passionately. "You can't pretend you're something else. It doesn't work that way...The fact I grew up in Israel made me who I am today." Like many Israelis living abroad, Ben-Ari has also embraced religious Jewish practice more than when growing up in Israel: "I have been going to Shabbat dinners...It feels awesome. It feels like paying respect to where you've come from."