A special kind of magic

Meet Jonathan Raber, a pianist who sees with his heart.

jonathan pat 88 298 (photo credit: )
jonathan pat 88 298
(photo credit: )
It was a perfectly common incident: Pianist Jonathan Raber stood listening to one of his advanced teenage piano students perform a new piece. The young man played something amiss, and Raber stopped him, saying, "No, wait, that's not right." The student, surprised, stopped - and then pointed to his music, saying, "No! Look here! See? That's how it's written!" "I see, I see!" said Raber. And they both burst out laughing. In this case, the teacher didn't see - not literally, anyway. Raber, pianist extraordinaire, is completely blind. "It happens all the time," says Patricia Raber, Jonathan's wife and musical soul mate. "It's not that the student forgot that Jonathan is blind. It's just what happens when Jonathan is involved with his music. It's a kind of magic. When Jonathan plays, his blindness disappears." Raber, the son of Holocaust survivors, began life 34 years ago in Ganei Zvi, a small village near Hod Hasharon. A beautiful, blond, healthy baby, he began music lessons when he was just five years old, concentrating on the organ. "My father, Sholom, was born in Poland. During World War II he ran away and hid in a forest and eventually survived by working as a shepherd for a non-Jewish man. After the war he met my mother, Tova, at Beit Yeladim in Germany. They came to Israel together and settled in the North." For Jonathan, everything proceeded normally until his early teens when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. By age 14, the surgery necessary to save his life left him totally blind. Then the troubles multiplied. Two months after his surgery, Raber's mother passed away. A change of scene seemed best, so Sholom Raber moved his three sons to the Negev, to what was then the small desert town of Arad. School was a problem. "I began regular school in Arad, but that didn't work very well, so I went to a special school in Jerusalem. I was there for five years. After I became blind, I had to learn everything all over again. Before, I could read music; but then when I couldn't see, I knew nothing at all. But I started immediately. When I was still in the hospital, still in bandages, someone came to teach me piano," says Raber. Even as a child, he enjoyed considerable popularity playing concerts, accompanying choral groups and performing with singers from Israel and abroad. But it wasn't until he met his wife, Patricia, that he matured as a musician. Patricia Raber was one of those kids who sang before she could talk, her mother says. Born in Buenos Aires, she made aliya in 1987. "I was in Argentina, I was 26 years old, and I realized that because of the economy, I'd never be able to own a house of my own. But it was more than that. I never really felt at home in Argentina. Then I'd come to Israel to visit - and here I felt I belonged. I'm not religious, not especially Zionist, but Israel felt like home. I first came to study music. I graduated, and then went to work for nine years for the Ministry of Education. It was horrible - every day I'd come home from work and cry. I love music. I love teaching. But I felt as though all I was doing all day was babysitting. I hated it," she says. Jonathan and Patricia first crossed paths in 1996. He was in his final year of studies at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Tel Aviv, and she was singing duets with a girlfriend. "One day, my friend said, 'There's this blind guy who lives near me. He plays the piano. Maybe he could play, we'd sing, and we could do some performances.' So we went to meet him," recounts Patricia. Although neither would admit it until later, it was love at first sight, so to speak. "I wanted to play for them," Jonathan says, "but I didn't know what. I chose Beethoven's Pathetique. It just seemed like the right thing to play." "It was beyond incredible," Patricia recalls. "I had goose bumps. I could tell how much feeling he had. 'What do you have inside that makes you play like that?' I asked. 'Nothing,' he answered. He had no idea how talented he was. He didn't realize how beautifully he expressed his whole soul when he played. Afterwards, a friend of Jonathan's told him that he'd always played nicely, but until we became a couple, there had always been something missing. It's not missing anymore," she says. The decision to marry wasn't quick. The girls' duet, accompanied by Jonathan, did perform together, and those performances began to require longer and longer rehearsals. "Then I started rehearsing with Jonathan alone," Patricia says. "We'd talk and talk, for hours on end. I knew there could be problems. In the first place, there's an age difference - I'm 11 years older than Jonathan. And he was blind! A friend of mine encouraged me to think of it in a different way. 'Some men are fat,' she said, 'some don't smell good. So Jonathan's blind. So what?'" They married in 1998, while Jonathan was earning his bachelor of music degree - summa cum laude - from the prestigious Berkeley College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He completed the demanding curriculum in just 18 months, the first blind student to do so - not to mention that he also was adjusting to a new language and culture. The months in Boston fostered greater independence for Jonathan than he'd had before. As a college, Berkeley is composed of several large buildings, all separated by wide, perilous streets. As a blind person, navigating them became a challenge. "To go from one building to another, you have to cross several streets," Patricia says. "One day we saw someone get hit by a car, so after that I was afraid to let Jonathan go alone. I'd leave my class five minutes early, run to his class, walk him to his next class, and then run back for my own. It was exhausting - we couldn't keep that up." "One day Patricia had severe bad pain," Jonathan says, jumping in to complete his wife's thought. "I told her I'd manage. I'd have to learn." After graduation, the Rabers returned to Arad. One day a week they travel to Beersheba to give voice and piano lessons to several students. Jonathan plays in clubs and events of all kinds - "I play everything but Mizrahi," he says - and has just completed a Baby Mozart DVD in which he provides the piano music for the educational film designed to acquaint babies with music at an early age. A contract with the IDF to provide musical evenings for soldiers is underway, and music students seek him out through his Web site (www.jonraber.com). Patricia teaches voice and beginner's piano, while Jonathan teaches piano to more advanced students. At Jonathan's insistence, Patricia quit her day job at the Education Ministry. "It was the hardest decision I ever made," she says. "Deciding to give up a regular salary is a much tougher decision than making aliya, but Jonathan said, 'You just quit,' so I did. Since then, every day of my life has been happy." As for Jonathan, he does everything but drive, Patricia says. "He cleans, he's a great cook, has meals ready for me when I come home. He even trimmed the tall bushes outside while I held the branches. 'You're my eyes,' he says." The best part is when Jonathan sits at the piano and the music flows. First a jazzy "Misty," merging into a "Take Five" Dave Brubeck himself would applaud. Then the first notes of Rhapsody in Blue ring out, with such purity it's impossible to avoid the goosebumps that characterize a Jonathan Raber performance. "See what I mean?" Patricia says. "Jonathan is magic."