Through COVID-19’s pandemic, Jerusalem pianist builds a global family

‘I’ve reinvented myself many times. When I was 50, I hadn’t practiced classical music in 30 years’.

GERSHON WACHTEL: ‘This is my great personal need, to make music for the world (photo credit: CHAYA WACHTEL)
GERSHON WACHTEL: ‘This is my great personal need, to make music for the world
(photo credit: CHAYA WACHTEL)
Gershon Wachtel has had to pivot more than once over the years. So when COVID-19 hit, the 69-year-old pianist did what so many of us have been forced to do: He went online. But for Wachtel, that step has opened up a new connection with hundreds of strangers worldwide.
Before Passover, while Israel was gradually being locked down, he told a few local fans that he was swapping out his regular Tuesday-evening home concerts in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood for Facebook Live concerts every weekday evening and Friday afternoon.
Growing a Facebook family
In those early weeks, Wachtel had to work hard to drum up an audience, with posts like “10 minutes to go!” and “Going live – one hour!” But these days, his fans do his promotion, reminding friends and relatives to catch his shows every single day, and hundreds are turning up from as far away as New Zealand and South America.
“I have a very big fan in Singapore,” Wachtel says. “When I start at 9 p.m. here, it’s 2 a.m. there. She says she could watch a rerun the very next day, but it’s not the same as watching with a group. When I do a Friday concert, people have to get up at six in the morning to watch... and they do.”
Wachtel doesn’t have a computer or phone nearby when he plays, so his fans turn Facebook’s chat into their own social club. With each new melody, they muse about memories or try to guess what’s coming next.
“The audience have started referring to our group as a family,” Wachtel says. (He modestly doesn’t mention that some have started referring to themselves as “Gershonites.”)
“After almost 100 concerts, they get to know each other. They’re like, ‘Hi, Bob,’ ‘Hi, Mary,’ ‘Sorry I’m late.’ Each one of them comes every single night. They tell people, ‘Don’t call me between nine and 10.’ It’s giving them courage and strength through a very difficult time.”
He believes audiences take away something spiritual from his performances. “People are really touched. But it’s not something they can put their finger on, like, ‘Oh, God, I feel religious now.’ I don’t think they can put it into words.”
Making music for the world
What motivates him night after night?
“I’m doing it because I have a need to play,” Wachtel says. “This is my great personal need, to make music for the world.”
In one way or another, that’s been his obsession ever since starting piano lessons at the age of 10. He studied classical piano at Fredonia State University in New York, and went on to a career playing and touring the US, Canada and Europe. He accompanied the US Women’s gymnastics team to the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. He’s played concerts for 9,000 people at a Las Vegas convention and for five people at Monte Carlo.
For years he’s also toured with his one-man show, Overcoming Life’s Difficulties with Faith and a Sense of Humor. And in 2008, he recorded an album, Gershon Wachtel Plays into Your Heart.
This eclectic career, transforming difficult moments into melodies, was ideal preparation for COVID-19.
“I’ve reinvented myself many times,” says Wachtel. “When I was 50, I hadn’t practiced classical music in 30 years. I found a Russian teacher, auditioned for her, and she didn’t take me. I begged my way in, saying whatever she tells me to do, I’m going to do.”
You want it? Here, take it
Wachtel’s spontaneity and commitment to brightening other people’s lives often takes him to unusual places. Once, during a low period, he wandered into a garden center in Toronto, where he was living at the time.
“When I’m not doing too well, I like to buy something beautiful.”
A woman there asked about the elaborate flower centerpiece he’d brought with him, which he’d received at an event. He immediately said she could have it.
She broke down and admitted, “Today is the first anniversary of the death of my daughter. I’ve been crying for a whole year, but these past three days have been very bad, and you cheered me up. I really appreciate it.”
Wachtel told her that he and his wife, Chaya, had also lost a child years before.
“I know what it feels like to lose a child, unfortunately, so I was crying with her in the nursery.”
For most people, even that connection would be extraordinary. But when Wachtel discovered that the woman’s family and friends were gathering that evening to commemorate her daughter, but that they didn’t have a speaker lined up, he volunteered, and the woman gratefully accepted.
“I was the only white person in the room,” he says, looking back. “Everybody knew everybody. I know they’re going to be looking at me wondering, ‘What’s he doing here?’”
He broke the ice by saying, “You may notice that I don’t look like anybody in this room.” He spoke about his four rules for dealing with difficult times, especially, “When you need a hessed [kindness], do a hessed.”
Afterward, someone told him, “You know, you said you don’t look like anybody else in the room, but I didn’t notice.”
“You might think that’s ridiculous,” Wachtel says. “I’m the only white person and you never noticed? But when you speak from the heart, people only see what’s on the inside.”
For Wachtel, the moral is simple: Keep giving, over and over, as much as possible. “It’s that easy to change another person’s life by simply saying, ‘You want it? Here, take it. You can have it.’”
Making connections
The way Wachtel sees it, the odd zigs and zags of his life have clicked together perfectly.
“Everything in my life has been one continuum, one thing leads to another,” says Wachtel.
Even the decision to immigrate to Israel happened spontaneously seven years ago.
“We came for the wedding of a son, and we liked it. We decided to stay. I started making connections here. I was trying out a piano in a store in Talpiot, and a haredi [ultra-Orthodox] guy stands there. He’s never seen anyone play like me.”
It turned out that the man was hiring for the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where Wachtel ended up playing six nights a week for two years.
After that position ended unexpectedly, Wachtel started playing regularly in a more intimate setting: his own living room. This gave him a rare chance to show off his top-of-the-line, 120-year-old Steinway concert grand.
“My piano knows all my secrets,” Wachtel says. “It’s a real connection. Sometimes, after Shabbos or Yom Tov, I just play a couple of notes, and say, ‘Oh, my God, so good.’”
However, those weekly concerts screeched to a halt when COVID-19 shut Israel down.
“On a lark, I decided to maybe try something on Facebook Live, thinking we’ll see what happens. Maybe I’ll have 12 people.” The result continues to astonish him, nearly 100 concerts later.
Mystery playlist
Even after all those concerts, Wachtel is nowhere near to running out of material. Every night, he comes up with an original theme. From The Beatles to Barbra Streisand, from Oscar winners to soulful classical, fans eagerly anticipate what he’ll come up with next, all without sheet music.
“Everything I play is my own invention,” he explains. “That’s why it sounds like me.”
Sometimes, the playlist is a mystery even to him.
“I spend a couple of hours every afternoon going over what I’m going to play in my head. I write out the music to remind myself [to] choose a common thread, like music that has the word ‘girl’ in the title.
“But sometimes when I sit down, I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to play before I play the first note. This note will remind me of that note: ‘Girl Talk,’ ‘The Girl from Ipanema,’ now that’s a beach song, so maybe some Beach Boys.’ I do entire programs just thinking about what song will lead to the next.”
As performers worldwide scramble to make money under lockdown conditions, Wachtel quickly dismisses the idea of finding a way to monetize his Facebook Live concerts.
“I would turn down the money,” he says. “I have a very intimate relationship with the audience members. If they thought for even a second that I was doing this for money, it would ruin everything.
“Hopefully, the money will come. But my philosophy in life has been that we’re just going to do what we’re doing now, and it’s going to lead to something good. It’s going to be good. Until the corona finishes, I’m doing this for the world.”
Getting into the elevator
Along the way, Wachtel has discovered that Facebook offers the perfect intimacy for his unique style.
“My music is designed for smaller audiences, to interact with them and feel cozy with them,” he explains.
“When you go to a concert, you see someone playing the piano or the drums, he’s totally into it. ‘Oh my gosh, he’s sweating. He’s totally inspired.’ And that’s nice, but is the audience actually inspired or are they just inspired by his inspiration?
“When I play, I have to have the audience feel exactly how I feel. If I feel like I’m soaring, they have to feel like they’re soaring. It’s not enough if they say, ‘Wow, you look like you were really into it.’”
As he starts to play, Wachtel pictures getting into an elevator.
“I’m going up to many, many levels higher. I’m just in this world completely, just soaring around. And the audience many times will say, ‘Yeah, we’re in the elevator with you.’”
Money or not, the connection is priceless.
“I’ve done a lot of music in my life. I’ve been playing the piano for 60 years in November. But what I’m doing right now has been the pinnacle of my career. I really believe that.”
Catch Gershon Wachtel live Sunday through Thursday at 9 p.m. and every Friday afternoon at www.facebook.com/gershon.wachtel.
The author is a writer, editor and translator who immigrated to northern Israel from Toronto in 2013. She is a PJ Library award-winning author of more than a dozen books for Jewish children and families. Find her at Tzivia.com


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