Keeping in tune

The Goren family contributes uniquely to Jerusalem's music scene.

piano88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The light is fading fast. We sit at a square table in the center of a meticulously neat room. There are no family photos, no clutter of memorabilia. Before me is a man slightly stooped by his 92 years; blind, with only a remnant of hearing in his right ear. He turns the tables on his interviewer. Where do I come from? A cascade of my family details are extracted. Who is my son's piano teacher? Her name brings forth details of her husband, father and grandfather. Where do I live? I name the street and his face breaks into a smile. It was in that street almost 70 years ago that he was sent to do his first job as a piano tuner. Anyone who has ever owned a piano in this city, and indeed many throughout the country, will already be able to identify the interviewee - Shlomo Goren, of course. Father of Avri Goren (who owns Goren Pianos in Rehov Shlomzion Hamalka, a family business for half a century) and Haggi Goren (piano tuner and director of the Jerusalem Oratorio choir). Though his mother tongue is German, he speaks to me in fluent English with only an occasional Hebrew word thrown in. A name in his narrative is occasionally lost only to be retrieved a few seconds later. His earliest memory? As a three-year-old in his family home in a small village in what is now Poland. A Ukrainian officer bursts into their home demanding food and supplies, threatening to shoot his father. The officer was Petlyura, "responsible for the murder of large numbers of Jews. He was assassinated about 10 years later in Paris." Goren explains that the Jew who killed him was acquitted of the murder by a French court when it became known that his parents and family had been among the hundreds of thousands of Jews murdered during the pogroms. These were the pogroms that had been carried out by Ukrainian army units while Petlyura was commander. Goren lost an eye in an accident when he was 10-years-old. The accident was also responsible for the declining vision in the other eye. After many failed operations he was sent to a special school for blind Jewish children in Vienna. Other schools for blind children in Eastern Europe did not accept Jews, he explains. In this school he was taught to be a piano tuner and met his future wife, Mira Berlin, a gifted pianist who became blind as a result of complications from tuberculosis. Her family tree has branches extending to Yehudi Menuhin, political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin and the last Lubavitcher Rebbe. They married in Vienna in 1939 and, filled with Zionist zeal, left for Palestine. He never saw his parents or sister again - they were murdered in the Holocaust. He earned a place at the Hebrew University and spent two years studying history and philosophy. Within a few months he had acquired sufficient Hebrew to understand lectures; students read to him from books in English and German. He worked as a piano tuner to make a living. With the last traces of his vision fading, he traveled throughout the country. "They never complained about their blindness," his son Haggi says. And what was life like for the three sons with two blind parents? "There were difficulties, it can't be normal," Avri explains. It was "very difficult," Haggi says on another occasion. I bought our piano soon after arriving in Israel from the shop owned by older brother Avri and recently Haggi came to tune it. The piano stood exposed and vulnerable, with its highly polished panels removed and its sounding board and strings revealed. A note struck, the string tightened, loosened and was minimally adjusted. Two hundred and twenty strings waited for tiny adjustments; imperceptible shifts in frequency bringing harmony to the whole. "It's a very sensitive combination of ear and hand - ear, brain and hand, they work by themselves. Almost like driving. I can talk and tune," explained Haggi. It's the people he enjoys meeting, he says, much more than the tuning. But he knows his father feels more engaged by the actual process of tuning. And indeed Goren speaks of the enormous satisfaction in "building the scale… to produce a complete harmony." For Avri the fascination with pianos is completely different. He had no patience to learn how to tune them or even to play the instrument. But his eyes light up when describing the restoration of old pianos. He especially likes working on fine 19th century pianos and restoring their original condition "inside and out." These pianos "have a very special character - the quality of craftsmen was much higher then. Even the major companies don't produce pianos today as good as the ones they used to make." He has watched the piano business change over recent years and now about half his business is selling pianos to haredi families, although occasionally he imports something special - an old Blutner baby grand from England was a recent purchase. And the next Goren generation? None of Avri's four children play piano or are interested in the business. Haggi's children have grown up with music in their lives. Their mother is a dancer, their father director of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir and is described as "a very fine baritone." Haggi played violin as a child and was taught at 17 to sing German lieder by his mother. "She was the main musical anchor of the family," he reminisces. And now two of his children pursue music in the modern idiom, playing bass guitar. The light fades and we sit as shadowy figures at the table. As I take my leave of Shlomo Goren, he squeezes my hand. I walk briskly into the Rehavia streets wondering if we who make aliya today are really made of the same stuff as those who came before us with their extraordinary courage and determination.