Young women with bows

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, ‘Metro’ tunes in to these music-makers.

Ariella Zeitlin (photo credit: NATHAN YAKOBOVITCH)
Ariella Zeitlin
(photo credit: NATHAN YAKOBOVITCH)
The violin has a Jewish soul.
Many of the world’s greatest violinists, including Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman are Jews. And of course, Fiddler on the Roof, set in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia, opens with an extensive violin solo.
So it may not be a surprise that, in today’s Anglo olim community, we find not one but two notable violinists – both religious women in their 20s.
Ariella Zeitlin, 29, made aliya from Baltimore to Jerusalem in 2005. She now lives in Herzliya with her husband and two young children. She has been playing violin since age seven.
Trained as a classical violinist, she has a master’s degree in performance from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Despite that background, she sees herself as a musical innovator.
“I have this intense curiosity about other styles and I’m constantly creating. Most classical violinists are not involved in creating new music, but rather in refining their craft.”
Ariella Zeitlin on ‘The Voice' (MICHAEL LOUBOTIN)Ariella Zeitlin on ‘The Voice' (MICHAEL LOUBOTIN)
Zeitlin wants people to see her as a classical crossover artist. She uses classical music and mixes it up with other elements to create her distinctive musical style. She sings with her violin and uses chord techniques to accompany other people.
“Most violinists don’t improvise,” Zeitlin told Metro. “I’m curious, creative and interested in other aspects of violin playing rather than being perfect.”
Since she made aliya at the age of 17, her whole career has been in Israel.
“I’m very happy with the choice to make aliya because I feel like I’ve been able to incorporate my Jewish identity and my music. I don’t think I’d have that ability in the States.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to represent Israel in different settings.”
She has been invited to play at the World Zionist Union in England and in public ceremonies for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former president Shimon Peres.
“As an Israeli artist, I get flown to places to perform. If I were living in the US, I wouldn’t have that level of interaction with my Jewish identity. Because Israel is so small, I get more opportunities.
I’ve played at the President’s Residence and in the Knesset. I probably wouldn’t have that kind of opportunity if I lived in a larger country.”
Has being a young religious woman who is married with children negatively impacted her career? Zeitlin thinks not. She says the violin is “not a male-dominated instrument.”
The bread-and-butter of her career is teaching violin and playing at events, but she has much more going on professionally.
“I was just on [reality TV show] The Voice,” where she sang along with playing her violin. “I’m putting together a solo show and releasing my first single of original music this March.”
Zeitlin explained that many musicians today are working on individual songs as opposed to albums. She calls it “the iTunes phenomenon.”
“I’m very focused on the video medium right now. That’s where the future is in music sales, because the Internet gives you a portal to the whole world.
“Constant creation is my goal. Instead of a crowdsourcing campaign, asking for a large amount for a single, big project, today all the major YouTube artists are using the website Patreon to encourage fans to give small, recurring donations, so that we can put out higher quality content on a regular basis.
“It encourages my fans to be engaged in my art, and they really put a direction to what I create. An additional result is that I am constantly in contact with them through the platform, with exclusive content and monthly hangouts, and I offer various rewards at different levels of sponsorship.”
At Hanukka time, she released Incandescence, her first Jewish-content video. She wrote the music and the script, edited the video and even created the costumes. To date, Incandescence has been viewed over 120,000 times.
Her YouTube channel, Ariella Zeitlin Music, has more than 100 videos with hundreds of thousands of views.
“I want to create more meaningful Jewish video content, but it’s expensive,” Zeitlin explained.
How does the issue of kol isha, the religious prohibition of men listening to women singing, impact her career? “I have spent years learning about kol isha because I’m religious and I’m married to a rabbi. I’m active as a religious person. I teach kallas [brides] in Tel Aviv. I very strongly identify with my religious Judaism. When you dissect it, it seems that there is a lot of cultural pressure [on women not to sing in front of men].
“My main profession is that I’m a violinist, not a singer. Part of the reason I went on The Voice is that it needs to be said that there are rabbanim [rabbis] who say that if a woman is not singing in a provocative way, it’s permitted.”
Indeed, in Jewish law, the onus is on the man – not on women not to perform.
“People need to take responsibility for their own actions and what they feel they can handle. If somebody has an issue with it, then there’s no reason for them to be there,” Zeitlin claimed.
When asked about the world of religious female violinists in Israel, she said, “There really isn’t one. [Until recently] I didn’t even know about Miriam [Hershkop]. I thought I was the only one.”
Zeitlin’s fellow violinist, Miriam Hershkop, 24, made aliya from Toronto to Jerusalem in 2012. Although violin has been threaded through her whole life, she recently finished nursing school at Machon Tal and is about to begin a nursing career. Nevertheless, she has no plans to pack her violin away.
Miriam Hershkop (MIRIAM HERSHKOP)Miriam Hershkop (MIRIAM HERSHKOP)
“I hope Hashem [God] will allow me to keep playing once I’m a nurse, because I can’t live without it,” Hershkop said.
Music runs in her veins. In addition to the violin, she plays drums and guitar, writes music and sings. Her whole family is musical.
“My sister has a crazy good voice. My grandmother was an opera singer. My mother is a music therapist and violin teacher and my father plays guitar and accordion.”
There was a family rule that everyone had to play something. Hershkop started playing violin at age four, playing by ear in the Suzuki method, and later switched to the classical method.
“I wasn’t allowed to go out to play until I practiced for 40 minutes. As an adult I really appreciated the structure.
“I’ve been playing my whole life and say yes to any opportunity to play. I am Ricka Razel’s violinist. [Ricka is the sister of Yonatan and Aaron Razel.] I regularly play for audiences of up to 1,000 women. [The opportunities are] very, very cool. I played at Ma’arat Hamachpela [the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron) with Ricka and her band as the opening act for Sarit Hadad, who is a big Mizrahi singer, for something like 1,000 women.”
Hershkop was featured as the violinist on a number of CDs, the latest for upcoming American Jewish artist Pinny Schachter. She also plays “for all my friend’s weddings. It makes me really happy and makes them happy.” She often can be found in the halls of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, going into patient rooms and playing for people who are sick.
“I play for Arabs, Muslims and Christians. I try to choose specific tunes for the audience.”
By far, her favorite gig is to play on Rabbi Bentzion Klatzko’s outreach trips throughout Israel for young American adults.
“People see this frum [religious] girl and then I whip out my violin play some Beatles and people are surprised at the music I know. That makes me happy – to represent Yiddishkeit [Judaism] and to show that talented people are connected to Hashem.”
After growing up in Toronto and spending a year at Touro College in Manhattan, Hershkop reflects on the music scene in Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem is a hotbed of music. I live in Nahlaot, where there are a lot of Jews who want to hear some good music. I’m constantly being invited to join a jam. I’m very attached to modern Jewish music and the music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in particular. I’m very able to access that here, which is a blessing,” she commented.
Like Zeitlin, Hershkop blends musical styles.
“I’m exposed to a lot of different music.
I went to klezmer, classical music, country fiddling and Celtic music camps. I have that background. People will hear me playing and they know it’s me by my blending of styles.
“I’ve been exposed to lots of different people growing up. I play Jewish music and non-Jewish music. I’m very passionate about music. Because of my exposure to a large range of music, I’m comfortable playing most situations. I would say that my skills have definitely improved since I started jamming.
“People tell me all the time, ‘I never knew violin could sound like this.’ People think the violin makes a whiny, kvetchy sound, like in Fiddler on the Roof.
I try to make it strong and powerful or use it to express my Yiddishkeit.
“Yiddishkeit is very intertwined with my violin playing. Now when I play, I really want it to have purpose and meaning. When I play, I try to connect it to the neshama [soul]. That’s the ultimate. I’m using my music skills for Hashem. I try to spread light and kedusha [holiness].
These trips I do are especially meaningful because these 40 students are connecting to their Judaism. I get to play for Hashem’s people, through Hashem’s music, which is very, very powerful for me.”
The violin is her opportunity to connect with others, sometimes in seemingly random ways. Walking home from a wedding with her violin recently, she walked past a bar. A friend there stopped her and begged her to play something.
“I asked myself, ‘What can I play to bring everyone closer?’” She settled on a jazzy version of “Shalom Aleichem.”
Ricka Razel captured the moment and posted it on Facebook, where it got more than 7,000 views.
“That was a big lesson for me,” noted Hershkop. “Any time there are people gathered, I have an opportunity to bring them together with music.”