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DAVID ROTH: ‘I don’t step out of the bounds of the halacha.’ .(Photo by: YAEL ILAN)
Not just fiddling around
18-year-old David Roth is making heads turn with the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
There are a couple of musical instruments that are generally considered “traditional” in Western Jewish folklore. And if one were to be pressed into naming but one, it would surely be the violin. Hence it should be perfectly natural that David Roth excels at the classical four-string instrument.

The 18-year-old musician’s natural gifts and determination have landed him a berth in Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (YIPO), which incorporates some 100 talented youngsters ages 14-18. Roth will be front and center next week when the YIPO performs three concerts across the country: at 8 p.m. at the Krieger Center in Haifa on July 17, and the same time at the Jerusalem Theater on July 18; then closing at Hechal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv at noon on July 19.

The ensemble will perform under the steady hands of 30-year-old conductor Lahav Shani, who is due to take over one of the most coveted positions in the Western classical world when he replaces Zubin Mehta as music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) at the start of the 2020-21 season. The repertoire for the three-date tour is impressively varied, taking in works by Brahms, Prokofiev and Bach. The latter, the Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, will be performed by the YIPO’s 11-14-year-old “cadets”, all 50 of them, with Shani wielding the baton and also sitting at the piano.

That Roth is not your everyday 18-year-old is no surprise. After all, not too many teenagers achieve his level of musical acumen. But, your first impression of the youngster may be that he would be better suited to furthering his Torah studies in some yeshiva than joining a bunch of fellow youths in interpreting classical charts. Roth looks like your typical haredi hassid, peyot (side curls) and all, and does indeed attend a hesder yeshiva at Gan Yavneh. Luckily, it is a special institution of Talmudic learning which offers a varied program, with the day divided between religious studies and learning a trade. But while the other students are accruing knowledge of various areas of the hi-tech sphere ahead of service in various IDF cyberfacilities, Roth spends five hours a day polishing his fiddling skills.

I was not the first to ask the young man whether people were taken aback when they learn he not only adheres to an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle but also plays in the country’s leading classical ensemble for youth. “You know, everyone has stigmas,” he responds with a chuckle when we meet up in Jerusalem. Roth is clearly one cool customer. “That doesn’t bother me.”

What does bother him is making sure his evolving musicianship is up to scratch. That began over a decade ago when his mother sent him to a violin teacher in his neighborhood of Bnei Brak when he was seven. “My mother likes music, so she wanted me to play,” he recalls. That was fine by the young boy, which may have had something to do with his extended genetic baggage. “All my father’s sisters and brothers are musicians. I have an uncle who is a hazan (cantor). Actually, my father was the only member of his family who didn’t play music. Maybe he is trying to compensate for that through me,” Roth laughs. 

Things started getting serious for him when, after four years with his first music teacher, he began taking lessons from Eyal Shiloah. Shiloah is an internationally renowned classical violinist who also devotes much of his working life to Jewish and Middle Eastern music. The latter area also led to Shiloah becoming artistic director of the annual International Klezmer Festival in Safed.

ROTH STICKS to the Western classical field, and says coming under Shiloah’s tutelage was a big step in the right direction for him. “He introduced me to important classical works and engendered a love of the music in me.” Roth complemented his hands-on activities with some inspiration from the A-listers. “I started to go to concerts of the [Israel] Philharmonic, and I went to concerts around the world, at Carnegie Hall and La Scala. If we [the family] were going on holiday, I’d see where there were some good concerts. I learned so much from that, in terms of technique and how to express yourself in the music. I saw [acclaimed Israeli violinists Yitzhak] Perlman and [Pinhas] Zuckerman. I also have quite a collection of classical CDs.”

Once again, it was Shiloah who paved the way to the YIPO. “I’d heard about the orchestra and I wanted to join it,” Roth explains. “Eyal helped me with that. He was a concertmaster [lead violinist] and there is no one better to prepare someone for auditions to the YIPO.” While the orchestra auditioners are consummate professionals, they may have been forgiven for doing a double take when Roth appeared, with his black kippah and peyot. “I didn’t sense that but I presume that happened. You know we are human beings, and we all have certain ideas and stigmas in our mind. It’s had to get away from that. But I didn’t feel that.”

The youngster did what he knows to do best, and was duly accepted into the YIPO. “I still feel completely comfortable with the orchestra and the other members,” he says, adding that he also manages to keep to the letter of the Jewish law while maintaining his artistic pursuit. “Yes there is the aspect of boys and girls [in the ensemble], but I don’t see where the problem is there. I don’t step out of the bounds of the halacha [Jewish law].” Roth manages to keep his religious beliefs and artistic endeavor in synch. “The halacha helps to guide me in a mixed society.”

Roth also gets all the support he needs from home. “I am an only child and my parents give me so much help.” That includes providing the youngster with a means of getting wherever he needs to go as efficiently as possible. “They bought me a car,” Roth says with something approaching a self-conscious smile. Considering his daily schedule, the ability to move freely around the country is a prerequisite. “I live in Bnei Barak and I study at Gan Yavneh,” he notes. “And I have rehearsals in Tel Aviv, and I come to Jerusalem. Having a car really helps with all of that. I lead a busy life,” he adds with a smile.

You don’t get that many professional haredi classical musicians, but Roth is heading in the right direction. “I want to be accepted as an outstanding musician for my army service,” he says. He looks up for that and anything else he might encounter along his road to a career at the top of his burgeoning career. “It is all a challenge, but if you shy aware from challenges, you aren’t going to get very far in life. I was on the winter program last year. It was really intensive – nine hours of rehearsals a day. I learned something every single moment, and enjoyed it all.”

 The young man clearly has a mature head on his young shoulders, and packs some musical punch. When the audiences file into the auditoriums in Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv next week, they may very well take note of the appearance of one of the violinists sitting in the front row of the orchestra. But they will, no doubt, quickly settle down to enjoying the sound and emotion of the performance, and leave the stigmas behind.

For tickets and more information: Phone 02-509-0300 or online.

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