A Him to him — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

My Dear Herr Kapellmeister,

It’s spring here in Jerusalem. Fields, yards, and the few vacant lots that remain in this increasingly overbuilt city are burgeoning with blood-red anemones. Two weeks ago, Ilana and I visited a hill not too far away that is carpeted with purple lupines, growing over the ruins of an ancient city. The flowers perfume the air and after each of the rainy season’s final drizzles the soil itself smells alive.

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Perhaps spring came late in Leipzig in 1727. How else to explain the sorrow of that opening chord in the organ and strings, the melody that rises, then falls as if it can go on no longer, only to rise again? Why, if your Redeemer died for your sins, did you sigh rather than celebrate? Why, if the equinox had passed and the day was already longer than the night, did you have the choir, entering just as the instrumental melody comes to rest, stun me with a wail of helplessness, of hopelessness, “Come ye daughters, share my lament—see him!”

Yes, I know, “Him,” with a capital H. A big Him for you, a little him for me.

Read moreA Him to him — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Piano Lesson — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

I am impressed. You play like a Jew, Felix. What I mean by that is that you have Johann Sebastian Bach in your heart as well as in your fingertips. Please don’t tell your mother I said this. She would be upset to hear that she has not succeeded in bleaching Israel out of you. How mortified she would be if, in the middle of an intellectual evening here in this very parlor, von Humboldt were to apply his magnifying glass to you and say: “Aha! A fine specimen of Mendelssohnius Judaeas!”

What’s that? Speak up! And please do not call me Aunt Sara. Approximating family relationships is like slurring a gruppetto. I am and will always be your Great Aunt Sara. If you wish, you may, in the grand company that gathers so frequently in this room, be even more precise and refer to me as “Great Aunt Sara Itzig Levy.” And you may add, if asked, “Yes, the daughter of Daniel Itzig and Miriam Wulff, intimates of the illustrious philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, she who studied keyboard with Friedmann Bach, Johann Sebastian’s oldest son, and who has kept the sweet music of the elder Bach alive in her salon through decades of public indifference.” That will do.

And wipe that smirk off your face. There is nothing more unattractive than the smirk of a seventeen-year old boy.

Oh yes, at your age you know it all. Music is universal. How can the notes emerging from a pianoforte be Jewish, you ask? Felix, you know nothing at all. Remember that I told you this today, in Berlin, in July 1826, because some years from now you will realize how true it was of you when you were young.

Listen to me. And stop cracking your knuckles. You will ruin your joints. This piece you have played so beautifully for me this morning, the Partita No. 5 in G Major, can only be played properly, in our falscherleuchtung age, this time of false enlightenment, by a person of Jewish sensibility. Please do not interrupt me. At your age you are to listen to your elders first. After you listen you may disagree, you may do whatever you want. But first you must listen.

Sebastian Bach was a devout Lutheran, true, but he wrote Jewish music.

Read morePiano Lesson — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report