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Shai Baitel Headshot

The Story of a Jewish Violin

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The traditions of the Jews have been the subject of much research as well as countless books and conferences. Many believe that what kept the Jewish people so unique and united through the course of history, despite atrocities and pogroms, are these very same traditions. They have the power to unite behind a set of shared values and beliefs. In one of the most memorable musicals of all time, the protagonist Tevye, a dairy farmer from a shtetl in Tsarist Russia suggests that: "[...] [I]n our little village of Anatevka, you might say, every one of us is a fiddler on the roof... -- and how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!"

With the Jewish fiddler in the picture, we can note that there is a long-standing connection between Jewish tradition and the violin, that perhaps most popular of instruments. In fact, since the emergence of the violin it has drawn the attention of many and is featured in many works of art beyond music, such as in paintings by Marc Chagall, and others.

Looking back, history chronicles the appearance of first modern violin the way we know it, a four-string instrument in the early to mid-1500s in Northern Italy -- a common destination for prosecuted Jews from Spain. It was the scholar Roger Prior who first suggested that it had been Jews who had developed the new instrument, from its precursor that was known in Spain as the viol. And the time parallel of the settlement of Jews after their expulsion in that region and the emergence of the violin as we know it is indeed striking.

Anthropologists later supported this theory by pointing to the nature of the Jewish people, who were -- and are -- heavily vested in arts and culture, which could have led to the 'invention' of the violin. And its embrace and introduction into the Jewish culture was certainly helped by its relatively small size. It is light to carry, particularly when Jews had to escape prosecution and pogroms, fleeing from one region or country to another.

With the heavy involvement of Jewish artistic spirit in the emergence of the violin it is not a surprise that many of the most famous violinists have been and are Jewish. Not even going back in history we recognize some of the most famous contemporary players of this instrument who are continuing a long and distinguished Jewish, well, tradition: Joshua Bell, Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Maxim Vengerov, and Pinchas Zukerman are recognized as masters of their art.

One Jewish violinist stands out, however. Not for her achievements in the classical repertoire rather than her unique approach and innovative musical sound. It is Miri Ben-Ari. This Israeli-born artist was classically trained since the tender age of five. And only seven year later she would be given a violin by the legendary Isaac Stern. If Stern could foresee how far this violin, played by Ben-Ari, would go? Accepted for violin studies at the renowned Mannes College The New School For Music, Ben-Ari had to leave prematurely, unable to afford the tuition.

But she would make her way nonetheless. With the can-do spirit of the Jewish tradition, Ben-Ari's repertoire encompasses classical music, Jazz, Soul, R&B, and Pop. She had her break-out moment, as Hip-Hop violinist, when she published her synonymous album in 2005. She firmly established herself as star when she won the Grammy Award in the same year, as a co-writer of Kanye West's "Jesus Walks."

In a recent conversation following the release of a new video clip "Dim the Lights," Miri Ben-Ari shared with me her view of transitioning from being a musician to being an artist: "If a person comes from artistic background, then his creation will have a deep artistic element. But being a musician doesn't necessarily grant you the creative facet of an artist. I therefore define myself an artist rather than a musician." And indeed, Ben-Ari's successful career has resulted so far in four albums (including Run This City, Sunshine to the Rain, We Gonna Win, and Symphony of Brotherhood), numerous performances on the important stages in the United States and abroad. She performed for heads of state, including, most recently, President Barack Obama who had joined a cheering crowd during an election campaign event.

Like with so many of her Jewish peers, Miri Ben-Ari finds importance and meaning in philanthropic work. Ben-Ari is involved in many charitable activities, including Yad Vashem, due to her dedication to the commemoration of the Holocaust and the education about it in the United States. She appeared at benefits at the Apollo Theater, and was a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama as part of the Women's History Month celebrations at the White House in 2011.

Through her art, Ben-Ari does not shy away from difficult themes. Her most recent work, "Dim the Light," reflects facing an embarrassing situation, which often poses a challenge in order to prevail. She should be proud of it because it not only displays her skills and mature musicianship but also her being one of the work's successful producers. Ben-Ari further branched out and created the clip's unique styling.

Young, energetic, and with high motivation, Miri Ben-Ari is gearing up for more new releases as well as new contracts with leading artist in the music world. Her art makes her a star of the, well, Jewish violin. She has a great artistic range of Classical, Modern, World and Jazz Musical, performs for world leaders as well as for the young and vibrant crowd of hip hop lovers, participates in campaigns for Reebok and Pepsi, performs clips of national significance -- such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" -- and plays the National Anthem at major events, such as NBA games: Miri Ben-Ari has certainly brought the diversity of playing the violin to new heights.

So, when Tevye asks at the beginning of the musical: "A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no?" then the answer is: "Not at all because for Miri Ben-Ari, her violin, and her art, every place can be a stage."