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Book excerpt

The warmth of the violin

A continuum exists between music and the philosophy of social activism, writes Lionel Rolfe, as he looks back on his conversations with uncle Yehudi Menuhin. The first of a two-part excerpt from his important new book, Death and Redemption in London and LA

Yehudi started playing the violin at four I explored the California roots of my family saga in my book Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground, where I described seeing Yehudi for the last time in 1997.

He rented the Huntington Hotel's dining room on Nob Hill in San Francisco… where he held a family reunion. There had been hard feelings between my uncle and myself over my first book The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey, published in the 1970s. My grandparents had cut me out of the will as a result of the book - and Yehudi, who had the power to change that, did not. He was unhappy with my portrayal of his mother, Marutha, and also that I wouldn't let his wife edit the manuscript. His parents were unhappy because I did not perpetrate the fiction that Marutha was an Italian princess. Instead, in my book. I told the truth: namely that Marutha had come from a poor Jewish family. Her father had not been Tarter or Italian royalty, but rather a poor "shocket" - which is to say in Yiddish, a kosher chicken killer - who lived in Waukegan, Illinois.

Still, my uncle and I hugged each other, however tentatively, and hardly talked after that. He kept glancing over at me, as if to say, "Let's talk", throughout the night. But I was frozen in my chair, talking with my cousin Gerard, the only of Yehudi's sons to show for the reunion. It was the first time I had liked Gerard. For one thing, he was talking with me. In the past he rarely acknowledged me. But on this night we talked, and it was a good feeling. I was able to enjoy the illusion I was a member of a real family.

Considering our past long conversations, it was a fateful decision on my part to talk no more to Yehudi. I could not conceive that this would be the last time I would see him alive.

Nevertheless, it was a good reunion. I heard the story of how my mother Yaltah used to put me in a baby basket underneath the piano as she practised and played. The thought startled me. It was as if I had been raised from the womb surrounded by music. I realized how truly I had been under the spell of music from the first, as it thundered out glorious melodies from the heavenly keyboard. Lilly related to this story. Her mother, like mine, was also a pianist. And she also used to lay her in a baby basket. Only, in her case, she said she was put near the piano, not directly under it as I was.

So while it had some pleasant and even revealing moments, the reunion in San Francisco was probably no more successful in reuniting the family from its various hurts and wounds than Yehudi's efforts to stop the Six Day War had been. In contrast, a grandly successful family reunion was staged by the Australian side of my family after the Westminster Abbey memorial.

It was a gathering of the clan, all of whom shared the uncommon commonality of being mightily affected by their relation to this incredible man. My family moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles early on after World War II, and I didn't see uncle Yehudi as often as I had in the very first years of my life. Yet I never stopped struggling with my being related to Yehudi. I think this was so for all of us, including the Australians.

One of my earliest memories of the great man was in the late '40s when I was under ten. Yehudi's parents, my grandparents, Moshe and Marutha Menuhin, did not celebrate Hanukah. Instead we had Christmas. And that Christmas we had a giant Christmas tree, its tall trunk bent at the top under the high ceiling in the front room of Rancho Yaltah in Los Gatos.

Yehudi's Christmas gift to me was my most memorable of the evening. My famous uncle gave me an Erector set, and I loved it for years and years after that.

It would be at least two decades before he gave me anything else. When I was having a tough spell getting going as a magazine freelancer, he subsidized me to the extent of paying my rent.

I ultimately concluded he wasn't wildly generous with me. But, in the aggregate, he was generous to many people, and not without concern for me.

If he didn't dote on his nephew, his influence was always there. In the early '50s, Yehudi used to come to Los Angeles and he always brought something new to our lives. On one occasion he introduced us to raw fish. He cut some tuna and we ate it. He also personally introduced Yoga to us. For a while my mother was taking me to see Indra Devi, his yoga teacher who lived in the Hollywood Hills.

On another occasion, I carried his violin case across the campus of the University of Southern California. Two violins were inside: Guarnerius and a "Strad." In an impish aside, he told me he liked to announce to his audience that he was playing one instrument, and play the other instead. He said no one ever complained, or seemed to notice.

And over the years, whenever he came to Los Angeles from London where he lived, he and I would meet at various hotels and talk at length. He told me that I was the most creative and intelligent of the Menuhin grandchildren. During those meetings, we talked about Jewishness, writing, music, his parents, history and politics. He thought the idea of tracing the connection between the religious background of the Menuhins and the musical background would produce an important work. That was one of the reasons I felt compelled to write The Menuhins.

All his life, he told me, he had heard of the Rebbes, his most noble ancestors. He described them as the singing, musical Jews. The first rebbe back in the 1800s, Schneur Zalman, was also a musical prodigy. His songs brought people to the new Hassidic movement.

Yehudi told me I was the only one who could carry on the grand tradition of our mystical, cabalistic rebbe-ancestors. To this day, I'm still pondering what he meant. Was he just talking about Hitlahavut, that wondrous state of concentration associated with the 18th-century Jewish mystic the Bal Shem, wherein every-thing is always being made fresh and new again?

I continue to ponder why Yehudi anointed me to carry on the mystical, religious tradition that at best seems very tangential to my modern-day existence in Los Angeles. But there is a continuum, from the music to the tradition and philosophy of social activism. I came easily to that Jewish tradition described in Fiddler on the Roof where the line between social activism and religion is thin. Those Jews in Russia who joined the revolution to replace the Czar's evil and corrupt regime with a socialist paradise were really expressing the old Messianic urge.

Since we Jews do not put much emphasis on the afterlife, we've always tried to make this earth a better place to live. Thus, even those who channel their religious energy into social activism are acting out an old Jewish tradition. It was no accident that during the war, Yehudi flew to the fronts and played for the troops, often at considerable risk to his own life. In the aftermath of the Second War, he was also the first artist to play for the inmates of the concentration camps, as well as the citizens of Berlin.

Published with permission from Lionel Rolfe

Send your view

More -- Yehudi Menuhin's activism -- how he played to blacks in shanties and protested South African aparthied

Lonely in LA -- Read The Music Magazine's exclusive interview with Rolfe

Quick external links

You can buy an electronic copy of Rolfe's new book at Deadend Street. For a print edition, you'll have to wait till later this year

Visit The Menuhin Foundation, Brussels

A Menuhin discography

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