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A Famed Political Pundit’s Musical Side: An Interview with Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer

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Charles Krauthammer is widely regarded as one of the most influential political commentators in America today. A contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and The New Republic, Krauthammer is also a nightly commentator on Fox News’s Special Report with Bret Baier and a weekly panelist on PBS’s Inside Washington. Close to 250 newspapers carry his weekly column, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1987.

In addition to his political prowess, Krauthammer maintains a love for Jewish music. Several years ago, he and his wife Robyn founded Pro Musica Hebraica, devoted to “bringing Jewish music to the concert hall.”

On December 2, the organization will hold a concert of cantorial masterpieces at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The Jewish Press recently spoke with Krauthammer about the concert, among other topics.

The Jewish Press: What led you to found Pro Musica Hebraica?

Krauthammer: About eight years ago, my wife and I decided there was an area of Jewish culture that had been fairly widely neglected, and that was the presentation of great Jewish music in a classical setting. We wanted to do something to bring it out to the world.

Is the classical music Pro Musica Hebraica presents really Jewish music or just music that happens to have been composed by Jews?

The idea is to bring Jewish experience, feeling, and history – “Jewish soul,” if you like – as expressed through classical music.

So it doesn’t matter who the author is. One of our concerts a few years ago was baroque Jewish music from 17th- and 18th-century Italy and Holland. It included the famous Sephardic Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, but it also had a selection by a Jesuit priest who was a philo-Semite and who set Psalms to baroque music. He was so much of a Hebraist that he actually wrote the music from right to left when he was transcribing it.

So we don’t care about the origin of the composer although, of course, most of the music is by Jews self-consciously reflecting their own heritage, past, and memories.

Why has this music been neglected?

Well, I’ll give you one example. One of the major schools of this music was called the St. Petersburg school. Founded in 1908, this school consisted of students of Rimsky Korsakov. They were in the Russian conservatories, and their teacher basically said to them, “Why are you trying to compose Russian music? You’re Jews, compose the music of your own people.”

So they sent ethnographic expeditions into the shtetl, listened to the music, and transcribed it. That was their inspiration for composing classical music with Jewish themes – the same way that Bartok, for example, produced classical Hungarian music from Hungarian folk themes.

This school thrived for 10 years. They put on concerts all over Russia, but then the Russian revolution came in 1917, and they were all scattered to all corners of the world. Their music was largely forgotten, but we brought it back with Itzhak Perlman on the 100th anniversary of its founding to an amazing critical review in the Washington Post and tremendous public response.

This upcoming concert on December 2, though, will feature chazzanut.

Yes, it’s our first venture away from classical music towards more traditional liturgical music. It’s also our first time in New York; we’re usually in the Kennedy Center in Washington. Cantor Netanel Hershtik of The Hampton Synagogue, who is just exquisite, is performing, and the venue will be the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary.

Cantor Netanel Hershtik

One theme that runs through this concert is redemption. It’s a theme that’s so prevalent in the liturgy that you can’t go three pages in the siddur without coming across it. I think it’s very important, particularly for those who may not be religious or aren’t even Jewish, to understand that the idea of return, restoration – the idea of Zion – is not a modern creation but a theme going back to “Im eshkacheich Yerushalayim,” which was written 2,500 years ago….

One of the reasons I wanted to do this was because when I was growing up we would spend our summer in Long Beach where, once a year, Moshe Koussevitzky would perform at one of the synagogues at the far end of Long Beach. My father would take my brother and me, and we would walk for about an hour to hear him. I have never forgotten that. It was the most moving music or religious presence.

That tradition, though, really isn’t around that much anymore. I have always wanted to have other people experience what I did when I was eight, nine, and ten. So for me, this is a labor of love. It has nothing to do with my work as a political commentator. It’s purely an expression of my own Jewish experience and the desire to see it shared by others.

Do you find that your Jewish background and upbringing affect your work as a political commentator?

Well, I’m very wary of people who draw lines from the Bible to political platforms, but clearly my worldview is shaped by my upbringing and awareness of Jewish culture, life, and history. You can see it, for example, when it comes to my writing about Israel. It’s very heavily influenced by the fact that I know it rather well and studied the history. If you had a Jewish upbringing like I did – I went to Hebrew Day School and was raised in a Modern Orthodox home – it will inevitably shape your life and perspective on the world.

The other impact it had is that I studied Talmud very intensively during my school years, and I think that kind of critical textual thinking, which is the essence of Talmudic study, has carried over into the way I look at and interpret events, documents, Supreme Court decisions – all the things I deal with as a commentator.

You once worked as a speechwriter for the liberal Walter Mondale. How did you go from that to becoming one of America’s most prominent conservative columnists?

I was young once. You know Churchill’s quote: If you’re not a socialist when you’re 20, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative when you’re 50, you have no head.

Was there a particular event or series of events that changed your political views?

Well, I’ve always been pretty hardheaded on foreign policy. So on foreign policy I didn’t change much; I’d say the Democratic Party did.

On domestic policy, I was a Great Society believer until the empirical evidence of the damage it did began to come in during the 1980s. As a former physician and having done some science, I am very open to empirical evidence. I don’t doubt the good intentions of Great Society liberalism, but I’m firmly convinced that the empirical evidence shows that this is the wrong way to go about helping people. That led to a transformation of my views.

Many conservatives have been wringing their hands since Governor Romney’s defeat on November 6. What is your take? Why did he lose?

A lot of reasons, but the main one, I think, is that he decided to run purely on economic conditions. It was a very good strategy in 2011, but the economy improved enough, or at least the perception is that it had improved enough, that it proved to be a losing bet.

Romney didn’t campaign very much on the difference in political philosophies. I think if you run on Obama’s left liberalism versus conservatism the way potential 2016 candidates Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, or Bobby Jindal might have run, conservatives win. The proof is the 2010 midterm elections, which were purely ideological [and in which Republicans performed well]. To the extent Republicans could have made 2012 like 2010, they would’ve won.

But Romney, for all his sincerity – and I think he’s a very good man and would’ve made a very good president – was simply not the best to make the conservative case. He spoke it like a second language, and that, I think, was a major problem. And then, at the very end when he had a scandal – Benghazi – which he could’ve really hit Obama hard with in the third debate, he just walked away from it. The press ignored it, Obama ignored it, and then Romney’s momentum was stopped by Hurricane Sandy, and that was it. He fell short.

So you don’t agree, then, with some conservatives who fear they have lost the country.

Not at all. In exit polls they asked people if government was doing too much or too little – which is a fairly good way to separate Left and Right. The “too much” won by eight points. That’s pretty significant.

Many Jews feared Obama’s reelection because of his stance toward Israel and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. What’s your opinion? Is Iran America’s problem? Israel’s problem?

It’s the world’s problem. It’s a more immediate problem for Israel, more longer term for America – which is why their timetables are in such conflict.

What do you envision happening?

Well, everybody hopes sanctions will work. I’m very skeptical. If they don’t, I think there’s a very high probability that Israel will act. Whether America will support the act, I don’t know.

What do you think America should do?

I think the duty of an ally is to allow an ally to defend itself.

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About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.


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5 Responses to “A Famed Political Pundit’s Musical Side: An Interview with Charles Krauthammer”

  1. Steven Greenwald says:

    great guy!!!

  2. Pattie Hull-kahler says:

    Love Krauthammer!

  3. Charles Case says:

    I have always had a great deal of respect for him.

  4. Richard Mitchell says:

    Intelligent man. He would be a great Presidential advisor.

  5. Brian Keill says:

    From The New York Times:

    May All Your Hanukkahs Be White

    The double album “‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah” highlights the history of Hanukkah in the United States and explores the influence of Jewish songwriters and singers on America’s Christmas canon.

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