Isaac Stern (1920-2001), one of the 20th century’s greatest instrumentalists, is best known as a violinist who struck the perfect balance between virtuosity and musicianship and built his reputation with a rich tone and emotional interpretive style. Passionate about a broad range of works extending to the full classical and Romantic repertory, he played as the guest soloist with every major orchestra in the world and his unique warm sound was captured in a vast discography that documented his prolific work.
Stern was world-renowned not only as a world-class musician but also as an influential teacher, speaker, humanitarian, American goodwill ambassador and worldwide cultural institution. He toured for the U.S.O. in World War II and in 1979 became the first American musician to tour China; From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, a film about his China tour, won the 1981 Academy Award for best full-length documentary.
At the height of the Cold War, he became the first American musician to tour the Soviet Union (1956). As he memorably quipped, cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Soviet Russia were simple affairs: “They send us their Jews from Odessa, and [referring to himself] we send them our Jews from Odessa.” Stern also used his considerable influence to secure the release of Jews from the Soviet Union, and he played many benefit concerts to fund their resettlement in Israel and the United States.
Stern played perhaps the leading role in convincing JFK, and later LBJ, to establish the National Arts Council. When arts support faced major cuts in 1970, he made an impassioned plea to Congress to maintain, and even increase, the funding because the United States was in danger of becoming “an industrial complex without a soul.” He also served as board chairman of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and he founded and served as chair and as music director of the Jerusalem Music Center.
Though Stern maintained that he never personally experienced anti-Semitism – except one “small encounter, nothing serious” when his family was turned away from a hotel – anti-Semitism in general, and the Holocaust in particular, were deeply ingrained in his psyche; he would perform worldwide, but he was steadfast all his life in refusing to perform in Germany, the land of the Final Solution. Yet he generated great controversy when he agreed to perform in a Harlem Church that had refused to denounce Louis Farrakhan and his notorious anti-Semitism, notwithstanding that one-third of the Israel Philharmonic refused to play there.
In the early 1960s, when relatively few soloists paid attention to chamber music, Stern teamed up with pianist Eugene Istomin and cellist Leonard Rose to perform and record as a trio, and he later undertook partnerships with flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and several other musicians. Above and beyond his memorable concerts, some of which are discussed below, he taught master classes and nurtured an entire generation of violinists, including Yitzchak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, and Shlomo Mintz.
Stern also became renowned in the classical music world for leading a successful campaign to save his beloved Carnegie Hall, where he had given more than 200 performances, from destruction. In 1960, after a Seder with New York Mayor Robert Wagner, he explained to the mayor that Carnegie Hall was not only important for New York City but, indeed, for the entire world, and he convinced him and the city to purchase the property – which it did, for five million dollars in city funds. In recognition of his Herculean effort to “save the Hall,” the main auditorium at Carnegie Hall is named for him.
Stern was not only a world-class virtuoso but also a warm and generous personality. He was a man who loved people and who was equally comfortable at Carnegie Hall and at the Carnegie Deli. His awards include the first Albert Schweitzer Award (1974); the Kennedy Center Honors Award (1984); six Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award (1987); and Israel’s Wolf Prize for service to humanity.
Stern’s education and attention were never focused on anything specifically Jewish – except, perhaps, when he performed as the violin soloist on the soundtrack for the 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof – and he never lived a traditional Jewish life. As he explains in My First 79 Years (1999), an autobiography he wrote with Chaim Potok:
There was no hint, in anything my parents said, of their having lived anything remotely resembling a traditional Jewish life in Kreminetz [from which the Stern family fled to America after Isaac’s birth]. I doubt my father even had a bar mitzvah, and he felt no inclination to insist that I should, so I didn’t. The traditional Jewish home – challah every Friday night, candles, prayer – did not exist for us. Religion played no part in my family’s life.
Interestingly, Stern held a bar mitzvah for his son and he refused to perform publicly on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur “out of respect for the feelings of my co-religionists.” However, he did not give his father a Jewish funeral, believing that it would be contrary to how his father lived; as he explained in a later interview, “the narrow and single-minded authority of the very Conservative or Orthodox Judaism and its observance rules did not appeal to him and he would have nothing to do with it, and so I grew up not having any push in that direction.”
Given the virtually non-existent role of Judaism in Stern’s life and in the life of his family, one cannot help but question the source of his deep Jewish feeling. The answer can be expressed in one word – Israel. As he writes in My First 79 Years:
In 1948, when the State of Israel was declared, the excitement and the wonderment of seeing that State established, and the gallantry and dedication and perseverance and how willing they were to give their lives to create a state, was such an enormous area of pull. I must go see it, what’s going on, I have to take part, this modern gallantry at its highest. And I went. And that’s when I learned that the word “Jew” was descriptive, not a pejorative, so I could wear the word quietly and happily, and those wondrous first days meeting with the settlers and the people was an infection that lasted not only for me, but for the tens of thousands who went there for the first time . . . It created a profound effect on me and my view of myself and it also made me a friend of everything they were trying to do and to build for the rest of my life.
“Friend” does not begin to describe Stern’s relationship with the Jewish state. He maintained a long-standing and special relationship with the state of Israel, giving generously of his time, talent and money for Israel causes. Tirelessly devoted to Israel, he regularly played with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra from the birth of the State in 1948 – when Ben-Gurion cornered him and urged him to make aliyah – and he made hundreds of visits to Israel, where he was treated as a national hero.
During his address at an Israel Philharmonic performance in 1996 when he was honored for all his contributions to Israel, Stern recalled that during the long siege of Jerusalem in 1948, people in the Holy City were starving but, after the first convoys broke through, the citizens said “Okay, now we’ve got food and we will get more. Now, we also need music.” He was on one of the first convoys to Jerusalem, where he performed with the newly named Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. [The Palestine Orchestra had been founded in 1936, but it changed its name in 1949]. Wearing his emotions on his sleeve, he explained that “very few musical institutions can take part in the history of the establishment of a state and to be central to its institutions and its values.”
Shortly after the Six-Day War, Leonard Bernstein, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Stern, and others were invited to Israel to conduct three concerts, one at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv (see exhibit) and two in Jerusalem. The first Jerusalem concert was held at the Congress Auditorium and the second, and far more memorable and historic one, was held on July 9, 1967, at the Roman amphitheater atop Har Hatzofim.
The idea for a concert on Mount Scopus was conceived by Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta, who had found a way to return to Israel at the beginning of the war on a cargo plane transporting weapons to Israel. After a dreamlike tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, Mehta and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek agreed to organize a concert on Scopus, and Kollek announced the concert as “the cultural opening of the united city of Jerusalem,” with all proceeds to go to the Jerusalem Foundation for the Development of Jewish-Arab Youth Activities.
No Israelis had been atop Har Hatzofim since 1948, so an Israeli official was dispatched to determine the condition of the amphitheater and – because nobody remembered – to count the seats there. When the Jerusalem military authority was advised about the plans for a concert on Scopus, he replied, “Have you gone completely crazy? The entire mountain is mined and until it is cleared, it is impossible to have a concert there. You are lucky to be alive.” Nevertheless, a permit was obtained, probably as the result of “pressure from high places.”
The original program called for Mehta to conduct Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (the “Victory”) but, ultimately, that role fell to Bernstein. Moreover, with the program changing from a concert of victory to a concert of hope, Stern was invited to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor, and he immediately cancelled all his outstanding commitments to participate. Attendees included then-retired Ben Gurion, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, President Zalman Shazar, Israel Supreme Court justices and Knesset and cabinet members, and fighters and wounded soldiers who had fought in the battle to liberate Jerusalem.
At the conclusion of the concert, with the late afternoon sun casting its fading glow over the Judean Desert, the Dead Sea, and the Mountains of Moab, the orchestra played an extraordinary and spirited rendition of “Hatikvah.” The audience rose to its feet, and there was not a dry eye in the amphitheater. The power of that “Hatikvah” was so great that the LP produced by Columbia Records to record the concert for posterity was named Hatikvah on Mt. Scopus. In fact, it was only the recording of the unforgettable “Hatikvah” that came from the performance on Mt. Scopus; Stern’s Mendelssohn and the remainder of the concerts were recorded in relative safety at the other sites. A documentary of the concert, called A Journey to Jerusalem, was later released.
When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, Stern canceled all commitments and rushed to Israel to perform in hospitals, often at the bedside of injured soldiers. During a concert for soldiers in the Negev, he awed his audience by ingeniously weaving the melody of “Hatikvah” into his rendition of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.
One of the most indelible images of Stern’s love of Israel will always be when, while giving a concert in Jerusalem during the Persian Gulf War (1991), the alarm sounded for an Iraqi Scud missile attack. While audience members donned gas masks, an unmasked and undeterred Stern announced, “missiles or no missiles, I cannot stop playing,” and he continued to play a Mozart solo.
Finally, the politically active violinist had a warm and special relationship with Hubert Humphrey, whom he actively backed in his losing presidential campaign against Richard Nixon in 1968. He apparently used his relationship with Yitzchak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, to try to promote the vice president’s campaign, as evidenced by this July 24, 1968, correspondence to Rabin:
Just before leaving New York for a long stay in Europe – until late October – I read an article about Humphrey which I thought would interest you as background information. I am not sure that this article, in its original length, would appear in publications which would normally come to your attention. So, I have taken the liberty of having it forwarded to you. I am sure it will be of interest . . .
We send you and Mrs. Rabin our fondest greetings and best wishes for every health. And we both look forward to seeing you after our return to the United States.
Stern was honored by the Humphrey family when it asked him to perform at Hubert’s funeral in 1978. He died in 2001, and a street in Tel Aviv was named for him.