Someone listening to Ariella Zeitlin’s music once remarked, “I want to play violin like THAT!” According to out-of-the-box violinist Zeitlin, “it stuck as a tag line.”
Trained as a classical violinist, she’s often seen playing a viper violin, without the classic chin rest. In recent years, Zeitlin mastered the art of video creation and became social media savvy, building enough of a following to fund the production of her first album, due in January 2020.
It might have seemed a foregone conclusion that Zeitlin would end up as a violinist. She’s the granddaughter of classical violinist Zvi Zeitlin. At age 11, the Russian-born Zvi left his home in Israel to attend Julliard. Until recently, he was the youngest student in Julliard’s history to have been awarded a scholarship. Ariella noted that her grandfather “was a mentor to Itzhak Perlman. He even set up him up with his wife.”
Despite the genetic link to violin, Zeitlin’s mother wanted her to study piano. At six, she was taken to a local piano instructor. When she arrived for her first lesson, Zeitlin noticed the violins on display. “I told my mother, ‘I want to play the cute one that I can hug.’” Mother and daughter agreed that after a year of piano lessons, she could start learning violin.
Zeitlin said her mother assumed she would forget all about the violin, but she never did.
“I didn’t choose the violin because of my grandfather. But I definitely had the idea that the violin was important when I was very young,” she noted.
The first time she played for her famous grandfather is a strong memory. “He heard me after about six months of studying with a local teacher. He said, ‘She needs to go to a conservatory.’ Every half year, I had to play for him. There was a lot of pressure to progress.”
Progress she did. For her bat mitzvah project, she performed an entire solo concert.
The violin was her personal outlet. “It’s my way of communicating. I’ve had trouble my whole life communicating. I went through a lot of therapy to learn to express myself verbally. I always knew I was going to play the violin. I wanted to play and all around me was the idea that it was ‘the continuation of our [family] legacy.’ I never really thought I was going to do anything else. It’s the only thing I know how to do.
“Violin was the only thing I was ever really good at. I had lots of difficulties with expressive language, so it was really nice to have something I was good at and celebrated for.”
Reflecting on her early career, she recalled, “Because I grew up in an Orthodox community and there were not that many young female performers, I had a lot of opportunities to be a star. I played many times for the Women’s Auxiliary of shuls and schools.”
During the early years of her career, Zeitlin won a number of national competitions, played in several orchestras and even served as a concert master. Home-schooled from 3rd to 9th grade, her flexible schedule made it possible to accept opportunities that came her way.
At 17, she dreamt of attending Julliard. Her parents convinced her to spend a year studying Torah in Israel first. “They told me if I went to midrasha for a year, they would support my going to Julliard.
“I fell in love with Israel. I ended up going to the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Julliard is world-renowned, but I wanted to be here. I made aliyah on my 18th birthday.”
Working her way through college doing odd jobs, Zeitlin earned a bachelor’s degree in music. She married Chezky Hoffman right after finishing her undergraduate degree. “I met him when he was playing guitar at a kumsitz with a bunch of his friends on Ben Yehuda Street.”
She knew right away that, despite their external differences, he was for her. “I had this idea that I was going to marry this guy. He was a madrich at Ohr Somayach and I was a musician with purple hair. I introduced myself then, but I was so involved in school, we didn’t start dating until the last year of my bachelor’s.”
Zeitlin’s life picked up speed. All at once, she was newly married, studying for a master’s degree (fully sponsored by the Israel-America Cultural Foundation) and teaching while expecting her first child. “I performed with an orchestra when I was 9 months pregnant with my son,” she laughingly recalled.
During this period, Zeitlin began to find her own musical voice. “I started experimenting with other genres and electronic manipulations of sounds. I had a second baby. I asked myself, ‘Who am I and what am I going to be?’”
She grabbed every opportunity that came her way, including auditioning for the Voice of Israel, being flown to London to play for the World Zionist Organization and playing for Yad Vashem in Canada. She began to put out videos and started building her online following. But she was still looking for herself and her voice.
Today, she speaks of “the entire Ariella package” which includes singing lyrics that complement her violin playing.
“I’ve played concerts for thousands of chareidi women.” At these concerts, she plays, “a combination of classical and Shwekey. niggunim, things like that.
“I dress how they tell me to dress. I’m very respectful. If it’s not appropriate to be colorful, then I won’t be colorful,” she explained.
While happy to cater to this audience, Zeitlin craves opportunities for self-expression. “When I perform for chareidi women, they love my original music. They are hungry for something new. They aren’t ready for a whole concert yet, so they get a little at a time… baby steps,” she noted.
Her forthcoming album is called Azamra. “I raise my voice up in praise. I chose that name because the violin is my voice and my way of expressing myself. Part of the reason it was important for me to put out an original album is because, as an Orthodox woman, I want to help create change.
“I don’t believe that kol isha has been interpreted correctly. Women are the heart of the geula, women using their voices in praise. Women are coming out there and using words of God and inspirational messages. Women can only access the bina we have when we believe that we can access it.”
Her new album allows her to express parts of herself that are not given voice when she plays for others. “I’ve been told what to play my whole life, but I have my own unique stamp. Because I come from this classical world, my album has elements of classical violin. But it also has fun, upbeat, hybrid elements of different types of music: Irish, dance, classical and ethnic. The music and the lyrics are all original.”
What is the Ariella brand? “I just want to make people happy. That’s what music is about. When I’m playing the violin, I get people dancing, get people moving. I go a little crazy on stage to light a fire with the audience. I use everything I have to make people happy. That’s my ultimate goal and what my package represents,” she asserted.
“Women have great power. We need to put this out there, because we need to be part of the change. We need to see women who believe in the power of women’s voices,” she concluded.