A Philly native who’s spent three decades playing viola for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra recently took time off her busy performance schedule to help inaugurate an Israel studies program at a Beijing university.
As the principal violist for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Miriam Hartman is used to being on center stage all around the world.
What was unusual about her appearance in Beijing in November was the setting: Hartman, the 56-year-old native of Melrose Park who is in the midst of her 30th anniversary playing with the Tel Aviv-based IPO, wasn’t appearing at the Beijing Language and Culture University to play music, but rather to take part in the inauguration of the school’s new Israel Studies Program.
As a board member of SIGNAL — the Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership — Hartman couldn’t think of a better way to spend her night off from the IPO’s week of performances in China than to take part in the ceremonies, which also included Israel’s ambassador to China awarding prizes to students who had written the best essays on Israel.
“Bringing awareness about Israel and our geopolitical situation to China” is a huge opportunity for the type of cross-cultural academic cooperation that is SIGNAL’s mission, she explained.
Hartman’s educational efforts aren’t always situated so far afield. In addition to teaching at various universities, she is heavily involved in the orchestra’s KeyNote program, which teaches music, tolerance and mutual respect to some 20,000 disadvantaged Israeli schoolchildren — Jewish, Muslim and Christian — each year.
“We have played in places where the kids don’t stop beating each other up until the music starts — some of them are children of drug addicts, prostitutes — and they are completely transported by the music,” she marveled.
Initially, she recalled, when the orchestra participants performed for students, “we literally could not play because of the noise! Now, groups of three of us go into the classrooms” at the beginning of the year’s programming.
“The teachers prepare the kids for our arrival — and now they listen, and it touches their lives. If you could see hundreds of these kids sitting together in an auditorium, singing Israeli songs at the top of their lungs, you would be amazed.”
Hartman’s own childhood played a central role in her decision to make aliyah in 1983. Born and raised in Melrose Park, the former Congregation Adath Jeshurun member said that her family’s Zionist streak goes back generations, to a Hungarian great-grandfather who planned to move his family, including his 17 children to Palestine, before his murder in 1920.
“At that point,” she said, “a couple of his older children went to America instead of Palestine. The family members that chose to join them stayed alive. Every other member of the family — well over 60 of them — were all taken to Auschwitz and killed. My grandfather — his son — used to carry a copy of Herzl’s book around with him,” and tell her stories about her family’s proud history of Zionism. As a result, she said, “I always knew I would wind up here.”
Although she attended Yale and Juilliard, Hartman’s first attempt at aliyah came when she was 14 years old. She traveled alone to Israel in 1973 to play in a chamber music festival in Ein Kerem, a neighborhood in Jerusalem.
“My parents trusted me,” she recalled. “I had $200 in my pocket, a viola — and absolutely no place to go.”
Luckily, one of the festival’s coaches took her in. “He asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ I told him that when I turned 18, I was going to be a paratrooper. He said, ‘No you’re not — you’re going to an American university to learn something useful, then you make aliyah.’ ”
In a neat bit of beshert, the coach providing that advice was Ze’ev Steinberg, the principal violist at IPO until he retired in 1984 — at which point Hartman won the auditions for his position. Until then , she had been performing with the Jerusalem Symphony for around a year — just long enough, she said with a laugh, to meet her future husband, who was also an orchestra member. She is currently the only musician in the family, though. “He stopped performing because the commute” between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where she moved for the IPO, “cost more than what he was being paid,” she said, noting that he became a computer programmer instead.
After 30 years with the IPO, perhaps it is only natural for Hartman to be contemplative about her future. She acknowledged that her tenure has been a long one, but compared to that of Zubin Mehta, the orchestra’s 78-year-old music director for life, who has been in his position since 1969, she is still a newbie.
At 25 years in the IPO, “I got a gold pin,” she said. “When I joined the orchestra at 25, I wondered if Mehta would be the one to give me the pin. Now, I am sure that he will be the one to give me the gold watch!”