A free event next month in Pittsburgh’s South Hills seeks to redefine how to think about music, Jewish musicians and the Holocaust. The Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival will present “Stories from the Violins of Hope” at 4 p.m. on Oct. 9 at Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
“This was really done as a gift to the South Hills community,” said Aron Zelkowicz, the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival founder and South Hills native presenting the event. “We wanted to offer something that had high cultural value.”
“(Those attending) don’t have to travel downtown for a first-rate concert,” he added, “nor do they have to travel to Squirrel Hill to experience Jewish culture.”
The event will feature live music, as well as readings from James Grymes’ book “Violins of Hope: Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour.” That book, published in 2014, details stories of the string instruments restored by Israeli violin-maker Amnon Weinstein.
The instruments previously were owned or played by Jewish victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
Some of the instruments in Grymes’ book will be displayed at Carnegie Mellon University’s Posner Center as part of a Violins of Hope of Greater Pittsburgh exhibit, said Zelkowicz, a former member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills who now lives in Boston.
Some of the violins will be played during the Oct. 9 event.
The “Violins of Hope” stories will be narrated by Rabbi Aaron Meyer and Cantor Kalix Jacobson of Temple Emanuel; Rabbi Amy Greenbaum of Beth El Congregation; Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life Congregation; and cantorial singer Sara Stock Mayo.
“It really is, at its essence, 50% story-time, 50% concert,” Zelkowicz said. “A string orchestra seemed an appropriate and large-scale ensemble suitable for this kind of event.”
Meyer said that the Temple Emanuel community is “honored” to host the event.
“This program, and the entire exhibition, offers the Pittsburgh community an opportunity to remember our history while thinking about our actions and our future,” Meyer said.
“I was fortunate to partner with both Temple Emanuel and the JCC for this event, whose assistance in both producing and marketing the concert has been invaluable,” Zelkowicz said.
Greenbaum doesn’t yet know the reading she’ll be leading Oct. 9 – but she’s excited, nonetheless.
“I think music is so powerful and it helps people to connect,” Greenbaum said. “I was just honored to be a part of such a special event.”
“We’re especially proud of Aron [Zelkowicz],” she added, “and honored to be part of this, part of his journey.”
Grymes and Zelkowicz helped curate the event’s music selections and based the afternoon’s performances on an event Grymes led at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2014. That program has expanded to feature an ensemble of 10 string players comprised of members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Zelkowicz said.
Yiddish songs such as “A Yiddishe Mame”, “Zog nit keynmol” and “Vu ahi zol ikh geyn” have been commissioned by the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival in new, world-premiere string arrangements especially for this performance, he added.
Mayo, a Pittsburgh native, started her cantorial work in Brooklyn, then sang as a cantorial soloist at Temple Sinai for 12 years starting around 2003. Since then, she has sung at Beth El, Temple David and several other synagogues.
On Oct. 9, Mayo will present the story of Feivel Wininger, a Romanian violinist who survived in the Ukrainian ghetto in the 1940s by playing music at weddings and during holidays. Many years later, in Israel, Wininger’s daughter had his violin repaired so he could play once again in his elder years.
“These violins,” Mayo said, “they have stories to tell.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.