Itzhak Perlman awarded 2016 Genesis Prize

Itzhak Perlman, the Israeli-born violin virtuoso, has won Israel’s $1 million Genesis Prize.

Perlman was named the winner on Dec. 14 of the annual prize that has been dubbed the “Jewish Nobel.” He joins former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the actor-director Michael Douglas as recipients.

“I was totally dumbfounded,” Perlman said about learning he had been selected as this year’s winner. “I’m a musician. I play the fiddle. So I was so totally taken aback and I was obviously so incredibly honored they would even consider me. It was very exciting.”

Itzhak Perlman photo/jta-getty images-chip somodevilla

Perlman will perform with the San Francisco Symphony on Jan. 9 and 10 for two concerts at Davies Symphony Hall. The program features Beethoven’s Romances No. 1 and 2, Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.

Perlman, 70, said he was mostly unfamiliar with the prize when he first learned he was being considered. Established in 2012, the prize is presented annually to someone who has achieved international renown in their professional field and serves as a role model through their commitment to Jewish values.

“I just know who I am,” Perlman said. “In other words, in our family, we are traditional Jews. My entire family is involved in one way or another, whether we go to shul, celebrate Shabbos or whatever it is. We are always in touch … That’s one of the things this prize will bring forth. I don’t have a problem with who I am. I live it. And my family lives it.”

Past winners have taken an ecumenical approach to disbursing the prize money. Douglas, the son of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, pledged to use the funds to promote outreach to the intermarried. Bloomberg initially said he wanted to promote Israeli-Palestinian business cooperation, but later backed away from that at the urging of the prize committee, instead funding nine projects “guided by Jewish values to address the world’s pressing issues.”

Perlman said he is unsure how he plans to use the funds, though he indicated it would likely have some connection to music and helping those with disabilities. Perlman was diagnosed with polio at age 4 and gets around with a motorized cart.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s what this prize is all about — the opportunity to do good in the world, to do good as a Jew, to do as they say tikkun olam — to make things better for people,” Perlman said. “My involvement obviously, first, is as a musician, and second, or even first, as a person who has a disability. So these two aspects of what I’m interested in is something that I’m thinking about.”

Born in Tel Aviv, Perlman has achieved a level of celebrity rarely seen in the classical music world. Identified as a musical prodigy from a young age, he appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” as a teenager in 1958, and went on to study at New York’s Juilliard School. He has won 16 Grammy Awards and played for multiple heads of state. In November, Perlman received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.

In addition to maintaining a global performance schedule, Perlman teaches young musicians through the Perlman Music Program, founded by his wife, Toby, to provide instruction and community for players of rare talent.

Perlman will receive the prize at a ceremony in Jerusalem in June.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.