Itzhak Perlman, arguably the most famous violinist in the world, has heard plenty of questions in his 50-year career. But when asked if his religious heritage has affected his playing, he sounds stumped.
“I’m a violinist. I’m Jewish, so that makes me a Jewish musician,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I’m a musician who just happens to be Jewish. When I play klezmer… ”
He didn’t get to finish the thought because Toby, his wife of more than 50 years, interrupted.
“I think that’s not true,” she said in the background. “I think you’re the embodiment of a yidl with a fiddle.”
Perlman, 72, is the subject of a new documentary, “Itzhak,” which opens on Friday, April 6 in San Francisco. An expanded release is expected in the coming weeks. The film spans his life from his birth in Israel and early struggle with polio, to his appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” to his family life and the masterful concerts he has played around the world.
While his Jewishness is not front and center, it inevitably appears. In one scene, he shares a high-spirited Shabbat meal with his children and grandchildren. (He famously never travels or performs on Friday evenings.) In another, shot in Israel, he takes director Alison Chernick on a tour of the many streets named for famous figures in Israeli and Jewish history.
“For me, what became transparent after seeing my footage, over and over again,” Chernick said in a statement for Landmark Embarcadero Theatres, “were themes of Jewish identity, Jewish history, humor, love, love for life, love between Itzhak and Toby and of course a shared love for music. These themes all emerged as unique storylines that would resonate independently.”
The film is most interesting when it shows Perlman in private moments, often in conversation with his wife. The pair met at a music camp, and after hearing him play just once, Toby went to Itzhak’s bunk and proposed to the Israeli virtuoso, then 17.
“I was hopelessly in love with him,” she says in the film. They have been married since 1967.
It’s a unique life partnership. At one point in the film, Toby points out that a note he played was out of tune.
“Nobody else is going to be honest with him,” she said. “Do I think he’s the greatest? Yes. But if he’s sharp, or I believe I see a bad habit that has crept into his playing, I’ll tell him … I’m truthful.”
Perlman hasn’t encountered much criticism of his playing over the decades. The Tel Aviv native first fell in love with his instrument at the age of 3, when he heard the legendary Jewish violinist Jascha Heifetz playing on the radio.
“It’s very interesting what makes kids who study instruments choose the instrument. It’s what speaks to you. The sound just appealed to me. I wanted to do that,” he said in the interview.
But Perlman has faced hardships: He contracted polio at 4. It was the late 1940s; Israel was in its infancy as a nation and had limited medical facilities. Many died from the disease, even in the most advanced nations. Part of his treatment involved inhaling the smoke of burning parchment on which religious sayings had been written.
Perlman survived, with paralyzed legs, and went on to reveal musical brilliance. Still, many experts saw his disability and discouraged thoughts of a music career. His huge break came at 13, when he caught the eye — or ear — of Ed Sullivan, who sent talent scouts to Israel to look for acts for his popular TV variety show.
In the documentary, Perlman admits he suspects Sullivan brought him to New York as much for the inspirational impact of his disability as for his skill. Nevertheless, he was a hit after performing on the program in 1958.
From there, the rest is history: He has performed for six decades with orchestras around the world. In 2012, he played at the Obama White House at a dinner honoring Israeli President Shimon Peres. In the film, it is a special joy to see him in concert with Billy Joel, collaborating on the orchestration of Joel’s performance. The opening credits show him entering Citi Field stadium in his wheelchair before a New York Mets–San Francisco Giants playoff game in 2016. His violin rendition of the national anthem could make the most cynical American weep.
Perlman’s love of baseball reflects his character as a man of the people, never an elitist, who apparently never forgot his humble immigrant roots nor the obstacles he conquered on his way to fame. After winning the 2016 Genesis Prize — known as the “Jewish Nobel” — he directed the $1 million in prize money toward projects that foster the inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish life, Israeli society and classical music.
The film illustrates how collaborative and generous Perlman is. While visiting a violinmaker who tunes up his Stradivarius before a tour, and when teaching students in one of his many workshops, he endearingly displays the common touch.
He is not a fan of giving interviews, though, and often lets Toby answer questions. Fortunately, she is an astute observer of the seasoned maestro.
“He doesn’t know a lot of things about himself because so much of it comes so naturally,” she says. “It’s like breathing. We don’t think about breathing, and that’s the way he plays.”
Perlman is acutely aware, however, that he has a gift that can’t be taught.
“You can teach almost everything with one exception: the magic that makes performances special. You can have two people — both great — play the same piece, and one will move you and one won’t,” he says.
According to Chernick, the film offers real-life scenes that allow audiences “to experience what makes Itzhak special.” By layering the many aspects of his intimate as well as public life, the director says, “we can see for ourselves the components and character that combine to create his ability to perform at such an exceptional level. The sound Itzhak generates comes from his heart and flows through his hands, and in this film we come to realize how extraordinary this process really is.”
J. Staff contributed to this story.