The courtyard of the late 19th century Sergei Building is an oasis of tranquility in the midst of downtown Jerusalem. Tonight the two-story stone walls surrounding fragrant greenery and an array of casually displayed sculptures reverberate with the sound of a talented octet of classical musicians—the Pearls of Music Ensemble.
The concert is one of a series of free events under the rubric of the annual two-week Israel Festival. In addition to the regular ticketed performances that fill the city's concert halls with musicians, dancers and actors from all over the world, some of Jerusalem's more unique venues play host to free events every night.
Was it by chance that Israel Festival planners scheduled the Russian-speaking immigrant players of Pearls of Music to play at the Sergei Courtyard? If so, the black-clad musicians seem thoroughly at home in the stately setting of the building named after Prince Sergei Romanov, who visited Jerusalem in 1889.
In a day that started for me at a press briefing on the Forty Years of War, where Natan Sharansky, amongst others, discussed the ramifications of the Six Day War on the modern world, the significance of the influence of Mother Russia on contemporary Israel is quite striking.
Sharansky views the Six Day War in terms of the beginning of the fall of the Soviet empire. In his view, the 1967 war brought with it the sobering realization for the Soviets that they would not dominate the Middle East, as well as the emboldening of Jewish national identity amongst Soviet Jews who would begin to agitate to leave the Soviet Union creating a movement that undermined the very notion of the idyllic worker's paradise and caused the foundations of Soviet society to crumble.
Sharansky explained in passing, how the compulsion of Soviet Jews to excel in their professional lives was an expression of their identity in a society where nearly all of them were completely disconnected from knowing what it meant to be a Jew in any other way.
Today, more than one million Jews from Russian-speaking countries live in Israel. Their presence has changed the face of Israeli society in many spheres—they're the brains behind our bio-tech and hi-tech industry; hospitals and clinics are full of Russian-speaking doctors and technicians; Israel would have few world class sports figures or sports trainers without the Russian speakers and our arts scene is filled with musicians, artists and actors trained in the academies of Moscow and St Petersburg.
Back at the Sergei Courtyard the strains of Bach and Mozart waft over the appreciative audience seated in the area that once housed the stables for the upper-class Russian pilgrims who lodged in the building. There are a few remaining buildings scattered through the city erected by various European empires in the waning colonial era, designed to accommodate Christian pilgrims and shore up the prestige of the regimes back home. The Russians were merely the most prolific of the builders. Just in back of the elegant Sergei structure whose grand entryway features an elegant turret and crenellated parapets, sits another building designed and erected by 19th century Russians--the prison known simply as the Russian Compound, where Arab terrorists, Jerusalem thieves and political demonstrators all pass their first interrogation.
After a pleasing series of classical pieces, the ensemble leader introduces Dr. Alexander Rosenberg, a forty-something accordionist who could be mistaken for a boxer. Rosenberg joins with the string players in an astonishingly versatile selection of Brazilian and French numbers, each painstakingly introduced in heavily accented Hebrew.
As Rosenberg takes in the applause, an audience member yells out in Hebrew, "Play some Russian tunes." Without missing a beat, the middle-aged blonde lead violinist shoots back: "In Russia…"
Introducing the next piece, the ensemble leader announces, "Now we'll play some nice Russian music." They launch into Scott Joplin's Ragtime.
In the end, with smiles on their lips, they can't resist playing some classic Russian music. Prince Sergei would have been proud.