Famous for powerful, almost acrobatic stage performances that leave him soaked in sweat, the Bell across the table from me in the hushed tearoom is subdued. In the slack v-neck of his shirt, a reddish bruise shows against the white of his clavicle. I wonder at first what might leave such a mark but then it hits me: I’m staring at the imprint of hundreds of hours of humanity’s most glorious violin music. The pink spot marks a callous—and an artistry—that began forming when Bell was just four years old and strung rubber bands on the drawers of a dresser to echo a piano’s melodies, leading his parents to place a one-eighth-size violin in his hands.
Though few fans realize it, Bell is Jewish, with roots on his mother’s side in Israel and the Belarusian city of Minsk. But unlike most Jewish violinists of his stature, who hail either from the former Soviet Union or from Israel, he grew up outside Bloomington in an 1830s log house on a 20-acre spread home to chickens and rabbits as well.
Rather than tilling the soil, his father plowed the fields of human sexuality and psychotherapy at the Kinsey Institute, part of nearby Indiana University, authoring books about homosexuality and other topics. (At least one transsexual, Bell recalls, toiled among the family’s hired hands.) His mother, who still lives on the “farm,” played and taught piano over the years, and Alan and Shirley gave classical music a central role in their home.
The Bells arranged music lessons for all three of their children. But they took note when Josh, at age five, could read and play through serious works by composers like Niccolò Paganini. “It was not just the talent that was apparent,” Shirley explains. “There was something about the ease with which things were learned.”
Three years later, Bell became a student of Mimi Zweig, a young teacher just beginning her career in Bloomington. Zweig, who now teaches violin pedagogy at the university, was impressed with her new pupil but hadn’t yet marked him for greatness when she took him and another student, both nine, to play for her own former teacher. She recalls that her teacher “loved the girl,” who is now a lawyer, “but wasn’t so sure about Josh.” (“I’m sure Josh doesn’t even know this,” Zweig adds with a laugh.)