Under Bell’s ownership, the “Gibson” soon acquired a new name: He refers to it as the “ex-Huberman.” The symbolism of his possessing and playing Huberman’s instrument is not lost on Bell. The ranks of violin virtuosi were once dominated by Jews such as Stern, Yehudi Mehuhin, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh and Fritz Kreisler. Yet, in recent decades, the Jewish presence has dwindled to a few great names. Bell is one; others include Itzhak Perlman, 61, Pinchas Zukerman, 59, and Gil Shaham, who is four years younger than Bell, all of them born in Israel. Of current and upcoming players from other backgrounds, German Anne-Sophie Mutter and American Hilary Hahn are leading lights, but Korean-American Sarah Chang and Japanese-born Midori exemplify the growing dominance of Asian players and conservatories.
Bell, like others in the field, can’t help but notice the decline of Jewish musical prowess. But, he says, there’s no point lamenting the loss of some sort of “Jewish gene for music.” Bell, Stern and Zweig all attribute the change to a loosening of cultural constraints that prevailed in the Europe of the past two centuries. Shortly before his death at age 85 in 1995, Bell’s teacher, Josef Gingold, recalled for Town & Country how restrictions on Jews gave rise to early Russian prodigies: “Any Jew who was caught after six p.m. by the tsar’s police and didn’t have a laissez-passer or a document indicating that he was a student of Leopold Auer’s at the [St. Petersburg] conservatory was arrested. As a result, every mother stuck a violin under the chin of her child the minute the little chin could hold the instrument. It was every parent’s dream to have a child in the conservatory, because it was a passport to the free world.”
In Israel, where Bell has performed three times with the national Philharmonic— including two tours in the past two years—this heightened respect for the classical arts persists, he finds. “There’s an appreciation for music” among Israeli audiences, he says, adding that touring there has given him a chance to get to know his Israeli first cousins. “I feel proud to play these concerts on Huberman’s violin, because he’s a legend there. To be the American violinist playing on his violin is kind of cool.”
While the Israel Philharmonic routinely performs with non-Jewish artists, Bell ponders the orchestra’s recent surge of interest in him. “I didn’t really get invited there for many years and I think that, somewhere along the way, they discovered I was one of them,” he admits, with a little laugh. “Now I get invited all the time.”