Israeli Orchestras Humming With Talented Russian Immigrants


Sitting in tiny chairs or cross-legged on the floor, dozens of kindergartners listened with rapt attention as guitarist Kobi Fieman filled the room with the soft, melodious sounds of a Spanish ballad.

As if to break the spell, percussionist Josef Mushaiev launched into “La Cucaracha,” “Tico-Tico” and other Latin American melodies. The youngsters clapped and swayed with the music.

During a break, the musicians introduced the instruments. Telling the kids to close their eyes, Mushaiev slowly waved a Brazilian instrument made of a wooden tube filled with beans.

“What do you hear?” he asked.


“It sounds like rain,” said 4-year-old Dvir Peretz. Some children looked up as if expecting the first drops.

Fieman and Mushaiev are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Along with scores of compatriots, they form the backbone of a new program that brings music to preschoolers in Israel’s development towns, which have become a byword for neglect, unemployment and discontent.

The kindergarten program is one of many areas in which Russian musicians and music teachers--who arrived as part of a wave of 800,000 immigrants over the last decade--have transformed the musical life of their new homeland.

As a result, the number of professional orchestras has swelled from four to 11, and innumerable smaller ensembles and choirs have been created. Israeli music academies, universities and high schools today have a choice of the finest teachers.


The immigration began with a trickle in the early 1970s when the Soviet government first allowed some Jews to leave. It swelled to a flood two decades later when all restrictions were lifted. Among the newcomers were 12,000 musicians and music teachers.

“We’ll all have to go to concerts at least three times a week to provide work for them,” quipped the late Yizhak Modai, who was finance minister at the time.

The most talented found work in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, with the Israel Philharmonic or one of the other major orchestras. Rudolph Barshai, founder of the prestigious Moscow Chamber Orchestra, became conductor of the Israel Chamber Orchestra.

In older orchestras, Russian immigrants account for 35% of the players, while in newer ones that figure is more than 90%. The chorus of the New Israeli Opera is predominantly Russian, as is the opera’s 86-piece orchestra.


Russian immigrants also fill the symphony orchestras of the two music academies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “Without them I just wouldn’t have an orchestra,” said conductor Aharon Harlap.

However, many could not find work in the big cities and had to settle in the outlying areas. Mushaiev, the percussionist, moved from Rishon Lezion, a Tel Aviv suburb, to Sderot, a development town of 20,000 in the Negev Desert.

“I was working in a restaurant in Rishon Lezion, chopping up vegetables for salads, but I just couldn’t afford an apartment in that area, so I came south,” said Mushaiev, who is originally from Tashkent in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.

The first town to benefit from the influx was Beersheba, capital of the Negev, where a 25-piece chamber orchestra, the Sinfonietta, was formed. Later it was increased to 40 players and has acquired a national and even international reputation.


Further south, in the industrial town of Dimona, home to Israel’s nuclear reactor, Russian immigrants put together the 20-piece chamber group, the Camerata. The city can afford to pay them only a nominal salary, and most of the players have other jobs. The lucky ones teach music. Others work in the factories.

“Twice or three times a week they dress up and come for a performance or a rehearsal,” said Yossi Artman, the ensemble’s conductor. “It restores their self-respect. It reminds them of who they are.”

The kindergarten program, aimed at children from low-income families, offers another outlet for the musicians.

The youngsters are carefully prepared for each concert. They often dress in white shirts, with paper bow ties of a uniform color they have chosen.


“I play them a tape with the music they are going to hear at the next concert,” said music teacher Marina Guttman, from Baku, Azerbaijan. “I show them instruments and let them touch them. I talk to them about the music, trying to fire their imagination.”

Luva Yunger, a cellist, performs together with a pianist and violinist. “When I played a solo, the Swan from Saint-Saens’ ‘Carnival of the Animals,’ the kids were moving their arms in a sinuous way like a swan,” she said.

Hava Rabinowich, teacher at the Dvora Kindergarten in Kiryat Gat, said, “Before these musicians came, some of the kids had no idea what a concert was.”

Whether in small classrooms or the concert halls of the big cities, the Russians have made their mark, said Motte Schmidt, a leading Israeli violinist and an advisor to the government on absorbing immigrant musicians.


“Go to the most Godforsaken backwater, and there, in some basement, you will find a trio or a string quartet,” he said. “That is the difference the Russian immigrants have made.”