Music and Reconciliation

The Pope’s Maestro

By Sir Gilbert Levine. Forward by John Tagliabue.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. xvii + 407 pp.
Includes DVD A Thousand Years of Music and Spirit.

Gilbert Levine, an American Jewish conductor who led musical performances for Pope John Paul II, has written his personal story of how music brought about reconciliation between Jews and the Catholic Church after centuries of hostility.

The first step in the process was Levine's decision to accept an offer to become the Music Director of the Krakow Philharmonic. His mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, encouraged him to go to Poland: "You know we were in Poland for many centuries. My family and millions of Jews. Not all those years were bad." She felt that by going to Poland, her son-in-law would be showing the world that Hitler had not entirely succeeded (p. 19).

The second step was an invitation to meet Pope John Paul II in Rome in February, 1988. The Pope was the former Karol Cardinal Wojtyła, Archbishop of Krakow. Pope John Paul was a music lover who had often gone to concerts in Krakow's Philharmonic Hall. At the meeting, Levine said something bold: "I believe, Your Holiness, that it is you who can achieve the coming together of our two peoples after so many centuries of misunderstanding and of hate. I believe you were sent by God to do just that" (p. 55). Perhaps it was that statement which led to an invitation, six months later, to conduct the orchestra of RAI, the Italian television network, at the tenth anniversary Papal Concert in December. After the concert, the Pope put his arm around Levine and said, "Thank you so much for going to Krakow. And thank you for bringing Krakow to me" (p. 69).

The historic Jewish neighborhood in Krakow is called Kazimierz. Its northwestern boundary is a wide street with a park in the middle, a bit reminiscent of Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, called Ulica Dietla. My father had lived at 49 Ulica Dietla before he came to America in 1927. A short block away, on Ulica Miodowa, is the Tempel Synagogue, supposedly Reform, but with balconies upstairs for the women. My grandmother, I am told, often attended Sabbath services there, despite the fact that she was Orthodox. This all sounds surprising. I have been told that Krakow was a city where Jews with different religious and political views all got along well with each other. Even more surprising! Be that as it may, Levine discovered the empty synagogue. He writes, "I decided I would conduct a concert with my Polish orchestra in this place and let its walls resound once more with our living, breathing art" (p. 110). The synagogue needed some refurbishing, which took place. The United Jewish Appeal agreed to support a "concert of Remembrance and Reconciliation" (p. 111). Most of the musicians "had never set foot inside a synagogue," but after they began to play "they soon felt at ease making music in that sacred space" (p. 120). It turned out that a number of diplomats attended the concert: "Israel's Ambassador to Poland, Mordechai Palzur, signaling a newly warming bilateral relationship; Thomas W. Simins, the United States Ambassador to Poland; and Jan Majewski, the Polish Deputy Foreign Misnister" (pp. 120-21). This third step to reconciliation was a major one, the biggest so far.

The steps continued. On April 7, 1994, Levine conducted the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah. The Pope spoke in English "about the need to keep the memory of the Shoah alive, not just for its own sake but to ward off the newly nascent manifestations of anti-Semitism, which he said were still alive in the world." (p. 177).

Then in December of that year, Levine was invested as a Pontifical Knight-Commander of the Equestrian Order of Saint Gregory the Great. The medal was placed around his neck by Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, who had been born a Jew named Aaron Lustiger and had converted to Catholicism after having been a hidden child during World War II. The investiture elicited a letter from President Clinton: "As the first American Jew to receive a papal knighthood, you continue to serve as a bridge between people of different beliefs and backgrounds—a symbol of our common humanity. Hillary joins me in extending warm wishes for continued success" (p. 201).

One important attempt at reconciliation through music never occurred. Levine was hoping to do a series of concerts in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem. On a plane to Lod Airport, an Arab in the adjacent seat whose name we never learn said, "But I don't think you'll be able to do them in October" (p. 287). There was no explanation. Later, various church officials were cool to Levine's requests. Then on September 27, 2000, "a Palestinian security officer on a joint patrol with Israeli forces turned his firearm on his Israeli counterpart and murdered him" (p. 289). The next day—by coincidence?—Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Second Intifada began. Did the man on the plane know that it was about to happen? Did the Catholic clergy who discouraged Levine know it would? Levine never says anything one way or the other, but the sequence of events suggests that the Intifada had been planned, and that Sharon's provocative visit was a lucky break to the organizers of what became known as the al-Aqsa Intifada. Can it be?

Despite the fact that no Christian-Jewish-Muslim reconciliation took place in 2000, there was such a concert in Rome in 2004. The Pittsburgh Orchestra was conducted by Levine, and John Harbison's Motet "Abraham" was one of the pieces performed. Harbison wrote a dedication to the Pope for "fostering reconciliation among the peoples of Abraham: Jews, Christians and Muslims, and with deep gratitude to Maestro Sir Gilbert Levine, for his 15-year-long creative collaboration with His Holiness" (p. 365). The Chief Rabbi of Rome and the Imam of the Mosque of Rome attended the performance.

These many concerts, and several others, involved planning and conversations between the Pope and Levine, and led to a real friendship between them. The Pope got to know Levine's wife, mother-in-law, and children. The Knighthood awarded to Levine was a token of that friendship. Among the photographs in the book there are some of the Pope with Levine, including one with a caption beginning "His Holiness with Vera, Gabriel, David, and I [sic]." Other friendships resulted as well, most notably with Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, who was the Pope's Private Secretary, and eventually became Cardinal Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow. Cardinal Lustiger, who took part in the knighthood ceremony, was another. Lustiger considered himself an ethnic Jew despite his conversion to Catholicism. On one occasion Lustiger asked Levine whether he was a Galitsyaner, and Levine answered, "my family comes from Warsaw and I guess that would make us Litvaks" (p. 118). Since Warsaw was a major city, people moved there from many different places, and his family might indeed have been Litvaks. However, the Central Yiddish pronunciation native to Warsaw was essentially the same as that heard in Galicia, and was distinctly different from the Northeastern Yiddish pronunciation of Litvaks.

Levine's biographical writing overlaps with my own experiences. It is not surprising that a conductor who moved to Krakow would come across the synagogue that my grandmother attended or would refer to the street, Ulica Dietla, where my father lived. A different aspect of Levine's memoirs, however, reflected a part of my life that had nothing to do with Krakow. My family and I went to Baoding, China, to teach at Hebei University in 1984. When we got there, we were struck by the visible signs of pollution in the air. That's what Levine thought when he first saw Krakow: "It was incredibly gray. A pall of industrial pollution pervaded everything" (p. 4). We were also struck by the presence of donkeys and mules pulling their loads down the streets of Baoding. Similarly, Levine writes, "On a stretch of country road, trucks jostled with heavily laden horse-drawn carts" (p. 5). My family and I were surprised that there were two types of money in China at that time: renminbi and "foreign exchange certificates," which tourists and other foreigners could use to buy items in Beijing's Friendship Store, but which could not be bought with renminbi. Levine tells us that "what was truly worthwhile was only to be bought for dollars at the Pewex shops, set up by the Polish government for just that purpose." (p. 21). A major experience for my family and me is that we were stars in Baoding, a city where few foreigners were ever seen. In the case of Levine, being an American Jew living in Krakow made him famous enough for the Pope to hear about him.

In 1989, my daughter Miriam and I went back to teach in a very different Baoding. People had become politically conscious. Beijing Spring began, and on June 4, the Tiananmen Massacre took place. Beijing Spring failed in China, but the same movement for democracy succeeded in Poland. Until I read Levine's book, I had never known just how precisely these historic moments coincided: "The parliamentary election of June 4, 1989, had brought a landslide victory for Solidarity. The writing was on the wall. Lech Walesa and his comrades had won 99 percent of all the seats in the Senate and the mandated limit of one-third of the seats in the National Assembly" (p. 98). Miriam and I fled China, but Poland was on its way to becoming a free country.

Did the reconciliation have a permanent effect on the world? Certainly the 2004 concert in Rome did not lead to any sort of reconciliation between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. In the case of Pope John Paul II and the Jews, the concerts were part of a process that had begun with Pope John XXIII, who had convened the Second Vatican Council, which issued the encyclical Nostra Aetate—perhaps the first and most important attempt at reconciliation between Catholicism and the Jewish people. Now that Benedict XVI is Pope, the process seems to have stopped—temporarily, one hopes.

"Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak," said William Congreve. Chairman Mao, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Plato all feared music and banned the types of music they most feared. Does music have enough charm to end savagery for good? So far, it seems to have lost its momentum. Anti-Semitism continues; its child, anti-Zionism, is becoming more powerful every day. Israel remains the most hated nation on earth.

This article appeared in Midstream, Spring 2011.