Classical music unites in Israel

Classical music unites in Israel

Nabeel Abboud Ashkar joins Jews and Arabs in Polyphony

Nabeel Abboud Ashkar (Yossi Zwecker)
Nabeel Abboud Ashkar (Yossi Zwecker)

Last Friday morning, six Israeli musicians walked blearily out of a passenger van and into Robin and Rabbi Cliff Kulwin’s house in Montclair.

They’d just gotten in on a red-eye from Los Angeles, where they’d been since Monday morning; they’d flown there from Ben Gurion. They’d spent most of their few days in California performing.

That’s many hours in the air. So much music. So many time zones to adjust to, with so little time to do the adjusting.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that most of them barely stayed awake long enough to eat the bagels and lox and cheese and fruits and vegetables and desserts that beckoned them. Soon five of them — three students in their late teens, two young teachers — excused themselves before heading off for a few hours of rest.

But one of them stayed to tell his story.

That was Nabeel Abboud Ashkar, the founder of Polyphony.

Mr. Abboud Ashkar, a thin, dark-eyed, intense 46-year-old, tells the story of how his family’s love for classical music grew into an organization that values rigor and excellence in the music it teaches and makes, and has nurtured those values to become an organization that also, inherently and by now necessarily, demands and prizes collaboration, partnership, respect, understanding, and hope for a shared future between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

Wow. That seems like a huge leap, from music to hoping “to bridge the divide between Arab and Jewish communities in Israel through music and to serve as a worldwide model for cooperation based on cultural exchange, dialogue and partnership,” as Polyphony’s website,, puts it.

But it was a logical, perhaps necessary, possibly inevitable way for it to grow.

Mr. Abboud Askhar’s story starts in his hometown, Nazareth — which, not coincidentally, is Polyphony’s home base too.

“I was born in a home with two parents who were very passionate about classical music, which was very unusual then,” he said.

The Galilee Chamber Orchestra is at the Liturgical Festival in Nazareth; the festival is a Polyphony project. (Sarit Uziely)

His father, Duaibis Abboud Ashkar, “was one of the first Arab students at the Technion,” the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, Nabeel said. “He was studying engineering, and he took a class about the history of music there. And something happened. He connected with this music, and he became very passionate about it.

“And my mother, Maha, was probably even more inherently musical.” She had a career — perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, “for many years she was a teacher of deaf children.

“We grew up listening to classical music. We didn’t have the typical culture around us at home. We listened to hardly any popular music.”

Like a significant minority of Arab families in Nazareth — Jesus’s childhood home — the Abboud Ashkars are Christian, not Muslim.

Nabeel Abboud Ashkar is one of two sons. His older brother, Saleem, is a pianist “and was a child prodigy,” he said. “At the age of 9 or 10, it was clear that piano, and music, was going to be his life.”

Saleem Abboud Ashkar now is, among other things, an assistant professor at Brown University; he tours extensively and has an extremely impressive list of accomplishments.

“Our mother dedicated her life to my brother and me,” Nabeel said. “My brother would practice eight hours a day. Ten hours a day. And my mother was always sitting next to him. Every lesson we had to go to, my mother would be sitting there. It was an insane commitment.”

The result was that Nabeel had choices to make.

“My friends thought that I was weird,” he said. “But growing up, that was one of the challenges I had, where I had to make a decision. I could either stop what I was doing to fit in, and be more and more like everyone else, or I could do what I loved.

“So I was very much out of place, growing up, in Nazareth.”

When he was a child, Nabeel took music lessons in Nazareth — he played violin — “but at some point I started having them in Haifa.” Eventually he was able to take the bus there himself. “When I finished high school, I couldn’t wait to leave Nazareth,” he said. “I didn’t fit in. I had so much hope that I would feel more at home in Tel Aviv. That I would have more in common with people there.

Conservatory students perform at a concert hall in Nazareth.

“So I went to Tel Aviv University. I moved there when I was 18. I did one year of music, and the second year I started studying physics as well.”

So far so good.

“Then the second intifada started, and the atmosphere changed,” Mr. Abboud-Ashkar said.

“I couldn’t rent an apartment. There would be an apartment listed, and I’d call, and they’d hear my name — and they’d say no.

“We don’t have any vacant apartments.”

It worked out for him. “I had two close friends at the music academy. They were Jewish, they rented the apartment, we lived together for five years, and we had a very beautiful friendship.

“It wasn’t an issue for me, friendship between Arabs and Jews,” he said.

Mr. Abboud Ashkar had a double major at college — physics and music.

He was a serious student — something he came to naturally. “I would call my father and tell him that I got a 90 on a test, and he’d ask, ‘Why not 100?’

“My father retired early, and he went back to university to study history and philosophy. So I’d call home and say to my mother, ‘I got a 90!’ And she’d say, ‘That’s nice. Your father got a 99.’”

Luckily, he added, he and his father were not at the same university.

These are the musicians who were at the Kulwins’ house. From top left, Coral Canellis (Lutz Edelhoff), Mark Karlinski (Dovile Sermokas. From bottom left, Yaali Mamerud, Botrus Saleh (Anat Nazarathy) Dana Ileimi (AnatNazarathy)

Mr. Abboud Ashkar picked a double major.

“Initially, physics was a stop on the way to becoming an engineer,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up music, but my passion was engineering.”

He decided to focus on physics rather than engineering as an undergraduate because it is the purer science, he said. And then he wanted to be an electrical engineer. “But I didn’t want to give up music, so I told myself that I would do both. After I became an engineer, then I would be able to go back and reach a higher level in music.”

Ah, the fabled science/music connection. Is it true? Mr. Abboud Ashkar made short shrift of that notion.

“People like to romanticize the idea that music and science are connected, but I’m not sure that it’s real,” he said. “Einstein played the violin. That was important — although I don’t know how good he was — but there are very few other cases that show a strong connection.

“On a basic level, there is one,” he continued. “When you are 6 years old, if you are good at math, you can see patterns in math and in music, and you have the kind of logical mind that you will need for music. But that is at the very basic level, where common logic applies.

“After that, it becomes much more detailed and different.” The two areas split from each other, he said.

Still, there were times when he had fun with the connection between science and music. “We were studying about waves and vibrations,” he said. “I brought my violin to the lecture. The professor was writing equations, and explaining them, and I played those equations on the violin.” It was a collaborative effort, he said, so this really was less a working out of romantic theories than an early example of working together toward a common end.

After he graduated from Tel Aviv University with his double major, Mr. Abboud Askhar moved to Germany. “I decided to do just music,” he said. Why? “Because I was a better physicist than I was a musician,” he said. “I felt that I should confront the challenges I had in music, learning a new piece, breaking it down to its elements, mastering each element, and putting them back together. Maintaining the unity of the piece and seeing the bigger picture.

“I felt that if I could learn to do that process better, I would be able to be a better version of myself. I was able to do that in physics — I could take a problem, break it down, and put it back together. I wanted to be a better person.

“It’s a process. Subjectively, I can say that it worked.”

Nabeel’s brother, Saleem Abboud Ashkar, conducts the Galilee Chamber Orchestra, a project of Polyphony.

When he left Israel for Germany, “I said that I would never go back. I wasn’t happy in Nazareth, I wasn’t happy in Tel Aviv. I was ready to start establishing a life somewhere else.”

Mr. Abboud Ashkar did well in Germany. Among other credits, he became a member of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a group founded by the legendary pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who lives in Berlin, and Edward Said, the Palestinian-American academic who taught literature at Columbia.

“After the concert, I was talking to Daniel Barenboim about how much potential there was in Nazareth,” Mr. Abboud Ashkar said. “My parents were active in trying to help children by giving them serious financial support.” In that conversation, “one thing led to another, and a week later I got a phone call from his assistant saying that he wanted a proposal for a conservatory in Nazareth by the next morning.”

(Point of vocabulary — in Israel, Mr. Abboud Ashkar said, a conservatory is a music school for children and teenagers, from kindergarten through high-school graduation.)

“I had never thought about my doing such a thing. I thought that it should happen, and I thought I could help it happen — but I never thought about writing a proposal for it.

“But I did it.

“I had never had to worry about anything like that before. About budgets. I always had a talent for getting other people to support me. I had several scholarships. I had never written a proposal in my life.”

Needless to say, he had never gone to business school, or even as much as flirted with the idea of auditing a course there. And there were all those plans, pushed way into the future, to return to engineering.

Still, “I sat in front of my laptop for hours. I started at 7:30 in the evening, and I finished at 6:30 in the morning.”

What did it say? “I started by explaining why it” — a school teaching classical music — “is important and why it was important then and why I believe it would work. I created a budget — it turned out to be completely wrong.

“I focused on the idea of quality, about bringing classical music to Nazareth, about changing the perception that Arab culture and classical music do not go together.

The Galilee Chamber Orchestra, in partnership with the Herzliya municipality, presents a musical program for children.

“I sent the proposal, and a week later I got a phone call from his assistant. He was in Chicago, and he said ‘Maestro Barenboim wants to talk to you,’ and the whole room started spinning.

“I knew that this would be a life-changing conversation.

“So I sat down to take the call, and he said, ‘Nabeel, I read your proposal. You have my support — if you go back and do it yourself.’

“I had been in Germany for four years. I had laid the foundation for a life there. And the second he said that without even thinking about it, I said, ‘Oh yes, of course I will do it.’

“And I hung up the phone” — there, in Montclair, Mr. Abboud Ashkar made a phone-hanging-up motion — and I said to myself ‘What did I just do?’

“Within two weeks I gave up my apartment, went on a tour for a few weeks that already had been planned, and then moved back to Nazareth.”

When he got back home and founded the organization that later became Polyphony, “I had never worked for anyone. I had never taught anything. It was the first time for everything for me. I was young and arrogant. Looking back at it now, from today, I would never assume that I could do something the way I did back then.

“But I was always honest with myself and with others, and with my students,” he added. I have super-talented students, and they would play as well as I could. I was never too shy to say that I didn’t know if I didn’t know the answer to a question. And I would reach out to teachers I trust and invite them to teach. That’s how I learned to be a good teacher.”

He rarely plays violin anymore, Mr. Abboud Ashkar said. He doesn’t have the time to rehearse and he has no patience with good-enough anything. “I tell my students that it is not okay to make mistakes and it is not okay to mess up,” he said.

Mr. Abboud Ashkan now lives in Nazareth with his wife, Lillian, who, like her husband, is from that city, and who now is finishing a doctorate in education in Germany. The couple has two young children.

The school, originally called the Barenboim-Said Conservatory, opened in 2006, with 25 students and three teachers. “It was very important to me that teachers come from Tel Aviv, because that’s where the best teachers were, and we wanted the best teachers.

Schoolkids listen as musicians from the Galilee Chamber Orchestra offer a program called “Explaining Music.”

Because of its emphasis on excellence, the school got very good very fast, Mr. Abboud Ashkar said. “Within three years, Arab children from Nazareth started wining prizes in Tel Aviv. By 2012, two students from Nazareth, 15 and 16 years old, competed at the Paul Ben Haim competition — a major competition in Israel — and they tied for first place. That was a defining moment for us, and that encouraged us to think beyond just bringing classical music to Arabs in Israel.

“It is a good thing that that was our initial goal, because Polyphony was built in stages, and each stage was important for its success today. It was important that it grew out of the Arab community.”

The next stage, the stage that they were ready to reach for next, came after those successes. “When they happened, we realized how powerful classical music and excellence are in breaking long-existing cultural barriers and the segregation between the Arab and Jewish communities,” he said. “We realized how music could be a common ground where communities could come together and create partnerships.”

In 2012 the Polyphony Foundation was created.

“We created core programs,” Mr. Abboud Ashkar said. “The first is music appreciation and education in kindergarten through sixth-grade schools. The idea is to bring the curriculum to Arab and Jewish schools and expose children systematically, at an early age, to different cultures, and to open their minds and hearts.

“In this program, we provide the content, the curriculum, we train the teachers, and the teachers work with the students throughout the year. It culminates in concerts that we provide in the schools.

“Before covid, it reached 10,000 students a year. Now, it has resumed on a smaller scale — and of course it’s difficult to maintain now, with the war going on.”

The second program is the conservatory itself; then there is the Music and Society Seminar — a two-year program for talented 15- to 18-year-olds — and the Youth Orchestra and the Polyphony Quartet. Finally, there is the Galilee Chamber Orchestra, a professional group, made up equally of Arabs and Jews, that plays not only around the country but around the world. That group made its Carnegie Hall debut in 2022.

Its many partners include governmental agencies, schools, the Jerusalem Music Academy, and the Israeli Opera.

Over the years, Polyphony’s mission has grown from teaching classical music as an end in itself to using the music to bridge the divides between Arab and Jewish communities.

October 7 did not break that bridge. If anything, it might have reinforced it.

Conservatory students perform at last year’s end-of-year concert at a hall in Nazareth.

“Throughout the years, we have been creating community, working with Arabs and Jewish people who believed in the values of a shared society that is based on equality, respect, and partnership,” Mr. Abboud Ashkar said. “Music brings us together, and it also serves a larger purpose.

“October 7 shocked us to our core, and it created a severe case of confusion, fear, anger, and hate. The challenge was not to give up the values that we believe in, but to keep them relevant in our lives. So we knew that it was important to put the programs back on track as soon as possible.

“It was remarkable to see how all our families, our partners, our teachers, our students, their families — everyone was committed to that. To maintain our values, and to fight for them.

“So we were able to resume teaching at the conservatory fairly soon, initially online and then in person, despite the safety issues and security risks. Safety was a big concern, but the teachers were committed to it. This brought everyone much closer.

“We reached out to various evacuated communities” — people who had to leave their homes near Gaza or in the north, within range of Hezbollah’s rockets — “and provided them with concerts. So you have Arab and Jewish ensembles going to areas we had never been before. Like Kibbutz Migdal, near Tiberius, which had evacuated from the Gaza envelope. We found ourselves playing concerts for 4- and 5-year-olds from the religious communities. We were going to Netanya to perform for schools we had worked with in Sderot, who were staying there.

“Our partners’ commitment for continuing this was very encouraging.

“We had a festival planned for December, and we faced a very tough question. Do we do a festival in these circumstances? Should we? We ended up doing a reduced version of what we had planned, and it was fully attended. People came from Tel Aviv, from all parts of the country, to Nazareth to be part of that festival.”

Given what he knows about cooperation, partnership, alienation, inclusion, culture, art, and life, what does Mr. Abboud Ashkar think will happen in Israel?

“I think that there are very powerful and strong forces working today in all parts of Israel that want to escalate and polarize,” he said. “They lack any empathy and consideration of the other. I think that these forces are very strong. I don’t want to say that it will be impossible, but I think that it will be very challenging to stop them.

“So what we are trying to do, within this reality, is to maintain small islands of sanity, where people are not intoxicated with hate and fear. Places where people can come together, have empathy toward each other, feel each other’s pain, and try to understand each other.

“I don’t think that everyone who is part of the Polyphony family agrees with each other on everything. In fact, I’m sure they don’t. But most of them understand that there is no other way. There is no way forward without engaging in a conversation, and trying to understand the fears and concerns and worries of the other, and to take them into consideration.

Students play at an outdoor recital.

“It is difficult for me to imagine how people from any side could feel the pain strongly when someone from their side is hurt, but feel absolutely nothing of the pain on the other side. I think that is a very sad part of the human experience, and a very dangerous place to be.

“But I am hopeful. I believe in people’s good will, and I believe that there are enough good people who are willing to do a lot to help each other. I hope that eventually, through leadership changes and other changes, there will be more voices calling not for war, but for an understanding of how to resolve issues in the future without war.”

“I met Nabeel about 10 years ago, through a mutual friend,” Rabbi Kulwin, who retired as head of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston about five years ago, said. “Initially, I was intrigued because he combined two things that are particularly important to me.

“One is my love of classical music.

“The first floor of my house is dominated by a piano — we got it when we first moved into this house, in 1990 — that is my major retirement obsession.”

His sister, Linda Kulwin, who lives in Haifa, is a professional oboist, he added. Music runs deep in his family. “And Israel also is a huge part of life, and in particular what we might call efforts toward coexistence in Israel. So it was exciting to meet someone who combined my interests.

“Nabeel and I really hit it off on a personal level, too. So Temple B’nai Abraham sponsored a concert by Polyphony at the JCC in 2018, and I have been involved in the organization in a number of ways.”

So has his wife, Robin Kulwin, who traveled with the group last week.

Rabbi Kulwin is struck by how Polyphony’s mission grew. “The coexistence aspect is a felicitous byproduct of its core mission, to be a serious institution of musical education,” he said. “Fulfilling that mission involved bringing Jews and Arabs together, which is a good thing.

“It was not like ‘Let’s get some Jews and Arabs together to connect with each other.’ It’s connecting in a common task. What is so beautiful about this is that whatever differences may result by combining Jews and Arabs are not rendered irrelevant but overshadowed by the significance of playing music together.

“The up-and-coming muscians who work with him aren’t there because they want to be part of something cool,” Rabbi Kulwin concluded. “They’re there because it is an opportunity for them to learn and play in musically meaningful ways.”

Something interesting about the young musicians who were at the Kulwins’ house last week? Maybe if they had not been too tired to talk — barely awake enough to chew — it would have been possible to hear differences in their accents, because each is either a native Hebrew or native Arabic speaker.

But as it was, when all there was to go by was how they looked, dressed, and interacted with each other — with great comfort and fondness — it was impossible to tell which of them were Jewish and which were Arab.

There is a beyond-music lesson in that.

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