“The more you have in your heart, the more you have to give.” Itzhak Perlman
By Nils Skudra
Last night I had the opportunity to watch Alison Chernick’s 2018 documentary Itzhak, which chronicles the life of 16-time Grammy Award-winning Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman. I chose this film as a topic for my latest review because while it is not an autism-themed film, it explores the remarkable life of a gifted musician who overcame polio and its accompanying social stigma to become a world-famous prodigy, considered by some to be the greatest violinist of this era.
The documentary opens with Mr. Perlman, now in his mid-seventies and using a wheelchair, playing the violin in his home and sharing insights about his life and musical career, before venturing to play the national anthem at a baseball game – both he and his wife Toby describe themselves as “baseball fanatics.”
Subsequent newsreel footage shows Mr. Perlman performing classical music at a concert in Israel during the 1970’s, followed by an interview in which he makes a profound observation: “The more you have in your heart, the more you have to give.” This insight is very revealing about Mr. Perlman’s outlook since he firmly believes in sharing his love of music and passing it on to others, which is further elaborated upon toward the documentary’s conclusion.
As the film follows Itzhak throughout the world, he provides the audience with innumerable doses of his sense of humor. For example, when taking a ride through Tel Aviv, he explains that the different streets are all named after prominent political and artistic figures in Israeli history, remarking that they constitute a kind of “Jewish Google” and therefore if you want to look up an Israeli subject, “you Jewgle it.”
Another example of Perlman’s humor is demonstrated during his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2015: When asked by Obama about his favorite sound, Perlman replies, “The sound of onions frying in a pan.”
This humor is not only entertaining, but it also represents an intriguing aspect of Perlman’s approach to life since many people would expect an individual with his disability to have an attitude of bitterness because of the obstacles he has faced. Instead, Perlman projects remarkable positive energy and warmth in his interactions with others and in his reflections about the journey he has taken.
The documentary subsequently delves into Mr. Perlman’s struggle with polio during his formative years. Born in Tel Aviv in 1945 to Polish-Jewish immigrants (neither of whom was musical), he contracted polio at the age of four and had to use crutches, but nonetheless displayed a unique aptitude for the violin, teaching himself how to play with a toy fiddle until he was old enough to take lessons at the Shulamit Conservatory and at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv.
Around the age of thirteen, Itzhak performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, where it was mentioned that he had survived polio, but he was overlooked by judges who were determining the selection of prodigies for further musical education in the United States. Reflecting on this experience, he relates, “They were focusing on the general rather than the specific, and the specific was ‘what I can do, not what I can’t do.’” Furthermore, Itzhak recalls that his parents always said of him, “He has no ambition,” a perception which became a driving factor in his determination to succeed as a violinist.
Perlman subsequently studied at the Juilliard School with music teacher Dorothy DeLay, who endeavored to instill more independence in him as an artist and musician. Reflecting on his studies with her, Perlman remarks, “I actually hated the way she was teaching me. I was used to teachers telling me ‘You do this,’ so when she would ask me ‘What is your concept of this music,’ I was like, ‘What do you mean by my concept of this music?!’” However, Perlman acknowledges that this proved to be a valuable learning experience for him since it not only helped him to become more independent, but he now uses this same teaching style with his own students.
It was also during this time that he met his future wife Toby, who relates that she actually asked him to marry her but had to wait until after he got over his first relationship. Since their marriage, they have had five children, including daughter Navah Perlman who followed in her father’s footsteps as a concert pianist and chamber musician.
The role of the violin in Mr. Perlman’s personal life carries profound significance for him, as he reflects, “The violin is a fantastic instrument. It is a replica of the soul.” This is a deeply moving insight since it sheds light on how violin music has served as an expression of Itzhak’s inner self, as he truly pours his soul into his music, beautifully conveying his love and passion for the genre. This is demonstrated not only by his performance of classical pieces but also by his rendition of John T. Williams’ theme from Schindler’s List, which resonates on a personal level since his parents emigrated from Poland only a few years before the Holocaust took place.
Discussing this topic with his wife, he relates how it affected his parents’ interactions with everyone: “For my mother, if someone did a good thing for you, they must have had some hidden agenda.” However, he refuses to approach life with this outlook, bringing optimism and humor and his love of music to the forefront on a daily basis.
A final note about Itzhak Perlman’s career relates to his belief in sharing the gift of music with others. He and his wife created the Perlman Music Program which provides musical education for individuals with disabilities, and Itzhak makes regular appearances to provide teaching sessions. He remarks, “Never ever miss an opportunity to teach,” which is a profound reflection of how Itzhak’s experience with polio influenced his life and career in a positive way. Not only has he persevered in the face of adversity and achieved success as a violinist, but it has motivated him to devote his energy to training other individuals who face similar challenges so that they may succeed as well. This inspirational story definitely makes Itzhak a worthwhile documentary not only for supporters of polio-related advocacy but for disability advocates of all stripes.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.