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I close my eyes and ready myself for the opening notes of Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in C minor. I know them by heart, I know the entire piece by heart. I’ve heard it thousands of times.
But even before the bows of the cellists strike their strings, I know there is something unusual about this night. There is something different. This performance will stand out from all the others.
I smile to myself, suddenly aware of how distant I was from this world seventeen years earlier. I smile to myself, amazed at how overwhelmingly this world has become intertwined with my soul.
I had been nineteen years old and sleeping off a hangover when the call came. It was 8:45 AM on November 3, 1999. The number one song on the radio, that whole year, had been Prince’s “Party like its 1999.” It had spoken about judgment day.
That was how the year had felt to me.
In January, after a long battle with breast cancer, my mother had died. In June, my father was claimed by a heart attack that surprised no one. I’d been in college, nominally studying mathematics. But the two strikes had hit me hard and I took a leave of absence. I wanted to tackle my issues. But all I actually did was drink. I woke up every morning hung over and spent every night trying to pretend to be happy.
Just about the only thing that had brought me joy was my half-brother. Edgar was ten years older than me. My father had been married before and Edgar was the product of what I’d heard was an incredibly flawed relationship. As long as I knew him, Edgar was an extraordinary musician. When he touched his violin, he gave depth and meaning to a world that all too often seemed shallow and material. It was like he uncovered a reality that nobody else could see. That year, the world had seemed to empty around me, but Edgar’s music was able to fill it up. His music, alone, embraced me.
Unless you land with some big city philharmonic, the life of a musician is rarely static. You can’t stay in one place and expect the crowds to come to you. The life of a musician is travel. And so, every few months, I saw Edgar, his wife, and his child. And Edgar, every time, would play something for me. I loved it. We all did. Edgar’s son, Jonathan, would close his eyes and sway to the music, letting it fill him up. But, every time, Edgar would eventually stop playing. And every time, he’d leave again; he and his family would drive away to another concert in another city. And, every time, knowing it was going to happen destroyed me. Those nights, I would leave his small apartment, I would leave his music, and I would get wrecked.
Edgar and his family left that morning. I’d heard him play the night before and, true to my pattern I had drunk myself into an incredible stupor. I didn’t even know how I got home. But I did, and at 8:45 in the morning, I got the call.
Edgar and his wife had died in a car crash; a tire had blown out on their old beater of a van and they’d careened into oncoming traffic.
Jonathan, their son, had survived.
There were no other surviving relatives. There were no grandparents. There was just me: an uncle with a shattered life.
I’d managed to sober up almost instantly. The responsibility demanded it. But those early days had been tough. Jonathan had been badly injured. Jonathan was only two years old, but it was obvious that something terrible had happened to him. At first, we feared brain damage. But before long, we discovered something else, something almost as bad for a child of Edgar. As the doctors had put it, he had suffered a “transverse fracture of petrous bone” and that had led to “peripheral sensorineural hearing loss.”
A child of Edgar, the great musician, was profoundly deaf. And his deafness could not be repaired.
I wanted to drink then. I didn’t know what else to do. But I stopped myself. Or rather, the responsibility stopped me. When the boy was released from the hospital, he moved in with me. My brother had a life insurance policy, but not a huge one. I gathered the proceeds, dedicated in trust to his son, and I tried to figure out what to do.
The kid was traumatized. The kid was almost deaf. The kid had suffered incredibly. But all I could think of was him swaying to his father’s music the night before his world had been shattered. All I could think of was that somehow this child, this profoundly deaf child, was going to be a musician.
I tried to hire a music teacher. Every teacher we met was polite and understanding. But they were consistent. Every one explained that a deaf child could not be a musician. I asked them about Beethoven and they said he became deaf late in life, and there were questions about how deaf he’d actually been. No, they were quite sure, a deaf child could not be a musician.
I decided to become his teacher. I didn’t know much about classical music, but there was one piece that had spoken to me, even when Edgar hadn’t been the one playing it. It was Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in C minor. It was a cello piece. And so, I bought two cellos. One for me and one for him. And then, while he was at a special daycare for deaf children, I went to the music teachers. Bit by bit, I learned to play.
And I came home, day after day, and I tried to (using my idiot’s version of sign language) teach my deaf nephew to play the cello.
He could see me playing. But he couldn’t hear enough even to criticize my lack of talent. I got him to hold the bow and draw it across the strings. But he couldn’t tell what he was doing. He couldn’t hear the cacophony he was causing.
Once again, I looked again for teachers, but I failed to find any who were willing to take him on. They all advised me to find something more appropriate for the struggling boy.
But I saw a future. I saw a future where he could play. And I couldn’t help but keep going. Jonathan was another story. He would get mad at me. He would scream with his malformed words. He would hit me. He didn’t want to learn. He hated me. And, eventually, I was on the verge of giving up.
But then I read an article online. It described something called the Thalescope. It would scan a room in the visual range and then convert what it saw to sound. A blind person, using the Thalescope, could be given some limited version of sight. The idea was a revelation to me. Perhaps I could flip it on its head. Perhaps I could give visual reality to what Jonathan could not hear.
I began to work on the concept. I developed software that performed that basic task. I boiled down what it showed, generating standing waves that represented notes. I played for Jonathan and had him watch a screen. I saw the glimmerings of understanding.
He played then, just a discordant series of notes. But then, as I watched, he adjusted and learned and tuned himself to play single notes – pure notes on his little cello. The sound was a revelation to me. More importantly, the sight was a revelation to him.
I kept working and learning. My software improved. I superimposed the notes of sheet music. I used colors for octaves and managed to show transitions between notes on the screen. Jonathan was able to see the patterns of the waves and how they would intersect. He could see the pleasing ratios of harmonies and overtones. He could see the relationships of the notes changing over time. We were learning together. He was learning to see music and I was learning how to show it to him.
And, bit by bit, he was learning to play.
We went back to the teachers another time. They insisted, once again, that he could not play. But then he did, and they all wanted to teach him. They all wanted the honor of having taught a deaf boy to play. But something about the idea disturbed me. I didn’t want Jonathan to be a deaf boy who could play. I wanted Jonatan to a musician who could do what his father had done: bring depth and meaning to a world that seemed to lack it.
We went home, abandoning the teachers. Jonathan kept playing. But before long, though, it was clear there was nothing else I could teach him. He grew frustrated again. We had hit a wall and there was nothing I could do.
We were riding the subway, signing to one another, angrily his frustrations with music, when a young woman walked up to us. She was bright, in every respect. I know it’s clichéd, but she was like a splash of sunlight on the subway. She smiled at me and asked, gently, why a deaf child was so enthralled by music. And I told her our story. And she told me hers. Her name was Eve. Her brother had been deaf. She’d learned to sign. But she was herself a cellist. A concert cellist. She explained that she’d never had a student, but she wanted Jonathan to be her first.
I remember asking her why. I wondered to myself, was she simply another ego-seeker seeking a trophy student? But she gave me the perfect answer. She said she wanted Jonathan to be her student, “because a child who wants music this badly should never be denied.”
She took him in then. She took us both in. They would play together and I would listen. He improved, dramatically. Not just his music, but his joy. Eve and I both realized, before long, that he was not just capable. We both realized he was fundamentally talented.
He had a soul that keened for the expressions that he could not even hear.
I was making decent money by then. I was working in logistics, designing systems to enable trucking and train networks to interact efficiently. But I kept working for Jonathan. After my day job, I would go home and keep improving the tools he had for his music. I programmed a special pair of eyeglasses for him. They could show the patterns of the music on their lenses. With them, Jonathan could see what he was playing without needing a screen in front of him.
And Eve kept pushing the envelope as well. She taught him to play with others, in duets with her. She taught him to ‘hear’ others play, not just himself. I helped with that. Using directional microphones, some pretty sweet processing software and some seriously fast hardware, I managed to cast his own music over one eye and the music of others over the other eye.
Jonathan learned to play in an ensemble.
We developed a special personality for him. He pretended to have Asperger’s – just so he could avoid conversation. Such behavior wasn’t unusual for a prodigy. We wanted to hide his deafness so it wouldn’t drown out his music. In a group, he would take instruction, but he would never ask questions. He was a mystery to others. Even his dancing colored glasses were left unexplained.
One night, after a long day of practice, I put on one his father’s recordings.
I plugged it directly into the computer, it produced no sound. But Eve, Jonathan and I watched together. We watched the notes unfold. I cried, remembering what was lost. Eve comforted me. And Jonathan kept growing.
And now we are here. We are in a concert hall, filled with an expectant audience. And Eve and Jonathan, my wife and my adopted son, are about to perform Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in C minor.
They are about the perform the piece that started it all.
As the bows touch the strings of the cellos, my eyes are closed.
And as the music unfolds, I hear the depth and meaning I have been seeking since Edgar’s death.
But I hear more than that. As the music unfolds, I hear the soul of my brother. I hear his voice reaching out to me and telling me I have done what was needed.
I open my eyes and look at the stage.
Jonathan is there, swaying as he plays.
And, remarkably, his eyes are closed.
Among other things, this week’s Torah portion of Behar is about the land. It is about letting the land rest on its sabbatical. It is about paying for land based on its crops, with no discount for the risk that future crops might not be realized.
But there are reasonable objections to these ideas. If we do not harvest on the seventh year, we will starve. If there is a flood or a frost, we will overpay for land that did not yield the fullness of its crops. Between now and Yovel (Jubilee), we could die or be injured. In the real world, we discount for risk. We charge interest. We pay less for the crops expected in 10 years’ time than we do for the food we can eat now.
But imagine we live in the real world. But our reality is something else and there is a fundamental concept here. It is a concept core to Judaism: The world is full of risk and loss, but if we ignore it – if we resist it – then we can create another reality.
The laws that surround our treatment of the timeless land (unlike the human-defined cities) reinforce this.
We can, through emunah (belief) and the force of our wills, create another reality.
Lev. 25:20 And if ye shall say: ‘What shall we eat the seventh year? behold, we may not sow, nor gather in our increase’; 21 then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years.
26:3 If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them; 4 then I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.