Today, the very upscale Mamilla mall that connects King David Street in Jerusalem to the entrance to the Jaffa Gate of the Old city is one of the most expensive stretches of real estate in the world. When I first came to study in Jerusalem in 1970, though, it was a depressed industrial area with a slum-like look. How Israel has changed!
When I was last in Israel, at the entrance to the mall was a bronze sculpture of a man playing his violin on a street corner or a promenade. Some of his strings are broken, but he perseveres. His violin case is open before him, and it holds the spare change that passers-by have tossed into it. It is how the man supports himself and his family.
If the $16,000 asking price had not been way beyond my budget, I would have purchased that sculpture for to me it is a magnificent symbol of one of Israel’s greatest triumphs. Between 1990 and 2000 Israel absorbed more than one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. To give perspective on what that means it was a feat akin to the United States absorbing the entire population of France!
As you can imagine, it was not easy. There were logjams in housing, job training, language training and many other necessities of starting a new life in a new country. Doctors in the FSU worked as orderlies; PhD. engineers worked as janitors; and symphony orchestra level musicians stood or sat on street corners and played with their instrument cases open, hoping for a few shekels from those who passed by.
Whenever I visited Israel during those ten years, the sculpture that caught my eye at the entrance to the Mamilla Mall was an all too familiar and all too sad real life scene. I still see the faces of these great musicians, and I still feel the sadness of their sacrifice. Back home in the Former Soviet Union they held esteemed chairs in prominent orchestras. But they sacrificed all that as did so many in other walks of life. They sacrificed their present to come home to Israel in order to give their children and grandchildren the future and with that future the freedom and opportunities, which the Jewish State would offer.
As we know, Israel triumphed and overcame those hard times! Because Israel successfully absorbed so many highly educated Soviet immigrants, her economy has boomed, and it has become one of the leading high tech nations in the world! Indeed Israel now has one of the strongest economies on the planet. So many people from visionary leaders to dedicated factory workers have shaped the Israel of which we are justly proud.
For me, the symbol of that absorption triumph and is the sculpture of an elderly man playing on with broken strings with an open violin case before him.