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Exclusive: An English pianist uncovers his Jewish side

The Tchaikovsky winner Peter Donohoe, visiting Israel for the first time, was struck by the peace that descends with the Sabbath – even in a bustling, secular city like Tel Aviv. It reminded him of his strict Anglican childhood and – acutely – of the Jewish side of his family that lived on the other side of Manchester, where south Mancunians never went. Peter explores his Jewish roots in a diary kept exclusively for Slipped Disc.

You can read the first two parts here and here.

Sabbath in Israel

by Peter Donohoe

So today is Shabbat. I am of course familiar with the tradition, as some of my friends observe it very strictly. In addition to which my mother’s mother and her brothers and sisters were apparently Jewish, although I barely remember them. I do remember that mention of Jewishness in the family provoked many questions from the ever-inquisitive young kid from South Manchester (into which they probably felt you needed a passport to cross over from the more traditionally Jewish North.)


I was related to some very religious people in my extended family – Catholics on my father’s side, Jews on my mother’s (in both cases many moved from North Manchester to the Leeds area many decades ago – I never knew why, and the vast majority have now passed) as well as the Anglican set. All of them were quite fervent, and a few good old family feuds resulted from the differences.


I was brought up quite strictly as a Protestant and very much appreciate the moral code, the discipline, the music, the architectural heritage and many other things that most religions have given us – it is just that I cannot for the life of me reconcile the belief systems behind any religion with what I know of the real world. So I guess I am a Humanist or at least an Agnostic.


I was a choirboy in one local church for a couple of years before entering Chetham’s at the age of eleven. I then joined Manchester Cathedral choir in which I remained until the age of fourteen and left for the usual reasons. Thus, I was exposed to many many religious sermons, which I listened to very carefully with an air of fervent superiority over those other choirboys around me who took the sermon as an opportunity to get up to all manner of things in the choir stalls that would take up a whole chapter to detail.


All of a sudden, it seems to me in retrospect, I found the whole thing very questionable, and I have been an Agnostic ever since. However, what I am so grateful for is the personal training that being part of that ethos gave me. I am particularly grateful to the Cathedral for having sent me on weekend courses that were run in a most Victorian manner by the Royal School of Church Music – something I will never forget; talk about hard work and merciless musical discipline – compare that with the exposure British young people are now given to music at school and you will die laughing – or crying. I hated them at the time, but it is for sure where I developed my musical memory and my ear.

Anyway, I am rambling. The main point here is that the traditional Anglican day of rest on Sunday was to my family very important – it probably was to most families at that time. That it was done on a religious basis is not really the point. The way it rejuvenated everyone in preparation for the next week, giving them the opportunity to be circumspect – and not have to go weekend shopping, go to Disneyland, take City-breaks or to continue with everyday life in some other hideous way or other – these weekly interludes comprised, for me, and still would, a great institution. That was the day my parents would take to see my aunts and uncles and grandparents. When Sunday trading was made possible, I think British society lost something very fundamental – and actually you only have to go to one of the major cities in Switzerland and spend Saturday and Sunday there, just to see what a wonderful breath of fresh air the day of rest actually is. Of course we continue to give concerts on Sundays, but that makes us part of that group of enablers that should make it possible for society in general to have a special day.


Shabbat is obviously a stricter one, one that is observed by more people, and with more fervency than I am used to. The details of what Jewish families actually do during Shabbat vary a lot, and the diverse traditions make fascinating reading, particularly with regard to the meanings behind them and the long-term effects on the families’ futures. As many of the people reading this are probably Jewish, I guess these words will seem a bit childlike and elementary, so please forgive me – I type more quickly than I think sometimes, and it comes out more extended than it needs to be. I am told that here in Tel Aviv it is much more diluted than in the rest of the country – particularly in Jerusalem – as it is the commercial centre and biggest city. Even here, however, a comparative air of peace and stillness has descended that convinces me even more of the value of it.


Peace is, quite naturally, what motivates most of these people, given the appalling history that goes back centuries, as well as what is going on now in the Middle East. ‘Shalom’ after all means ‘Peace’ – it seems an awful lot more meaningful than ‘Hello’ – a word that was invented for use on the telephone – to say nothing of ‘all right mate?’ (with the ‘l’s syllabised) or ‘what’s happening Man?’ or ‘’iyer’.


On another subject, my first impressions were that most people were so much friendlier and welcoming than in the majority of countries I have visited – almost like the country is a huge version of a kibbutz [maybe in fact that is exactly where the feeling comes from]. However, I have begun to notice that they are sometimes not quite so friendly towards each other. Two separate members of the orchestra and two taxi drivers have all told me that Israel is a terrible country in which everyone is so much in a hurry, rude and impatient. These people have obviously not been to Paris or New York. It is certainly not my experience so far that Israel is at all like that, and I said so, but it was to no avail. One of the taxi drivers was telling me how he had ambitions to come to Manchester to watch his favourite team Man United. I am sure that if he does that he will have a whale of a time soaking up the patience and politeness of the other fans, if he thinks Israelis are a bit impatient.


What always struck me from my experience of Russia and the Russians is that they had a tendency to be rude and unwelcoming at first sight, but that most of them then became the warmest possible friends after you got to know them and vice versa: witness the way the Aeroflot crew treated the passengers in the Soviet time, or the impossibly cantankerous and inefficient women who manned (womanned – personned?) the state money exchanges, and compare that to the incredible friends one makes of Russians once you get past that barrier. As many of the people in Israel are Russian and Soviet exiles (I heard that the Israel Symphony Orchestra is 80% Russian), I wonder how that works, given how welcoming everyone seemed to be at first. I hope it isn’t the Soviet Union in reverse here, and that I will not find that after a week they will have had enough of me, yelling ‘good riddance!’ and will be celebrating in the streets when I am gone – but I don’t think so.

And I encountered my first couple of misery-gutses yesterday. One was on security where I was practising, who sharply contrasted with the extremely nice man in the same job the day before. The other was a waitress in a restaurant the conductor and I went to at lunchtime to book for dinner that evening. We decided to have a tea and a cola whilst we were there. The waitress’s response to the suggestion that anyone should drink tea when the weather was so hot was deplorable, but I took it in good humour at first. She made some more facetious remarks when she brought it, to which I said, ‘You do want us to come back this evening, do you?’ She came back with, ‘I don’t know if I do’. Thus far I was quite happy to put it down to a bit of excessive misguided cheekiness. However, she then tried to force a tip of 29 shekels for two teas (I had a second), a coke and an espresso. The conductor got heavy with her then – he was very kindly picking up the tab – and the episode ended rather tensely.


We decided to stick it to her and had dinner somewhere else – a move that may have bitten me because, although the food seemed exquisite, I woke up today with mild food poisoning; I am hoping that the tempo of the Gershwin Concerto with be unaffected later this evening, and in any case I now feel much better, but it was very nasty earlier on. It appears that the conductor’s stomach is thankfully OK, so at least the performances of Daphnis and Chloe and Pictures at an Exhibition will not be under pressure.


Talking of which, the rehearsals have been very good indeed, and I am looking forward very much to the concerts. The Gershwin Concerto is a difficult work for the orchestra, not least because it is not played much, but it is going very well.


We are planning a trip to Jerusalem Monday, so I am sure there will be much to write about after then.

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  1. Thank you for this nice piece of intimate story. Peter Donohoe is a fine pianist and man. I hope he will soon discover that “Salam” in Arabic also means peace and that one fifth of Israel’s population are Palestinians, christians and muslims.’

    • If you look at my main picture, Baruch, you will see that the background features both Salaam and Shalom in English, translated into their respective languages. Jewish and Muslim Woolf Institute fellow-students to my left were photographed in the lobby of, appropriately, the Olive Tree Hotel, in the Arab quarter of East Jerusalem. It specialises in receiving inter-faith groups of all sorts, though we were doing our own thing, and my own faith is apparently much along the lines of PD’s.

  2. Dear Peter,

    Thank you very much for taking time to write these pieces – rest assured they’re really appreciated. Guest artists like you offer a privileged insight into the societies they visit, without the inevitable baggage of a journalist. Working closely with colleagues abroad, especially in places with especially difficult circumstances, such as Bosnia and Sri Lanka, has been one of the most rewarding I’ve had the opportunity to do.

    Do keep writing and looking forward to more – seriousness and humour both very welcome, and all the best for the Gershwin.

    Best wishes,
    James R.

  3. If you cilck on the photo of a Jaffa alleyway on my Facebook, the third to its right in the top row is of the very scene at the very hour you describe, PD.

    A charming piece, which provokes a single rhetorical riposte: why would anyone in the UK want to mention Burnley?

  4. Thank you for these wonderful journal entries. They shine with humanity and attention to detail, qualities which I suppose should not surprise us, coming from an artist. I would like to hear more of your visit to the supermarket, taxi rides, and the quirks of Israelis. Leave the geo-political analysis to the legions of pundits and think tank scholars out there.

  5. Thank you Peter, I hadn’t noticed!

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