A journey dotted with miracles

Story and Photograph by Paula Levin

Caption: LevinWachtel: Canadian pianist Gershon Wachtel, who recently visited South Africa.

Introducing Toronto-based piano virtuoso, Gershon Wachtel to a South African audience, Helen Heldenmuth of Sajact (South African Jewish Arts and Culture Trust), who brought him out, pointed out that all that we had left of previous generations was the work of their artists.

Wachtel went on to play a series of medleys that took his audience on a trip of nostalgia, evoking the “nigunim” of Chasidic masters, shtetl life and the prayers and pain of the Jewish people.

Interspersed with his musical performance, Wachtel entertained the audience with his life experiences, triumphant and tragic, both related without pride or bitterness, but with a remarkable sense of humour. This sense of humour expressed itself in several of the pieces he played, with his clever use of timing and choice of music.

Wachtel's performance was well received and masterful in its variations - richly layered melodies and unique arrangement. At 54 Wachtel has many accolades to his name, not least of which is raising 12 children. He was selected as the accompanist for gymnastics for the Canadian Olympic team in 1978 and 1980 and most recently played his version of the Canadian national anthem to a standing ovation at parliament.

When Wachtel first walked up to the microphone, heads craned to look over his shoulder as to who might be the star of the evening. Wachtel was, after all, dressed in a black hat and a long black kapota (coat).

Holding up his bowtie, he remarked how easy it was to presume things about him from his dress, and how we often made a judgement call on someone merely from their external appearance.

As he removed his kapota, and replaced it with a bowtie and the more traditional black coat and tails, he told his audience to remember that we all had more in common than we thought. It set the tone for an evening of introspection and pause, coaxed by Wachtel to spend more time praying and building a personal relationship with G-d.

Wachtel described a journey to Orthodox Judaism which is dotted with small miracles and humorous anecdote. He once called up a rabbi to ask what tefillin were. The rabbi invited him to his house on Shabbat for a demonstration. Knowing very little but that driving on the Sabbath was forbidden he asked the rabbi what he should do. “Just come, its fine,” the rabbi replied.

And thus, Wachtel says, he became one of the very few Jews in the world to ever put tefillin on for the first time on Shabbat.

He described his spiritual journey in detail, from his aversion to beards, to walking into Chabad House and asking a rabbi to teach him the entire Torah, to quitting a Friday night gig only to have the bar burn to the ground the very next Friday night.

Ten years ago, Wachtel vowed he would never play again, this in the week after his four-year-old son, Pinchas tragically drowned.

Wachtel told the audience not to feel sorry for him, and related how he reached the point where he knew with absolute certainty that he would not survive the pain.

“I told my wife, I can't live. And I really meant it. But I am alive.” The message he brought was one of hope and acceptance and the power of the heart to heal.

Music brought people to a higher state, said Wachtel, and true to his word, his performance uplifted hearts and souls.