miri ben-ari - AP - March 31 2011
Violinist Miri Ben-Ari performs during a mentoring event to celebrate Women's History Month hosted by first lady Michelle Obama at the White House in Washington, March 30, 2011. Photo by AP
Text size
related tags

Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari was invited by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, along with other 24 'remarkable' women, to meetings with Washington D.C. students, and to perform at the White House at an event dedicated to Women’s History Month.

So how was the day in Washington with Michelle Obama?

"It was amazing. Michelle Obama has chosen a group of women to serve as role models for students, stunning women. We divided into groups, I went to a school with Hilary Swank and Lisa Leslie, Olympic Gold medalist and former WNBA professional basketball player, and actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.

"When we spoke with students, we told them about ourselves, and we saw that we have so much in common, each of us went through hardships to fulfill our dreams. The focus was not on our achievements, but the way to get there, because sometimes watching successful people on TV, people think that it happened overnight, but every artist I worked with tore their soul up until they reached their goals.

"It is especially difficult for women. I thought at the beginning of the day how easy it is to recall the names of men who made a difference in American history and became role models, and it took me several minutes to put together a similar list of women. As a musician, maybe it's easier, because for me, there are infinite number of role models, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday and Diana Ross and classical musicians.

"But when you look at the big picture - I told Michelle Obama I wish there was a celebration of women’s history at the Middle East, and perhaps the situation there would look different. But if you're talking about the place of women in the world, in comparison to men - I wish also that it wouldn’t be a necessity to dedicate a special month for women.”

What was your impression of Michelle Obama?

"Her way up was not easy, either. Until she came to live in the White House, she never actually went to visit the White House. She also had mentors who helped her and instructed her during her childhood, and that's why she initiated this special program, to provide role models for girls.

"This was the first time I met Michelle Obama. She is just lovely - warm, cordial, just Michelle - without all the protocols. It was fun to talk to her. She is very fond of music, she loves my music, and she chose my song "Symphony of Brotherhood,” it was her special request”.

After the Grammy award and the big performance, where does it stand on the scale of achievements?

"Throughout my career, thoughout all the huge performances, my parents would say: 'If you are healthy and enjoy yourself, we are happy.' The career is less important to them. But this time my mother called me and said she was very excited. I received many letters – an email from Zoe Saldana, star of 'Avatar,' who wished me luck, John Legend and others.

"It was a dream come true. I started out at small clubs where you could hardly play without hitting the ceiling and could hardly provide a clear sound. I was ready to play with anyone, just to learn and improve. Who does not dream to be honored to perform at the White House, to play a song that the president's wife chose?

"It’s an honor, but as sure as I know myself, in two weeks' time I will be on to the next thing. There are many concerts, the schedule is so packed, I didn’t have time to eat yet today. One of the next performances will be the anthem at an NBA game, and we should be filming the first video from the new record.”

How are you received by hip-hop fans? You look and talk different than them, your instrument is hardly commonplace in that scene.

"Despite the fact that the way was full of hardship, people always accepted me. If I'm on stage with confidence, and I have something to say, it doesn’t matter that I am a woman with a violin, making black music. I am playing from the heart, nothing else matters.

"I'm doing something very different, but from the heart. That’s why people accept me. When I first performed at the Apollo club, that gave me my big breakthrough. The crowd took one look at me and wanted to throw tomatoes at me, I felt. But after two minutes, they wanted to hug me.

"The Grammy gave legitimacy to my career like nothing else had before. Performing at he White House is another achievement. You can say that I did it and it was fun, and it certainly makes you crave for more.”

In March you also received the American Society for Yad Vashem Young Leadership Associates’ Remembrance Award, recognizing your work to promote awareness of the Holocaust among young Americans.

"And it was an event that moved me as much as the White House event. My grandparents fled Poland before their entire family was murdered. They kept quiet all their lives and told me the story only when I was 12, and it changed my life.

"I took this story and made it into some sort of purpose to my life, something much bigger than me as an artist. I believed I could make a change and bring some recognition to this issue that needs lot of help, if half of the teenagers who finish high school in America do not know what the Holocaust was.

"How can people understand us as Jews, our history -- how can we remember, if we won’t talk about it? I took this goal upon myself, and I work very hard with my association 'Gedenk' (Remember), to fight ignorance."

After your video with Subliminal, some people asked, what does the Holocaust have to do with hip-hop?

"But I’ve got enormous support. When I started my campaign, so many people helped me - Donna Summer, Wyclef Jean, Jon Voight, John Legend, Russell Simmons, and many others. And TV networks donated two million dollars worth of broadcast time to air the very touching videos that we made.”

You have lived for many years in the U.S. and some websites call you 'an Israeli-born artist'. Are you still an Israeli?

"I am also an American citizen, but I was born and raised in Israel, I am an Israeli because I'm Israeli, there is no other interpretation. It's very important to represent Israel and who we are, because sometimes what happens in Israel is distorted by the media.

"There are many young Jews in America that I'd like to see representing Israel more actively. Sometimes I talk to them and ask, 'Why won’t you do something? Our image is very important, and after all, we are okay. One doesn’t have to work too hard – it’s easy to represent Israel, and we should make it fun."