Cello Heaven

Here is a story I read back in the early spring on Treppenwitz.

The rental cello… an Israeli story

[Some stories just have to be shared… this is one of those.]

My company recently finished a long and complex project in which we had partnered with a German company. This project required several engineers and specialists from the German company to spend extended periods of time here in Israel.

On one such scheduled visit that was to last three weeks, one of the German engineers decided he wanted to bring his 13-year-old daughter along with him. It would be a mini-vacation for her, and he figured she would keep him company in this strange desert city of Beer Sheva.

However, as this German engineer was preparing for the trip, a problem arose. It seems his daughter is an accomplished cellist and was scheduled to perform at a festival two weeks after they returned to Europe… so she would need to practice daily while she was in Israel. The problem was that her instrument was extremely valuable and their insurance company wouldn’t cover it in a ‘war zone’.

The German engineer contacted my coworker and explained the situation… and asked if there was anywhere in Beer Sheva to rent a cello for three weeks.

My coworker did some asking around and quickly discovered that finding a rental cello in Beer Sheva would be only slightly less likely than finding a lake… so he expanded his search. After umpteen phone calls to friends and associates he finally received a lead… the phone number of a place in Jerusalem that repairs violins.

He called the repair shop and spoke with a pleasant individual who owned and managed the place. The problem was presented and the question asked: ‘Did he have a cello that could be rented to the young visiting musician for three weeks?’

Without missing a beat, the repair shop owner replied that it shouldn’t be a problem, and gave directions to his shop. My coworker promptly relayed the news to Germany via email and the plans for the father-and-daughter trip went forward.

Fast-forward a few weeks.

The day the German engineer and his daughter arrived in Israel my coworker and his family hosted the two visitors at their home for dinner. Over the meal it was agreed that they would drive to the Jerusalem workshop the next day to pick up the rental cello.

The hour-and-a-half drive to Israel’s capitol went smoothly and by late morning they were all standing in the ‘violin repair shop’ chatting with the owner… a mid-thirty-ish Israeli with a ponytail.

In truth the place was far more than a violin repair shop. It was a workshop filled with violins, violas, cellos and double basses. Repair was only a tiny portion of what went on in this shop as the owner was the third or fourth generation in his family who had been crafting and repairing classical string instruments by hand.

Every wall, nook and cranny was filled with stringed instruments of every type and vintage…the smell of wood and lacquer were heavy in the air… wood shavings littered the floor… and several work tables were strewn with components of unfinished instruments.

The owner of the shop brought my coworker and the two German guests tea and asked how he could be of assistance. My coworker reminded him of their phone conversation and all attention turned to the young woman in need of a practice cello.

The owner sized her up with his eyes and grabbed a cello that had been standing in an open case near his workbench. “Try this one to see if it’s a fit” he said in a mishmash of English and German, handing her the instrument.

The young German girl sat down and began to expertly tune the cello and rosin the offered bow. After making a small adjustment to the height of the bottom peg she began to play one of the Bach Cello Suites. The instrument sang beautifully in her hands and the owner looked on appreciatively… clearly surprised at the young musician’s skill.

After a few minutes he stopped her and had her try two other cellos… one which was slightly larger and finally a third that seemed older than the first two.

When she began to play the third cello the room was suddenly filled to overflowing with the sound coming from the instrument. The first two cellos had sounded nice to my coworker’s untrained ears, but the third seemed to make everything in the room vibrate and resonate with each note played.

The girl stopped abruptly and stared in disbelief at the instrument. A few rushed words in German were translated to English by the engineer and then into Hebrew by my coworker for the shop owner:

“What kind of cello is this? I’ve never heard or felt music like this in all my years of playing!”

The owner of the shop beamed with pride and replied that it was nearly 300 years old and was one of his favorites. In fact, it was normally kept locked away and the only reason it was out on the shop floor was that he liked to make sure all the instruments were inspected and played regularly. He explained that he had just finished making a small adjustment to the placement of the bridge under the strings and was preparing to put it away when they had arrived.

In a very business-like manner the owner said with finality that this was the instrument she must use while she was visiting Israel. The father hesitated a bit and began to politely protest at the idea of taking responsibility for such an old and valuable instrument… and clearly he was worried about what kind of rental fee such an instrument would command.

The owner waved off the objections and told him to take the instrument for his daughter. “After all”, he reasoned, “she has a festival to perform in, so she needs to practice on an instrument worthy of her skills.”

All attempts by the German engineer to fix a price for the rental were waved off by the owner. The only thing he would say was “We can talk about money when you come back in three weeks”.

Being unused to the informality of Israeli business practices, the German really wanted to sign something or at least leave his credit card information, but the shop owner waved all this off and simply ushered the group – including the beaming young cellist now holding the instrument in its case – to the door and wished them a good day.

The three week visit passed quickly and on the day before they were scheduled to leave, the German engineer asked my coworker if he would take them to Jerusalem again and act as translator/adviser when they returned the cello.

When the three of them walked into the Jerusalem workshop together the owner greeted them like family and asked how the practicing had gone. The young cellist gushed in a combination of German and English over how much she had enjoyed playing the instrument. Again – as when she had first complimented the cello – the owner of the shop beamed like a proud father.

After a little small talk over tea, the German engineer whispered nervously to my coworker that it was really time to set the price for the rental and be on their way. My coworker dutifully asked the shop owner several different ways in Hebrew about the cost of the cello rental… but after each attempt, the conversation wandered off track leaving the question unanswered.

Finally, in frustration, my coworker turned to the German engineer and whispered “I can’t seem to get him to set a price. I don’t know if it’s because hasn’t decided on a price or if he is simply waiting for us to suggest one. What do you think?”

The German shrugged helplessly having no idea what to make of these crazy Israeli business arrangements… much less the present impasse.

Suddenly, the shop owner stood and picked up the cello case that had been sitting next to one of the chairs like an extra member of the group. He opened the case and took the instrument out. But instead of looking it over for scratches or damage as one would expect him to do, he handed it to the young woman and said “Play something… let me hear what you’ve been practicing for the festival.”

The young cellist moved her chair back a bit to give herself some room and quickly checked the tuning. Once settled, she closed her eyes and launched into a passionate classical piece (my coworker was so taken by the beauty of the playing that he forgot to ask what piece it was as he had after their first visit to the shop).

Her playing was spectacular! My coworker described the sound of the soaring high notes making his face feel warm and the sonorous low tones making his chest ache (in a good way). When she was finished they all applauded loudly and the young German girl smiled shyly… clearly pleased with her performance.

As she put the venerable instrument back in its case, the German engineer made one last attempt to raise the issue of the rental price with the shop owner. The owner smiled and said “But your daughter just paid the rental fee! There is nothing more to talk about… have a good trip back to Germany.”

The German engineer couldn’t believe his ears but he didn’t have a chance to even thank the shop owner as the pony-tailed craftsman had turned away and was busy addressing the young musician:

“I’m so glad that this old cello had someone worthy to play it. I hope you’ll come back to Israel and visit… the cello will be waiting. Good luck with your festival!”

Most of the car ride back to Beer Sheva was spent discussing this odd transaction. The German engineer asked over and over if this kind of thing was typical in Israel… and my coworker tried to explain that while he wasn’t terribly surprised by the outcome, there really was no such thing as ‘typical’ in this country.

In other words, if he was asking if Israeli’s always conducted business this way… the answer was ‘no’. But if he was asking if most Israelis were nice and more than a little bit sentimental… the answer was ‘yes’. The Engineer and his daughter just shook their heads and smiled.

Only in Israel can a priceless cello be rented for a song.

Check out this beautiful handmade 5 string cello by Warren Ellison, a luthier in Jericho, Vermont. (And yes, Fausta, there’s some cute violas da gambas as well.)


  1. Fausta said,

    June 1, 2007 at 6:45 am

    Viola de gamba music is the sexiest music!


  2. August 19, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    […] cello posts: Sad Day for Cellists Cello Heaven Mucha Love Honest […]


  3. m kuperstock said,

    February 20, 2011 at 4:21 am

    The article is “dated” – but so is my violin, which I have brough to Israel for fixing. Where is this shop?


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