Itzhak Perlman — Musician, Maestro, Advocate

Image: Itzhak Perlman seated with microphone on stage giving laureate address with a deep blue background.

Tune in to your local classical radio station anywhere in North America, and it won’t take long for someone to mention the name Itzhak Perlman. It is rare for a musician in the classical genre to become the rock star that Perlman has become. Known for the tremendous emotion he exudes through each string he caresses, he has taken lead in dominating the title ‘virtuoso of the violin’. He has shared his journey on stage with such transparency, whether you watch him live or through his plethora of performances available online, Perlman lets you in.

As long as Perlman has been performing, he has also been educating and fighting for inclusivity for those with disabilities. Contracting polio as a young boy, he has discovered first hand the obstacles that come with navigating the world with a limited mobility, as well as the “hostility” he feels when requesting basic necessities.

From humble beginnings, Perlman knows the impact of giving. He recently was presented with the Genesis Prize, which honors individuals who excel within their professional fields, and who make significant contributions to humanity, as well as inspire through their dedication to Jewish values. With this accolade comes a one million dollar reward that, which Perlman has decided to use towards greater integration of people with disabilities into society. During his acceptance speech, Perlman highlights being able to give back:, “The physical prize is wonderful, but what I will cherish even more is the opportunity you have given me to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others.” During our interview we laughed a bit, and, he shared some personal tips and tricks of travel; then, we bid Perlman adieu as he sped off to mold the skills of young talented musicians.

Lia Martirosyan: Before we begin, I want to let you know that some of the questions we probably know the answers to, we just want to share it with everyone else …

Chet Cooper: Thanks for saying that Lia. So what instrument do you play? (laughter)

Perlman: That’s very funny!

Cooper: Thank you.

Perlman: (laughs) Believe me, I’ve had interviews where the person says, “So when did you start and why? What about your parents?” I say to them, “Please, have you heard of the word Google?” Anyway, that’s funny. That’s a good story. I like it. I’m going to repeat that.

Cooper: Do you know the name Millard Fuller? He started Habitat for Humanity. Are you familiar with the organization?

Perlman: Not really.

Cooper: Then I won’t get into the story. You’ve seen pictures of former President Jimmy Carter, building homes with—

Perlman: Yes, yes I have.

Cooper: That’s Habitat for Humanity.

Perlman: I see. I do know a little bit about it.

Cooper: And they’re all over the world. I created a partnership with Millard to build homes for families with disabilities, and we access volunteers with disabilities to build the homes. It’s a great program.

Perlman: That sounds great!

Cooper: Millard and I had talked many times over the phone. Finally, I got to Georgia and meet him at his office. I knew what he looked like. He’s a six-foot-four white male. I entered his office, and there was a five two African American woman. I went up and hugged her, and said, “Millard!” He stood looking down at us, a bit confused and said,“I’m Millard!?” (laughter) So he’s shared that story often. Did I just go off track? (laughter)

Martirosyan: Had you heard of the Genesis Prize prior to receiving the award?

Perlman: Actually not. When I first received the call that I was being considered, I was led to understand that it was a very prestigious and fairly new award that was granted, that it was a fairly new one, that there were only two previous laureates who have received it. So for me, that’s pretty new. They call this award the Jewish Nobel, but it’s a little different than that, because this award, which entails a big money award of about a million dollars, which a lot of people misunderstand. They think that I’m getting a million dollars and isn’t that great? But with this award, you have to re-gift it to causes that have something to do with the betterment of the world, which in Hebrew is called tikkun olam. So the award is an opportunity to be a generous person towards particular causes that may be close to you. That’s basically what it is.

Cooper: So it’s good news, bad news?

Itzhak Perlman seated on scooter, holding award surrounded by dignitaries.
Laureate Itzhak Perlman receives his award with Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstien, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,
Chairman & CEO of Genesis Prize Stan Polovets and Chairman of the Selection Committee, and Helen Mirren host.

Perlman: No, there’s no bad news there! (laughs) It’s just a different kind of an award. I’m being sort of a conduit. The money goes to me, and then it goes to other people. In this particular case, I feel like saying, “Forget about the money, just let me figure out who it should go to.” That’s what we’ve been doing. It’s not like awards where you sit down and somebody bestows an award on you, and you say, “Thank you so very much.” No. After this “thank you very, very much,” then the work starts, where you have to figure out whom you want to give it to. There are so many wonderful causes in the world, and let’s face it, when you talk about a million bucks, if you think about it very carefully, it’s not that much money, if you start to divide it. You have to figure out a philosophy as to whom you want to give it to.

Cooper: I think that’s one of the hardest decisions. I was joking about the bad news, but I guess if there’s anything that’s difficult, it’s how you do that. Are people stepping up to donate more? Is that part of it?

Perlman: That’s true. There is a gentleman who’s going to double the prize. I think that would be at least two million, which is good. And then there’s something else about matching. Believe me, it’s very complicated. I’m now in the process of finding out exactly what’s going on. It’s not like, I get some money, and then I give it away. It’s a little complicated, and of course it has to do with the causes. Everybody has his or her own favorite cause. I mentioned the two causes that I felt were close to the life that I lead. One of them has to do, obviously, with music, because that’s what I do. Let me tell you, in case you didn’t find out, I’m a professional musician, and I play the violin. (laughter) And the other cause, of course, has to do with people with disabilities, which is because that’s what I am. I’m a polio survivor. That’s been part of my life as well. So I told the Genesis Prize committee I would be interested in giving help to organizations that have to do with those two causes. But now the work starts.

Cooper: Speaking about work, how often are you working?

Perlman: I have not been working during the summertime because my wife started this wonderful music program called the Perlman Music Program. It’s a music program for talented string players. This is the program’s 22nd summer. So during the summer I teach. That’s what I do. This summer I have one or two concerts, and the rest of the time I devote to teaching. When summer’s over, I start to perform again. Between conducting and playing concerts, recitals, etc., that’s what my musical life is all about.

Cooper: These are students who are out of school during the summer, and that’s when they’re able to come?

Perlman: It’s like a summer camp, if you want to simplify it. The thing is, this particular program is different than other summer programs because it also takes place during the wintertime and throughout the year with different kinds of events. For example, we have a winter residency in Florida. We do the same program that we do in the summer except that it’s slightly shorter. The summer program entails approximately nine weeks, but the one in Florida during the winter is two to three weeks. And then we have all sorts of events that give our students opportunities to perform, to get together and play chamber music and so on. It’s basically an allaround kind of program. They sing in chorus, they do chamber music, they do solo work and so on. It’s very, very exciting. I’m very much involved in that when I don’t play concerts and when I don’t conduct. I have that triple kind of activity in my musical life.

Perlman pauses on his scooter to talk with one of many walk/ride participant in an orange shirt, who is holding a white cane.

Martirosyan: Sounds like a wondertful opportunity. Where in Florida does this happen?

Perlman: In Sarasota. That’s where we have our winter program.

Cooper: I think we’re heading down to Clearwater. The the people who are inviting us to come down are talking to us about visiting just to highlight, if you will, their accessibility—

Perlman: Oh, that’s good. Listen, if you show off accessibility, that means, “Let’s go on. This is very good. Let’s continue to think along the same lines.” Because sometimes when you show off, it’s very good, but then it has to continue. You cannot be happy with just, “We’ve done that,” because there’s always more work to be done.

Cooper: Did you know there’s a movement showing a business benefit to accessiblity? Last year we attended the first international conference, in Montreal, on accessible tourism.

Perlman: I find that extremely important, because I just recently came from Europe, for example, which was in many, many ways a nightmare to take the train. People right now have all sorts of new rules and regulations about not being able to take—I go on an electric scooter, and so if you try to get on the train with in an electric scooter, you have all sorts of problems. Which car can house the scooter? And so on. It’s not always very, very easy to do. I’m assuming that tourism probably includes accessible rooms in hotels?

Cooper: It should include everything, yes. That’s what the meetings were about.

Perlman: Which is also a huge challenge. But it’s very important. Considering that you’ve got the Americans with Disabilities Act, which I always think of as a good start, but it’s something that can be quite personal as far as—what do you need? You have a bunch of codes and regulations, but that’s not enough. You need to think about it. Codes are almost something that prevents you from thinking. “Oh, yeah, I’m following the codes and everything is fine.” Which is, of course, untrue. A lot of society tries to put people with disabilities into one cube, and when you think about it, many, many people have different types of disabilities, and you cannot put a code that applies towards everyone—generally, they can be guidelines, but in the long run, interior designers and architects need more education on the subject. That’s what’s missing.

Cooper: There is activity in all of this. Our nonprofit is a non-governmental organization (NGO) to the UN Convention for the Human Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), and this year we held a side panel on assistive technologies. Matter of fact, two of the companies we invited to be on our panel are from Israel. OrCam, helps people with low vision navigate daily activities with a wearable camera you attach to your glasses; and Sesame Enable, the first smartphone you can control with your eyes. If you have no capability of touching the device, you can play a game solely with eye movement.

Perlman: I’ve heard of that.

Cooper: CRPD is just what you’re saying. There are regulations that all these countries around the world are signing, most every country has signed off, but now they’re looking at implementation. How do you fulfill what you said you were going to do? That is the difficult part. We’re working with different NGOs around the world to help shift the attitudes, because they’re only going to do the bare minimum to meet the law.

Perlman: Exactly. It’s very frustrating. Sometimes you go into places, and you say, “This was thoughtless. No thought at all.” I go into a hotel room, and they said, “This room is ADA-accessible.” And then you open the closet and the coatrack is so low that if you hang your jacket, it basically stays crumbled on the floor. What brilliant designer thought of that? (laughter) Or, the other way around, where you go in and the coatrack is so high that even if you stand up, you’d need to be six foot six in order to reach it.

Martirosyan: It would be nice if there were a design to easily adjust the height.

Perlman: It’s the little things like that, where you think, “This is just nothing. We have bigger problems.” That’s not really true, because it’s an indication of, as you said, trying to get away with—well, not trying to get away, but following some sort of a code. And once I’ve followed the code, I’m safe. But that has to do with the DNA of designers, of architects and so on. It’s always—I find it interesting, when they ask, “How would you know that everything is accessible?” I say, “Well, just imagine yourself in a wheelchair. Go through the building. If there’s a place you can’t go in, it’s not accessible.” It’s very simple. If you have a step more than four or five inches high, forget about it. You can’t do that. These are little things, but these are things that confront people trying to live their lives in a “normal” way. And I find personally that when I go to a place where I can’t get in, I feel hostility from whatever it is, a hotel, a shop, a market, a street corner where there are no curb cuts, because somebody forgot to put them in, and where I have to go two blocks to the corner to do it. A lot of the excuses are, “Well, this is an old building.” That’s my favorite one. “This is an old building.” It’s as though 50 years ago, people with disabilities did not exist. As if the disabled are a new problem. It has always been a problem.

Cooper: I haven’t heard the word “hostility” used like that. I like that. I use the word “ignorance.”

Perlman: It’s like somebody saying to me, “Hey, you’re not welcome here. That’s why we have this step.” (laughter)

Cooper: Lia and I have traveled a lot on different assignments, literally around the world. Even in DC, we were going to meet with Senator Harkin when he was still a Senator, and as you probably know, he was one of the authors of the ADA. We go to lunch in Georgetown, and almost every restaurant has a step in front. And they say to us, “We’re grandfathered in.” And I say, “You don’t have a ramp to pull out? A simple ramp will fix this problem.” And they say, “We don’t have people with disabilities come in here.” I say, “Have you thought maybe it’s the step that’s causing people not to come in?”

Perlman: It’s really unbelievable. For $75 or a $100, you can get a little ramp you can put out and fold up. People don’t think about that.

Cooper: Lia and I have traveled a lot of assignments, literally around the world as well. Even in DC, we’re going to meet with Senator Harkin. As you probably know, he was one of the authors of the ADA. We go to lunch in Georgetown and almost every restaurant has a step in front. They say to us, “We’re grandfathered in.” And I say, “You don’t have a ramp to pull out? A simple ramp will fix this problem.” And they say, “We don’t have people with disabilities come in here.” I say, “Have you thought maybe it’s the step that’s causing people not to come in?”

Perlman: Oh! I’ll never forget one time several years ago, not recently, I remember in Washington at the international airport, there was a public bathroom where you opened a narrow door, a very, very narrow door. At that time, I was still walking with crutches. I went in there, and inside there was an accessible bathroom, but there was no way to get inside because the door was too narrow. They said, “What is that?” Like you said before, it’s a question of codes. You have to follow the codes, but what about the door?

Perlman speaking into a microphone with intent listeners to his rear.

Cooper: We always educate as we go. We’ll call the manager and say, “Think of yourself in a wheelchair and try to open that door.” Their eyes are like, “Oh, wow!” And what’s surprising is that it seems like they haven’t heard about it before.

Perlman: Yes, yes. I don’t know if it’s ever happened to you, but it’s one of my funniest and saddest experiences, when you go into a hotel, and they have an accessible walk-in shower. So you go in and open the curtain, and there is a bench off to the side of the shower. However, the shower is rectangular. On one side there’s a bench, but the faucets are across from you. (laughter) So if you sit on the bench, you cannot reach the faucets. Has that ever happened to you? And I say to them, “Can you please sit in the shower? Unless you’re a seven-foot basketball player with very long arms, you cannot reach the faucets. Who designed that?” I always find that funny and sad at the same time. Of course, I carry a shower chair with me. I have a suitcase where I have my own shower chair with me just in case something like this happens.

Martirosyan: That’s a good idea. I hadn’t heard anybody do that before.

Perlman: Absolutely. They’re not heavy. The ones I like are made out of plastic. I don’t know if you know about Carex? I love that company. You can look them up on Google. They have a lot of fairly lightweight but very sturdy chairs. That’s what I do, especially if I go to Europe, where I know that some of them don’t even have it, and if they do it’s kind of weird. So it’s always nice to go with your own. And you know that it’ll fit, and you know what to expect. That’s what I recommend.

Cooper: It would be so funny if you had a little recording and you pushed the button right now, and there’s a little jingle about Carex with music in the background.

Perlman: (laughs) Funny. ...
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