“Judge me by what I do, but don’t judge me by what I can’t do,” says Itzhak Perlman, world-class violinist and star of documentary “Itzhak.”
Listening to Perlman play the violin, viewers might think he could do anything. He studied at the Juilliard School, the world’s premier performing arts conservatory, and later returned there in 2003 to teach. Former President Barack Obama awarded Perlman the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
The documentary chronicles the life of Perlman poignantly. Watching his performances with legendary musicians like Yo-Yo Ma in front of powerhouse political and cultural figures like Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, something beyond Perlman’s breathtaking musical ability stands out: He sits when he performs.
After contracting polio at age four, Perlman’s leg muscles were permanently damaged. Sixty-eight years later, he still requires crutches or a mobility scooter to get around. Such a disability complicates most activities, but Perlman faced another hurdle: Upon moving to the United States from his native Israel, he could not speak English.
At first, Perlman could not even communicate with his violin teacher. Yet, he continued to persevere. Admission to Juilliard is awarded to only the most skilled musicians in the world, and even those closest to Perlman — and most aware of his musical abilities — feared that as a disabled immigrant he would be unable to attend.
Yet, Perlman’s spirit is as rare as his musical capacity. Charming and intelligent, Perlman is cheery throughout the documentary. One scene in particular demonstrates Perlman’s unflappable spirit: Attempting to maneuver over two-foot high banks of snow filling the already crowded streets of New York City, Perlman was patient as his team cleared the snow for his mobility scooter to pass. While his wife, Toby Perlman, feared his scooter would be no match for the heavy snow, Perlman remained calm and level-headed.
Undoubtedly central to Perlman’s musical and personal success is his wife and his relationship with her. The two grew up together, having known each other since they were young teenagers. Also, a classically-trained violinist, Toby Perlman is Itzhak’s biggest fan and toughest critic.
“I know I’m very critical of his playing. Everybody who knows us knows that. But to me when I hear that sound––when I hear that playing, it’s like — it’s breathing. It’s being alive,” she said in the film.
Both identify closely with their Jewish heritage; their pride in their identity is inspiring. Perlman combines his love of heritage with his love of the violin, playing a 1714 Stradivarius previously played by fellow Jewish virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin.
“Music gives us permission to dream, and out of our dreams sometimes something important happens. It gives us permission to feel — to be human. It’s what separates us,” said Toby Perlman in the film.
Perlman is, undoubtedly, a dreamer; he makes each of his dreams a reality. “Itzhak” is a moving documentary that explores the life of an incredible man. One does not need to be a music fan to enjoy an inspirational film.