Early in her 2017 piano recital–cum–autobiographical monologue “Polonaise-Fantaisie: The Story of a Pianist,” Inna Faliks describes the renascent antisemitism that confronted her as a child in the Ukraine of the 1980s. Her hometown of Odessa, she remembers, was rife with the refrain: “Yids, go home to Israel — or any place that will take you!”
It was eye-opening for a young girl who at the time, largely as a consequence of Soviet restrictions on Jewish religious and cultural practices, had little sense of Judaism, Jewish history or her own place in the world of her people. “I only knew that being Jewish means that people don’t want their kids to play with me in the yard,” she recalled.
In the end, hundreds of thousands of Jews did leave the Soviet Union for places that would take them, primarily the U.S., Israel, Canada and other European nations. In Faliks’ case, that exodus included stops in Vienna, Rome, Chicago, Baltimore, New York and ultimately Los Angeles, where she now serves as head of piano performance at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.
Along the way, the child piano prodigy became a celebrated concert soloist and a genre-bending interdisciplinary artist noted for her unique blending of live music, poetry, spoken word and recorded material. Chief among those projects is “Voices,” a three-part suite by composer and violist Ljova Zhurbin, also an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, which was commissioned by Faliks with major funding from the Lowell Milken Fund for Jewish American Music at UCLA and which she debuted in March 2020 at the UCLA American Jewish Music Festival.
The triptych, heavy with personal resonance for both Faliks and Zhurbin, features recorded performances by, among others, cantor Gershon Sirota, a renowned Jewish liturgical singer who spent much of his career in Odessa and who was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against German forces in Poland in 1943. Zhurbin’s great-grandparents were executed in Odessa in 1941.
“That’s the piece that brought Jewishness to me in a very personal way,” Faliks says.
UCLA Newsroom recently spoke with Faliks about music, history and Jewish identity.
You say in one of your pieces, “I knew I was a musician before I knew I was Jewish.” What ultimately made you want to explore Jewishness through music?
It was an inevitable part of realizing the tapestry of my past, my family, who I am and how that fits into the diverse communities around me.
Meeting my husband — who had been my best friend in childhood, who immigrated to Israel at the same time I went to the U.S. and who found me again years later — helped me connect to many parts of Jewish culture that had been dormant, and to become more familiar with Middle Eastern history and the sound of the Hebrew language and Yiddish language. We are not religious, but we certainly feel ourselves to be part of Jewish culture.
Musically and personally, I am very much a communicator. And constantly searching for roots and for meaning through music is another way to communicate with the world around you.
Is there such a thing as “Jewish music?”
Yes. In addition to music written by composers who identify or identified as Jewish, there could be any number of emotional, historic or spiritual connections that can make a piece Jewish. I think of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 as a Jewish piece, regardless of the fact that the composer was not Jewish himself.
Why do you think it’s important to have programs like UCLA’s Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience?
It is absolutely imperative — crucial, especially now — to keep the overwhelmingly rich legacy of Jewish artists, musicians, performers, composers alive and growing. Music is life’s blood — and through this incredible center, Jewish identity stays alive, flourishing and multiplying in its endless variety.
You have said it is important that your students be educated about not just Jewish music but Jewish history and antisemitism. Does understanding history and anti-Jewish hatred help them understand music in a more profound way?
I think that anything which contributes to one’s humanity, one’s depth of understanding, one’s compassion and decency makes one a more profound artist, one who will communicate and deliver truth in a more immediate and sincere way. It is crucial to understand hatred, racism and antisemitism in order to be able to fight these evils. And making music with profound honesty, generosity and understanding is one of the ways.