Firebird: The Musical Life and Times of Rebecca Burstein-Arber by Nora Jean and Michael H. Levin


Firebird seats readers beside an 87-year-old raconteur sharing the sweep, humor and passion of her remarkable life with her niece Nora Jean Levin and Jean’s husband Michael, who traveled 6000 miles to record that tale in marathon sessions forty years ago. Rebecca Burstein-Arber’s eyewitness account of events that shaped the 20th century — and music traditions that span generations — is enriched by contemporaneous timelines, photos, concert reviews, correspondence, interviews with her far-flung circle, highlights of her performance career, and a ‘who’s who’ of the many luminaries whose paths she crossed.
    Born in Tsarist Odessa to a bassoonist father performing under Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Rebecca soloes at age 16 with Leipzig’s famed Gewandhaus Orchestra under  conductor Arthur Nikisch, flees Imperial Germany in the war-torn winter of 1915, captures the Petrograd Conservatory’s top performance prize amid the Russian Revolutions, then escapes Soviet Russia in 1922. Two years later she gives up Europe’s concert halls for tiny British Palestine, where she plays and teaches the rest of her long life.  Her students include children of future Israeli leaders Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, plus dozens who go from her studio to distinguished performing and composing careers.  
    Through anti-Semitic barriers, revolutions, wars, and economic crises, Rebecca plays on.  Through British/Arab/Zionist tensions, an impulsive late marriage, the births of two daughters, and the State of Israel’s tumultuous emergence, Rebecca persists. Always proud, she is intermittently famous, feared, shunned, defiant, and poor.  In 1965 Ha’aretz describes her as a “living legend to her students, present and past, who today are musicians and teachers all over the country. This is the line of continuity which Ms. Burstein-Arber forged by means of her dedication and love, her stubbornness and intransigence, and her blessed talent, which combines knowledge with tolerance and immense teaching competence.” Two decades later Tel Aviv finally recognizes her contributions to the country she called home for six decades, awarding her the Keys to the City for her pioneer role bringing classical music to “the land.”  
    Rebecca exemplifies the hundred-year wave of talented Israeli classical pianists and teachers who continue to spread glorious music around the globe. This book places her firmly in that pantheon. 

“The most fascinating family history I have ever encountered.  Rebecca was an astonishing pianist, starting out in Russia, continuing piano studies in classical music center Leipzig Germany, ending up by a fluke in Palestine (though she was not a Zionist), where she lived and taught for more than 60 years.  An outstanding piano teacher as well as performer, Rebecca taught the children of David Ben Gurion and other founders of the state of Israel.  Her students also went on to be accomplished pianists.  Woven throughout this first-person memoir are views of world-famous composers like Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, some of whose works she premiered. . . .A remarkable documentation of a remarkable life [which delivers] a clear sense of what her world was like.”  Main Line & Suburban Times (Philadelphia), June 2023

"What a wonderful book! To be reading it during the current Russian invasion of Ukraine is quite an experience. . .Altogether the book is a triumph. You have brought Rebecca to life. I feel that if I ran into her we could start a conversation at once. . . .No wonder everyone fell in love with her — and after they heard her play— even more so. She was a star." Sandra Herbert, Professor of History Emeritus, University of Maryland, Author, Charles Darwin, Geologist; other works

"Read Firebird in one session. Could not stop once I started. I am full of awe and admiration AND LOVE for this great artist, courageous, strong and passionate woman.  I was periodically brought for evaluation [by Rebecca] and I have memories that have never faded.  Years later I always visited the old (and magical) house on Shlush Street to stand under the window where she taught. . . .Thank you for making [her] come to life again." Chaim Freiberg, American-Israeli Concert pianist (ret.)

“A remarkable history of Jean’s formidable aunt Rebecca (1894-1993), who at age 87 shared memories of Tsarist pogroms, command performances in Imperial Germany, a perilous cross-border passage during WW1, concerts in freezing halls for Red Army soldiers during the Russian Revolution, and other events that shaped the 20th Century and still resonate today.” Quad (Oxford University (U.K.) Alumni Magazine)

“An evocative and intimate biography that breathes life into the remarkable tale of classical pianist Rebecca Burstein-Arber. . . Through interviews with Burstein-Arber, her wide circle of students and colleagues, concert reviews, correspondence, news accounts, and history, Firebird highlights her contributions to classical music even as her life’s story is interwoven with pivotal 20th-century events.  Through the prism of her performances . . .we bear witness to European antisemitism, revolutions, wars, economic crises, political tensions, and personal tribulations. From Odessa to Petrograd, Bucharest, and finally Israel, she remained resolute, establishing herself as one of the most highly regarded musicians and teachers of music in Europe. . . . A tribute to a remarkable musician, a recognition of the contributions of Jewish musicians to classical music traditions, and a celebration of the deep connections between music and the invincible human spirit.” [Capitol] Hill Rag, July 2023