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In search for lost pants: Maira Kalman at TED2014

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Maira Kalman. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Maira Kalman. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

In the middle of a tense morning session – you know, just waiting for NSA deputy director Rick Ledgett to come online, ain’t no thing — illustrator Maira Kalman comes up to tell a lovely family tale about music and pants.

In 1932 when Kalman’s family left their village in Belarus (“you can say they fled … the lovely shack, the delightful pogrom”), they took a ship bound for Palestine, now Israel. Tel Aviv was “flooded with Zionists and tangos and cafes and bookstores and the Mediterranean,” says Kalman. It was a difficult but wonderful life.

At the same time, violinist Bronislaw Huberman realized that Jews needed to get out of the USSR, so he invited hundreds of musicians to come to Tel Aviv to form the Palestine Orchestra. For the opening performance, Huberman invited the celebrated Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini to lead. It was December 1936, and “an epic event in this turbulent time.” That night, Kalman points out, Toscanini was dressed to the nines.

In 1954 Kalman’s family moved to a very different Jewish neighborhood – Riverdale, New York. And amazingly: Toscanini moved too, to an enormous estate nearby. As Kalman grew up amidst shrimp cocktail, Coca-Cola and piano lessons, Toscanini was ever-present in his estate on Wave Hill.

In 2011 Kalman learned that his grandson, Walfredo Toscanini, had died, and the entire estate was being sold – including the pants Toscanini wore the night the Palestine Orchestra opened. Kalman rushed to the auction. The bidding was fierce, but at last: she owned a piece of the man who made music for her family and so many others in Tel Aviv. Reader, she got the pants.