The final strains

What led the brilliant violinist Matan Givol to throw himself in front of a moving train? Was it the physical pain, or coping with his father's death, that doomed the Tel Aviv wunderkind? Or was it his involvement with the controversial Dahn yoga movement in the U.S.?

Haaretz, Israel/July 7, 2011

A murmur went through the sell-out crowd that filled the Enav Center in Tel Aviv. It was supposed to be the final concert of the season for the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble, featuring works by Vivaldi and Haydn, followed by a traditional toast. But then conductor Barak Tal ascended the podium and, his voice cracking, announced that due to tragic circumstances, the concert would not go on as planned. When he finished speaking, the musicians came on stage and played Dido's Lament, an aria from the Henry Purcell opera "Dido and Aeneas," weeping as they played. The music was bursting with drama. Not long before, Ira Givol, a cellist with the ensemble, had informed Tal over the phone that his brother, Matan Givol, a violinist in the group, had jumped in front of a moving train at the Rishpon Junction. The location for the suicide was apparently chosen for its proximity to the hall where the orchestra held its last rehearsal.

The shock was total. Members of the ensemble were unable to take the stage. Just the night before, Matan had performed with them at a concert in Haifa, and he had rehearsed with them throughout the week. "At first my hands were shaking," says Tal. "And when I looked at Matan's empty chair, I started to cry." Word of Givol's suicide soon spread through the crowd.

"I never pried into his life," Matan's mother, Nili Givol, says today. "Maybe I should have." Matan spared her the trouble of having to go through his personal things. He placed the suicide note in the top drawer of his dresser. "It was lying on top," she says, unfolding a piece of paper, "and I look at it and ask myself, 'What's going on here?'"

In the past month, like a seasoned detective, she has been retracing every step of her son's life, trying to understand what she missed. Was it the perfectionism he demanded of himself? The demands of his chosen profession? Was it his father's death, a year and a half ago? Could she have prevented him from joining the Dahn yoga movement in America? From traveling to its center in Arizona? And what signals were the physical pains he suffered from sending?

Only after Matan's death did Nili Givol grasp how truly dangerous it was for him to get involved in the Dahn yoga movement and to what degree it took hold of his delicate soul. The insight became clear in the e-mails and other correspondence Matan had with members of the center and which she saw for the first time in recent weeks. "You managed to kill him," she wrote to the woman who had been in contact with him, a senior figure at the center.

Still, his suicide did not come as a complete surprise. Two months earlier, in April, lifeguards had pulled him from the sea at the Tel Baruch beach, out of breath, and although he told the doctors at the hospital that he "just went out for a swim," his mother knew. Her son had tried for the first time to end his life. The second time he succeeded. Last Friday, June 24, marked 30 days since his death.

Mirror to the soul

Nili Givol's apartment in central Tel Aviv, where her son lived for the last month of his life, is crammed with antique furniture, pictures, ceramics, books and other objects she had collected over the years. The classical music playing in the background mingles with the noise of the buses from outside. These days she says she spends her time doing "nothing special": walking the dogs, watering the plants, wandering the beach. Soul-searching. She hasn't yet been able to return full-time to her current job of marketing foreign magazines. For years she was the administrative director of Tichon Hadash high school in Tel Aviv. "I always used to say that I had a doctorate in parenting," she says. "Now I have to admit that I failed there."

Do you feel guilty about his death?

"Yes. Rationally, I understand that I couldn't have done anything. But I still ask myself constantly - 'What didn't I see? What didn't I hear?'"

Nili was very proud of Matan and Ira, her two sons from her second marriage, to Kobi Givol. (She has two other sons from her first marriage. ) "They were always very modest," she says. "I was the one who did all the bragging." Elder brother Ira studied cello from a young age; Matan, three years younger, took up the violin. Both attended the School for the Arts in Tel Aviv, and it was soon apparent that both were gifted with that artistic spark reserved for a very few. Matan went on to study at the Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts, and in 1999, when he was in 12th grade, played at a memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin in Oslo before the Norwegian king and President Bill Clinton. He performed alongside Achinoam Nini, having been personally invited by Leah Rabin to take part in the event. Six months later, Rabin came to his final concert at Thelma Yellin to congratulate him on his graduation.

From age 10-18, Matan studied with Nava Milo, one of Israel's top violin teachers, at the Israel Conservatory of Music. At 15, Matan was the first Israeli to take part in and also win the prestigious international Wieniawski Violin Competition in Poland. The year before that, he won the Clermont Prize, which is awarded to outstanding local musicians.

"He was a special boy with a rich inner world," says Milo, adding that unlike many of her other students who keep in close touch, Matan did not contact her at all in the last few years, though she always kept up on what he was doing through his brother Ira. His death left her in shock. "From a very young age, he performed as a main soloist, in every orchestra he was a part of, both in Israel and abroad," she says. "He became a big attraction. I was always being asked: 'Will Matan be there?' He had a unique soul that was conveyed to the audience through the violin."

"Nava was a humble and diligent teacher, and the chemistry between them was amazing," says Nili Givol. "She was like a second mother to him. I don't know who he spent more time with in those years.

"He had a boundless talent," Givol continues. "I don't use the term 'genius' because I think that he worked very hard. He put effort into everything. He never did anything just 90 percent. When he got a 96 on a test, it annoyed him. When he went to Italy, he learned Italian, and when he went to Spain, he learned Spanish. Not to mention music."

Lucky trousers

Givol says Matan had a "lovely childhood." "We lived in Ramat Hahayal, in an atmosphere that was wonderful for raising children. The house was always full of people, and Ira and Matan went on hiking trips, to parties, to the movies. Not that it was a completely normal childhood, but it was definitely a childhood. Music didn't kill their childhood. They were always surrounded by a group of talented children, their friends from the School for the Arts. As a parent, I had to find the right balance, what to insist upon. And I insisted upon the less-fun things. The concert performance mattered less to me than the practicing at home."

The practice routine, she recalls with a smile, began every day at 6:30 in the morning. That's when the boys would start to do scales. "And even though I don't play myself, I had a sensitive ear and I would call to them out loud, 'Not clean, not clean,' and Ira would say to me: 'Mom, the neighbors are going to think the house is dirty.'"

Music became an integral part of home life. After practicing scales, the boys would eat breakfast, go to school, come home in the afternoon, practice another two hours, and when their friends went to extracurricular activities, they went to the conservatory.

"There wasn't anything that unusual about it," says Givol, gazing at a picture of 11-year-old Matan on a concert stage at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. He is a handsome boy, wearing tailored black pants and a white buttoned shirt, holding a violin. She remembers those first performances where 13-year-old Matan was first soloist with the Haifa Orchestra and the Be'er Sheva Sinfonietta.

"At the first concert in Be'er Sheva, he wanted to get ready all by himself. 'I'm a grown-up,' he told me," she remembers. "And Nava and I acquiesced, but then when he went into the dressing room, he found that the trousers had fallen off the hanger somewhere and weren't there. We tried to find the shortest musician there and he lent Matan a pair of his pants, which came up to Matan's shoulders more or less. He played all five concerts in the series with those pants, because he decided that they brought him luck. The day after the concert, the music critic of The Jerusalem Post wrote: 'We saw a young lion standing on that stage.'"

Matan always spent his birthday, August 1, at Kibbutz Eilon, at the prestigious Keshet Eilon program held annually for gifted violinists from Israel and abroad. "Matan was the youngest violinist who came to the program," says Gilad Sheba, director of Keshet Eilon, who recalls a gentle, well-loved and sensitive boy who was "the girls' favorite." "He experienced his first love here - a young girl violinist from England whom he met" says Sheba.

When Matan was a teenager, his mother noticed that he didn't walk erect. An orthopedic exam found that he had pectus excavatum (hollowed chest ), a congenital defect of the breastbone that usually becomes apparent in adolescence, when the chest sinks inward. Some people with the defect also have cardiac and respiratory problems, others suffer from pain in the bones and chest. Nili Givol says Matan did not have cardiac issues, but it was still a very difficult diagnosis for a boy who practiced music intensively for five hours a day.

"Repairing the breastbone would require surgery and a long time in a cast, and it also wasn't certain whether he would be able to keep playing afterward. His whole life Matan tried to cope with this disability, which wasn't visible outwardly. People didn't know. At some point it began to affect his playing. When he started growing, he had excruciating pain on the left side. There was pressure on the nerves, and a lot of emotional pressure as a result of the situation."

At 18, Matan joined forces with his brother Ira and gifted pianist Jonathan Aner, and their trio - the Tel Aviv Trio - soon won many prestigious prizes and performed on concert stages all over the world. They played chamber music, from Baroque to modern works. "One of the reviews about them, in a paper in the Philippines, was accompanied by a wonderful caricature: Ira as a black prince with a cello, Yonatan with the piano sheet music flying and Matan as an angel with a violin floating above everyone. He was a virtuoso; he flirted with the audience and mesmerized them. They performed from the Far East to Australia and took prizes in every competition."

"I remember him as a marvelous chamber player in the Tel Aviv Trio," says Haaretz music critic Noam Ben-Ze'ev. "He had a commanding presence on stage and that's what is important in a trio, where the violinist is the leading figure. He had a wonderful sound and a personality that he brought to the stage."

Because of his physical limitations, Matan did not go to the army. Instead he continued his advanced musical studies in Germany. In Cologne he studied with one of the world's most renowned teachers, violinist Zakhar Bron, and later studied with Ilan Gronich in Berlin. Afterward he attended the New England Conservatory in Boston.

The bow was left in the bathroom

On Passover eve this year, April 17, with her bags packed for a vacation with her husband, Nili Givol received a phone call. "Are you Matan Givol's mother?" the person on the line asked. Her first thought was that it was about another invitation for her son to perform. "He's okay," said the caller. "Come to the Tel Baruch beach." The moment she saw him, totally wiped out, inside the ambulance, she knew. "As much as they tried to make the moment easier for me, it was still crazy. When I saw him in the ambulance I hugged him tight until he burst into terrible sobs. He was 500 meters from shore when they pulled him out, on the brink of death. At the hospital, he adamantly denied that he had tried to kill himself; he said that he just went to swim. But I knew that he tried to commit suicide. You know anyone who goes swimming fully dressed?"

It was much more than the clothing that hinted to her that her son was growing despondent about life. The breakdown began, little by little, during the time he lived in Boston. That was about three years ago. He was living with his girlfriend, cellist Alisa Weilerstein (one of the world's leading cellists, according to many ) and studying with her father, violinist Donald Weilerstein. In August 2009, he returned to Israel and informed his parents that he had decided "to break up everything" - the relationship with Alisa as well as the trio. He said the physical pain had worsened a lot lately and he could no longer play. He added that the pain was also due to his stressed-out emotional state, which made him decide to leave Boston, even though he had been offered a scholarship at the New England Conservatory, and move to Arizona to explore yoga.

This didn't come as a total surprise to his parents. Four months earlier, Nili had gone to visit her son in Boston and "One day, Matan says to me outside the yoga center that was right by his house, 'Hey, let's go in and do a trial lesson? Why not?' And I said: 'Are you kidding? Me do yoga? You go in, I'll wait for you outside, at the cafe.' He came out an hour and a half later, looking very pleased, and said that he felt great. And that's how he began studying at the center."

No one imagined that the yoga class would ultimately culminate in total emotional enslavement. Even now, Nili has no clear idea of what her son's life was really like in the months when he was drawn to the yoga classes. Still, she says, she has no doubt that his struggle with the chronic physical pain had something to do with his immersion in yoga.

She and Matan's father, Kobi, tried to help him cope with the pain. After he returned to Israel from Boston, Kobi convinced Matan to travel with him to Brazil. There was a doctor there who was famous for having developed a special brace for those with pectus. "So they went to Brazil," she says. "They toured the country, they had the brace made. Matan came back to Israel with the brace on him. Then he removed it, placed it in his backpack, and it's still there now."

A month after the trip, Kobi was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and just weeks later, in December of that year, he died. "I saw how Matan was withdrawing into himself during that time," says Nili. "I think his father's death was another one of the triggers. Those same places from which he drew his tremendous sensitivity and maturity were also the places that absorbed the blows. The same point that his music came out of was also an open and vulnerable spot where all the pain came in."

In February 2010, after his father's death, Matan packed a few things and flew to Sedona, Arizona, to the Dahn Yoga Center run by the guru Ilchi Lee. "Later on," says Nili Givol, "we learned that on the way there he made a stop in Berlin and left his violin with a friend from the University of Cologne. The bow, which was worth more than $5,000, he left in the bathroom of an airport in America, just to make it clear to himself that he was all done with playing music."

And then he went out to swim

Dahn Yoga, also known as Dahn Hak (freely translated: the study of primal spiritual energy ), is a theory that combines yoga, tai chi and various martial arts. It was invented in the 1980s by a Korean, Ilchi Lee, now 60, who serves as the guru of the movement that arose from it. Lee and his disciples maintain that this method of training body and soul can cure ailments ranging from lazy eye to multiple sclerosis. There are more than 100 Dahn Hak yoga centers in operation throughout the United States, and a number of lawsuits have been filed against the movement over the years. One suit, filed by 27 former members of the group and currently being heard in Arizona state court, asserts it is actually a cult that subjects its members to "psychological manipulation." Former Dahn members have said in interviews in the American press that the method includes sleep deprivation and meditation combined with a shaking of the head known as "brain wave vibration." Another claim that appears in some of the lawsuits is that members are required to pay hefty sums to these yoga centers (For more on the movement, see box ).

"We gradually realized that Matan was being sucked into something a lot bigger than some innocent yoga exercises," says Nili Givol. "At first, we here in Israel didn't understand what he was doing there. He would send us these short e-mails saying, 'Everything's fine,' and I knew we weren't allowed to pry. Before he went to Arizona, when Matan told me that he was quitting the violin, I was devastated. I thought to myself - Thank God his father is already gone and doesn't have to know about this. To Matan I said: 'Do what's best for you, but think about it carefully. Don't toss it away completely.' I didn't send my sons to study law or computers. I taught them to follow their hearts. So I couldn't argue with him."

Do you still feel that way now?

"At the time I thought - who am I to tell him what to do? He said his hand hurt terribly and he couldn't keep on playing and I didn't get that this was just an excuse. Only after he traveled to Sedona did I realize that it was a cult. His brother started getting material off the Internet about this group and about the lawsuits pending against it. But even if I had found this out before, what could I do? He was 28 years old, a grown man."

In July of that year, Matan told his mother and her husband that he had acquired the rights to build a Dahn Yoga center in Jerusalem. "He said he had become their representative for building the center in Jerusalem and he sent my husband a business plan. We didn't know what to make of it," says Nili.

Until he found an apartment in Jerusalem, Matan lived with his mother. The days spent in his company made her see that he had returned from America a different person. "Suddenly he was this closed person with glazed eyes. When he went into his room here, he turned the bed upside down and moved it so the mattress was against the wall, and on the backboard he taped pictures of the guru. He slept on a thin mattress on the floor. He also turned the mirror around to face the wall. We were in shock. He had all sorts of symbols, odd ceremonies, bowing. I was going nuts, but I didn't say a word so as not to arouse antagonism. He was distant."

After he moved to Jerusalem, he threw himself into building a center, meeting with real estate agents, contractors, city officials and so on, and the situation just got worse. "Whenever we wanted to come see him," says Nili, "he would ask to meet us in the street, somewhere in the city. Anywhere but at his home. We understood that he didn't want us to see his home. After one of these visits, I said to my husband: 'This will end in disaster.'"

Did you speak with Matan at that time about the way you viewed his new lifestyle?

"No. But he knew how I felt. He knew that if I wasn't saying anything, it meant I didn't like it. What could I do? Tell him - 'I'm not going to see you anymore'? What could I say? The only thing I suggested to him was that he keep on playing violin while he was involved in the yoga. They ordered him to stop playing. But I saw that with every word I said, he took three steps back and became even more distant. So I told myself: 'Stop talking.' Believe me, it took a toll on my health."

One Thursday last October, he called and asked if he could come home for Shabbat. "I knew I was about to face a big drama," says Nili. "Matan arrived and stood there in front of me with tears streaming down. More and more tears. I said: 'Matan, what's wrong?' And he said: 'Mom, I felt like if I stayed in Jerusalem one more day I would die.' I said: 'You don't have to go back there.' And he came back to Tel Aviv and found an apartment near us and we were sure that this whole thing was behind us. We thought he'd removed himself from the cult. The outward signs disappeared, too - the special way of dressing, the stones, the chains he wore. And he went back to playing the violin. He played like crazy. Offers and invitations were pouring in. He had to sift through them all. Our feeling was that he had come out of it, that everything was okay now. I ordered tickets for a trip to Greece and Matan said: 'Leave the dogs with me. I'll take care of them.' That's it. And then he went out to swim."

Jerusalem syndrome

Matan's death a month after his first suicide attempt left the Israeli classical music world in shock. It was a painful reminder of the mark that can be left on the soul by a demanding, sometimes cruel lifestyle. "It's a competitive profession, one that's filled with expectations," says Gilad Sheba. "Almost every great violinist comes to a crossroads at some point in his life, and sometimes it's at a very early stage. I meet a lot of young folks who are going through a protracted crisis. It's especially hard for the parents, after they have sketched out their child's career and suddenly he's debating whether to continue at all. The other side of it is that a lot of violinists have trouble dealing with the parental pressure. It's very complex."

Another complicating factor is that the biggest talents usually go abroad to study and pursue a career. "I see young people who are living abroad and supporting themselves, and it's not easy, in a field that's hard to begin with," says Sheba. "Matan was a very young man, not yet fully mature, and he had to get along on his own in Germany and America. And it's hard. Turmoil isn't uncommon. There's no support, because the parents are far away and no one to watch over you in these difficult moments. I think that in his case, as soon as the trio broke up, he started to get lost."

After the first suicide attempt, Matan moved back in with his mother. She insisted that he start psychotherapy immediately. And he did. "In the last month the feeling was that he was doing great," she says. "His psychologist also said that his last month at home was the best time for him in the last few years. But in his last sessions with her, he started going back to the issue of the cult. He knew that it was something bad, but he said he couldn't get free of it. He started saying that his inability to get the center in Jerusalem built was 'the worst failure of his life.'"

Nili Givol began to understand just how deeply the yoga center had its tentacles around Matan when she read the correspondence he had with other members. One of them was Genia Sullivan, who also visited Matan in Israel. "From her correspondence with Matan, we understood that she was one of the deputies of the master (Ilchi Lee ). She explained to Matan that he didn't have to build a big center in Jerusalem, that something smaller would be fine. We learned that he promised that he would have the center completed by April 1, 2011, and he didn't make that deadline. This boy who always did everything perfectly felt for the first time that he was a total failure."

Givol says that Matan had an exact blueprint for the center, including a facility where the walls were to be decorated exclusively with pictures of the guru, Lee. She says she still receives e-mails from agents with whom Matan was in contact about purchasing a building that would suit the center's needs.

What else did you find in Matan's correspondence?

"First of all, that it was on a daily basis: 'How many bows did you do? How many brain exercises did you do?' And that was without us having any idea that he was staying in touch with the people from there. One day a warning came: 'Do not do the brain exercises intensively because it could be damaging.' What the hell were they playing with there?"

Sullivan kept sending e-mails to Matan after his death. "One day she sent him a letter asking 'Why aren't you answering me?'" says Givol. "So then I answered her. I wrote to her: 'Matan isn't answering because you all managed to kill him.' She wanted to keep on corresponding with me but I refused.

"On the night Matan died, the cult leader, Ilchi Lee, wrote on his Facebook page that he saw a vision in which the old trees planted deep in the ground didn't die, but the young trees don't have the strength and they fall and become a base for the plants and flowers. I answered him - 'While you're busy writing your nonsense, the only flowers I know are lying on the grave of my son, whose soul you poisoned, whom you cheated and deceived, whose money you took.' Two hours later, the Facebook status disappeared."

No protective skin

On the morning of the final concert of the season for the Tel Aviv Soloists, May 22, Matan left the rehearsal hall at 11 A.M. He told his brother that he had to take a break because the pain was back. In the afternoon his brother Ira called their mother and asked if Matan was at home. Her heart started to pound. At 5 P.M., she and her husband got in the car to drive over to Matan's apartment. As they were leaving the parking lot, an ambulance cut them off. Instinctively, Nili said, "It's for me," and they started following the ambulance. When it stopped and a police officer got out, Givol opened the window and said, "We're looking for my son."

The policeman looked at her. "What's your name?" he asked. And when she told him, he said, "Come with me, I need to talk to you." "I already know," she replied. The ambulance was just returning from the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute after delivering her son's shattered body. "When he told me that, I think I let out a sound, a scream, that came from I don't know where," she says. "I think I lost my mind."

Did you learn something new about his life in tracing the events of his last year?

"I found a poem that Matan wrote for me, in which he wrote, 'You called me Matan, and you called me Natan ('giving' ). The only thing you didn't give me is strength.' When I read that I felt like I was finished. I suddenly realized that I didn't give him the strength he needed. Maybe if he had talked with me, I could have helped him to find the strength. He was like a person going through this world with no protective skin. He knew that if he did this, it would leave us with tremendous pain, but still it was stronger than him. It feels like his 28 years went by in a flash. And people were telling me at the shiva - "Nili, he did more than other people could ever do in two lifetimes.' I don't know anyone who lives two lifetimes. And Matan had so much more to give and to say. One time Nava Milo asked me why I sat in on his lessons. I said that when Matan plays, he's speaking. He has something to say."

"I see the street violinist in Nahalat Binyamin and I feel a twinge in my chest," Matan wrote in a letter she found in his drawer. "My terrible pain. All I want is for my body to be in condition for me to play. I think that's all done with but it's not. It's a part of me I tried to kill but it's alive. I tried to direct my gaze far away from it but it's still there. It will always be there. My most inner pain, my most inner desire, it's my way - to express myself, to say things, how much I love life. I'll be back one day."

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