JCRC Mideast expert creates separate peace in music

When Yitzhak Santis boards the train for his morning commute, he often fires up the laptop and starts typing. But he's not checking memos, spreadsheets or e-mail. He's composing string quartets.

As director of Middle Eastern affairs for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council, Santis is the Bay Area point man when it comes to understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

On his own time though, he keeps company with the more pastoral spirits of Debussy and Fauré. It's just part of a recent personal renaissance for Santis, one that rekindled a lifelong love of music and the art of composition.

This is more than a fleeting hobby. "Meditation on Our Times," a new piece for string ensemble, received its world premiere this week, courtesy of Palo Alto's Gunn High School Orchestra and conductor Sandra Lewis.

A few weeks ago, Israeli cellist Matt Haimowitz, who counts Daniel Barenboim and Itzhak Perlman among his confreres, was in the Bay Area teaching a master class in string quartet-playing, using Santis' opus as a model. The composer stood in the back of the room, transfixed. "I was shaking and my mouth was dry," says the normally unflappable Santis.

Revealing to the world his artistic passion hasn't been easy, given the serious nature of his work with the JCRC. But after more than 20 years in musical hibernation, Santis' muse has awakened with a joyful noise.

"I always had music in my head," he says, "but I was always too busy and had no music community to plug into."

That's hard to figure, considering his strong musical beginnings. The Massachusetts native studied piano and music theory as a teen, later majoring in music at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. There he flourished for a time as a budding composer.

But for a variety of reasons, he set aside his artistic ambitions. "Instead," he says, "I went into a lucrative field of study that I hoped would net me millions of dollars: Judaic studies."

Upon completing his graduate work, Santis accepted positions with the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix before relocating to the Bay Area in 1989. He served as director of the JCRC's Peninsula branch, taking over the Middle East post two years ago.

"I love my job," says Santis. "It's about creating advocacy and building consensus in the Jewish community about Israel. But it's a fairly stressful job."

To counteract that stress, Santis often turned to music. He's a fan not only of modern classical giants like Mahler and Stravinsky, but also of jazz and even twinkie pop artists like Avril Lavigne ("My kids are totally embarrassed that I like her," he says, laughing).

A little more than a year ago, Santis' wife pushed him to start composing again. "I wrote a truly awful piece," he recalls, "but it showed me I could still arrange. So I started listening to more late-20th century work, and then wrote an atonal string quartet just for myself."

He didn't keep it to himself long, auditioning the piece for members of the Palo Alto Community Orchestra. It was performed last month and subsequently featured in Haimowitz's master class.

That piece was a warmup to his much more ambitious "Meditation."

The work is Santis' response to the unsettling prewar climate earlier this spring. While the great debates raged — while life and death, war and peace, hung in the balance — Santis took it all in, rerouting his responses through music.

When he finished the piece, he experienced a catharsis of Aristotelian proportions. "I broke down and started crying," he remembers. "It was an incredible release of emotions, this sense that I expressed musically what was deep inside of me."

The piece itself melds elements of familiar tonality and modern dissonance. As he wrote in his own program notes, "Meditation" is "pensive, despairing, angry, yet somewhat hopeful, particularly at its conclusion."

Though composing remains strictly a part-time endeavor and he plans to keep his day job, bringing music back into his life has been nothing short of a blessing for Santis.

"It's fun," he says. "It's how I keep my sanity, given what I do for a living, always having to deal with Israel and conflict. Music helps me maintains a perspective on life."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.