From Julliard to Jesus

Sam Rotman has had an illustrious music career. Since receiving his Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from the renowned Juilliard School in New York City, he has been amongst the winners in five piano competitions, his most prestigious award being that of Laureate Winner in the 4th International Beethoven Competition in Vienna, Austria. He has given over 1,600 performances in fifty-two countries and has released four recordings plus the video Sam Rotman, Concert Pianist: The Music and Testimony of a Jew for Jesus. This is his story:
I come from an Orthodox Jewish family. My father was born in Romania and my mother in Slovakia but, sensing that they were in danger from the Nazis, they separately fled Europe and then met, and married, in South America. In 1950 they moved to the United States, where I was born. Being raised in a very religious home, I was deeply committed to my faith. I had my Bar Mitzvah at thirteen and, besides formal worship on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, I attended religious education classes five days a week for eight years. Yet, although I prayed at home before school began, I did not live out the moral principles of my religious training during the rest of the day. I often took God’s name in vain, used foul language and was a very skilled liar.

New York, New Testament

I had started studying the piano when I was nine years old and was committed to a career as a concert pianist by the time I was eleven. My dream was to be the greatest pianist in the world, and my pride increased as my skills grew. One very important step towards my goal was realised when I was accepted at the Juilliard School in New York City. I studied there for five years and am greatly indebted to my piano teacher and the rest of the faculty who invested their knowledge and expertise in my life.

New York at that time was very stimulating musically. It was also full of temptations as the drug and open sex culture was beginning to flourish. However, because I was so dedicated to my goal of achieving excellence in my chosen profession, I shunned these sensual excesses and was known as a very moral individual. I never drank or took drugs; nor did I have pre-marital sex. This only served to enhance my proud, self-righteous opinion of myself.

During my third year of study, three Christian students started to question me about my religious beliefs and, in particular, my attitude toward Jesus as the Messiah. As a Jew, I felt that Jesus was to blame for many of the problems that my people had suffered throughout our long and troubled history. Yet I began to sense that I was not as morally clean on the inside as I appeared on the outside, so I asked for a New Testament. At that stage my habit had been to practise music for ten hours a day. However, I completely stopped practising as I read and re-read the Scriptures. I was determined to find out for myself who Jesus was but, instead of going to religious leaders, I went directly to the New Testament. Within its pages I made two shocking discoveries. The first was that Jesus made claims about himself that, if not true, would label him as a lunatic or a megalomaniac. Moses and Abraham and other religious leaders never claimed to be “the light of the world”, or “the bread of life”. Secondly, I saw Jesus as someone who accepted failures and, though it was difficult for me to think of myself as a sinner, I was becoming more aware of my moral failings and my inability to change my behaviour, even though I wanted to.

Up until this point I had only prayed in the name of Elohim (God). However, on 21st May 1971, I realised that I could no longer hide my sinful life from God. I prayed in Jesus’ name that God might forgive my sins, take my life and make me his. By the time I finished praying, I knew that God had heard and had answered my prayers. I was completely changed. God had cleansed my heart. Within three days I was in a Bible-believing church alongside my new brothers in Christ and I immediately immersed myself in the study of the Bible. I had become a new creation in Christ, with the old passing away and all things becoming new (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).

Counting the Cost

My new-found faith, however, presented two very momentous challenges. The first was that for years I had been preparing myself to be the greatest pianist in the world. Now I had to consider what God wanted me to be. Some people suggested that I should abandon the classical music repertoire. However, I came to see that “every good thing and perfect gift comes from God” (James 1:17) and that even though most of the great composers were not Christians, their musical abilities were gifts from God. As I played their creations, I could give glory to God the Creator, who had gifted both the composers and me. Also, I have found that being a musician has given me unique opportunities to share my faith with others and to be a light in the musical world.

The other challenge was how to tell my parents. My father was sixty-five and I was afraid that, on hearing my news, he might have a heart attack and possibly even die. When I did finally speak to him, my father was very angry, feeling that I had betrayed my heritage. He told me I was no longer his son. To him I was dead and he never wanted to hear from me again. By the end of the week, my parents had told me to leave the house and never to return. Though I was deeply disturbed by their reaction, I had the joy of the Lord, the peace of God and an ever-growing church family. Jesus said:

Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for my name's sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life.”
(Matthew 19:29)

As Time Goes By

During 1973 I married Deborah Chew, whom I had met in church. Then, the following August when our son Simeon was born, the breach between my parents and I started to heal. We became part of their lives again, albeit infrequently and from a long distance. When my father became ill in 1995, I was ready to fly to Texas to visit him, but was told that he didn't want to see me since I had shamed him. He died four days later and I did not attend his funeral. My mother now lives in a neighbouring suburb and our relationship is much better.

Ever since I became a Christian, I have been giving recitals of classical music at churches and Christian colleges throughout the world. I share how I came to faith and then challenge members of the audience to dedicate whatever gifts God had given them to him. Coming to know Jesus the Messiah was the greatest event that ever happened to me. Music is no longer the most important thing in my life, Jesus Christ is. In a hundred years time I won't be playing the piano; I won’t be a husband or a father. At that time, the most important thing will be whether or not I have Jesus Christ. He said:

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? For what shall a man give in exchange for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:36-38)

© Sam Rotman, Concert Pianist /
Used with permission

This article first appeared in the March 2006 edition of the Herald

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