As she gets ready to leave a festival that has been at the forefront of Jewish music for 30 years, Eleanor Shapiro has no regrets. Why would she? Under Shapiro's guidance, Berkeley's Jewish Music Festival has established itself as the most prominent and most culturally far-reaching Jewish music festival in the United States. Where else can you hear groups that reflect every Jewish tradition — not just the European tradition whose best-known form is klezmer, but traditions that emanate from Jewish histories in Arab countries and other geographies?
The festival that opens Thursday, Mar. 5 with a concert by The Klezmatics will be Shapiro’s last one — she’s leaving to finish her doctorate at the Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. And though initial reports declared this year's festival to be the last, the festival, which has been sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, will re-emerge there in a different form that’s still to be determined, Shapiro says.
Whether that reincarnation will resemble the festivals directed by Shapiro is anyone’s guess. What’s certain is that Shapiro is going out in style — with a lineup that features heavy hitters from the world of klezmer (The Klezmatics), the world of cantorial music (Jack Mendelson on Saturday, Mar. 7), the world of Eastern European music (Kitka on Sunday, Mar. 8), the world of avant-garde music with a Jewish touch (Sway Machinery on Tuesday, Mar. 10, and the Paul Hanson Ensemble on Wednesday, Mar. 11), and the world of multi-cultural Israel music (Diwan Saz and Yair Dalal on Mar. 14).
There’s something for everyone, including those who know nothing about Jewish music. Diwan Saz is a perfect example. An Israeli ensemble of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim musicians that plays oud, kanun, and saz, and sings in Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish, the group has a completely infectious sound that could easily fit in at a world music festival or global showcase -- and, in fact, after the Jewish Music Festival, Diwan Saz is headed to South by Southwest (SXSW) as a featured group. Their concert on Mar. 14 at Oakland’s First Congregational Church will be their Bay Area debut.
The Klezmatics are another example. Founded in 1986 and based in New York, the group won a Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album in 2007 for Wonder Wheel, which features songs the group created out of old Woody Guthrie lyrics. Shapiro has brought the Klezmatics to the festival before, and the group this year will play a combination of its hits and new music, says trumpeter and keyboardist Frank London, a co-founder who calls Shapiro “inspiring” and calls the festival “one of the most important Jewish music festivals in North America and the world.”
“I think of her as an artist,” London says of Shapiro in a phone interview from New York. “She's an inspiring artist. She’s passionate about the music and the culture. And this festival has been important to us over the years. They take Jewish music in the most open way. And that’s really the most inspiring way for us to presented.”
Shapiro became the festival’s co-director in 1997, and in 2004 began directing it by herself. Under Shapiro, the festival began commissioning new music, which she says is one her prouder achievements. “The fact that we’ve been able to contribute new music to contemporary Jewish culture has been great,” she says. “Two groups we commissioned -- the Ark Ensemble, and Ger Mandolin Orchestra -- went on to tour in Eastern Europe, so we’re bringing this music back to its origins.”
Another achievement: “In 2000, from Ukraine, I brought Arkady Gendler, one of the few remaining Yiddish songwriters who began his career and repertoire before the war. He was in his 80s. And on his way from the festival to the airport, we brought him to Fantasy Studios, and in one take we did a CD that has now gone all over the world, and has contributed to younger singers doing new Yiddish music he’s written.”
Eighteen years is a long time to helm a festival, and Shapiro says the time involved to raise funds and run the festival prohibited her from completing her Ph.D. Shapiro -- who in 2013 lived in Poland on a Fulbright fellowship to study the re-introduction of Jewish music in small Polish towns -- will stay involved in Jewish music as a consultant. She also plans to teach after getting her degree.
“I need to finish my dissertation, which I started in 2006; it’s always been part-time, and the festival has been full-time,” says Shapiro, adding that the two roles were previously complementary. “I got to Poland initially because I was invited as a Jewish cultural presenter here. The Polish Cultural Institute invited me to see what was happening in Poland.”
On Tuesday, February 24, the Berkeley City Council honored Shapiro’s advocacy for Jewish music by declaring that day “Eleanor Shapiro Day” in Berkeley. Shapiro told the body how the revival of klezmer as a viable international music took place in Berkeley in the mid-1970s. After the Holocaust, klezmer music went through years of dormancy among Jewish musicians, but the Berkeley-based group called the Klezmorim brought it back to critical attention. Not long after that, the Jewish Music Festival was born, as were the Klezmatics.
The Klezmatics’ Mar. 5 concert at Oakland’s New Parish should be electrifying. “For me, they’re the standard-bearer of the whole genre,” Shapiro says. “Like the Grateful Dead that became tighter and tighter year after year, The Klezmatics’ sound is so tight, and they’re constantly reinventing themselves. I saw them in 1996 or 1997 at the Great American Music Hall. It was a concert I’ll never forget. I saw them on stage, and I felt like like my identity was being reflected back to me.”
But Shapiro also reflects the music of other Jews in the festival. “I lived in Israel for nine years,” she says, “so I’m very committed to Jewish roots music from around the world. To me, ‘Jewish music’ is music that somehow reflects or incorporates the Jewish experience. So that can be classical, cantorial, liturgical music on the one hand, and that can incorporate the music of cultures that Jews have lived in proximity to. Kitka will be doing Eastern European music, because that’s the environment that many Jews lived in. And when Muhammad Gadir (of Diwan Saz) sings Bedouin folk songs, that’s an environment that Jews are also living. There’s mutual cultural influences.”
Shapiro says she will be looking to see how the festival is reborn. The festival is the oldest Jewish music festival in the United States. “Over the last 30 years, this music has become more acceptable in mainstream venues, and that’s something we contributed to,” Shapiro says. “Jewish music doesn’t have to just come from the Jewish Community Center. But the Jewish Community Center is committed to doing something (with the festival). It just needs to be re-imagined. I’m leaving more than the festival is disappearing.”
The Jewish Music Festival opens Mar. 5 with the Klezmatics at Oakland’s New Parish, and runs until Mar. 22, when Veretski Pass, Steve Weintraub and others perform at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay. Click here for tickets and more information.