Eleanor Shapiro, the director of the Jewish Music Festival, was honored by the Berkeley City Council this week.
Eleanor Shapiro, the director of the Jewish Music Festival, was honored by the Berkeley City Council on Feb. 24, 2015

Eleanor Shapiro still remembers the first time Klezmer music struck her soul.

It was 1996 and Shapiro was auditioning for a part in a dance troupe that planned to perform to a Klezmer piece. Shapiro was asked to sing “Ale Brider,” a traditional Yiddish folk song reinterpreted by the band, The Klezmatics.

When Shapiro heard the lilting, rhythmic melody inspired by the music coming from Eastern European shtetls, she was deeply moved.

“It was so clear it was speaking to my heart,” said Shapiro. “I felt like I had come home.”

Previously Shapiro had thought that the future of Jewish culture lay in Israel, where she had spent nine years, and the expansion of Hebrew. But her worldview shifted in that moment. She suddenly realized the power of Jewish music. That led her to volunteer for the Berkeley Jewish Music Festival, started in 1986 by Ursula Sherman, who had fled Nazi Germany with her family when she was a teenager. By 1998, Shapiro was co-director. In 2004, she became the sole director of the festival, now in its 30th year.


2015 marks the last year for the Jewish Music Festival, operated out of the Jewish Community Center East Bay, although it will assume another form next year. This will also be the last year Shapiro will serve as director. In honor of her dedication, the Berkeley City Council declared Tuesday, Feb. 24, “Eleanor Shapiro Day.”

The proclamation honoring her said: “Under the leadership of Eleanor Shapiro, the Jewish Music Festival has presented hundreds of concerts showcasing local, national, and international artists in Berkeley, commissioned Berkeley composers, introduced Berkeley public school students to Jewish music, and encouraged Berkeley residents to make their own music through master classes, instrumental jams, instrument petting zoos, and community dances ……

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT I, TOM BATES, Mayor of the City of Berkeley do hereby proclaim Tuesday, February 24, 2015 as Eleanor Shapiro Day in the City of Berkeley in recognition of her contributions to the arts and arts education.”

In accepting the proclamation, Shapiro told those at the city council meeting how proud she was to be one of the many creative people who give Berkeley such a vibrant culture.

“It is often said it takes a village to raise someone right,” said Shapiro. “I think it is no wonder that Berkeley was where the first Jewish music festival took place and that Berkeley is home to so many talented artists. Berkeley’s environment nurtures creativity. It’s truly an honor to be recognized today for making a contribution to such a community.”

The Jewish Music Festival kicks off Feb. 26 and continues through March 22 in venues throughout Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. It includes a show by the Klezmatics – one of the most popular Klezmer bands – on March 5, and a tribute on March 8, International Women’s Day, for Ronnie Gilbert, one of the members of the famous folk band, The Weavers. The festival, in keeping with a tradition it began in 2007, also commissioned a piece of work, this time from Paul Hanson. He will perform “Homecoming,” an exploration of his Jewish roots on March 11 at Freight & Savage and March 12 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

The sheer diversity of musicians and the breadth of the programming is a testament to the success of both the festival and the rising popularity Jewish music. After World War II, interest in traditional instrumental Jewish music dropped precipitously. Soon, it was rarely played.

But that changed in the mid-1970s, after Lev Liberman, a saxophonist who played on the streets of Berkeley with the violinist David Skuse, visited the Judah L. Magnes Museum on Russell Street in Berkeley. Seymour Fromer, the museum’s co-founder, had collected hundreds of old, pre-1930 Russian, Ukranian, and Romanian Yiddish recordings. Liberman listened to them, and the music inspired he and Skuse to form a band to play old time Yiddish dance band music. (The term “Klezmer” was not widely used then). They performed their first gig as The Klezmorim, on April 13, 1976 at the North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library, little realizing they were launching the Klezmer revival movement. Arhoolie Records soon signed the Klezmorim, which went on to win a Grammy Award in 1982.

A flyer from the 1988 Jewish Music Festival, the second year it was produced. Photo courtesy of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Life and Art at UC Berkeley.
A flyer from the 1988 Jewish Music Festival, the second year it was produced. Photo: courtesy of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley. Click here to see others.

In 1986, Ursula Sherman, inspired by the klezmer revival, put on the first Jewish Music Festival at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley. With Shapiro’s help it grew to venues across the bay and presented hundreds of musicians from around the world. Shapiro said she is most proud of bringing Arkady Gendler, a Ukranian folksinger in his 80s, to the festival in 2000 and recording his music at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. The CD he recorded has been an inspiration to young musicians around the globe, said Shapiro.

Francesco Spagnolo, the curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, and a musicologist who teaches at UC, said the festival has created strong synergies among North American musicians. Its global reach, particularly bringing in Israeli musicians, has also been one of its strongest assets.

“This festival embodied the global mind of Berkeley,” said Spagnolo.

The festival hit a peak a few years ago when more than 5,000 people came to the various performances. Attendance has dropped off since then and Shapiro says that trend is bittersweet. Fewer people are coming to the festival because Jewish music is much more prevalent. Music lovers don’t have to come to a specialized festival to hear klezmer or Jewish music. Saul’s Deli on Shattuck, for example, frequently features musicians playing Jewish music, as does Yoshi’s in Oakland, she said.

“We were a victim of our own success,” she said. “We were celebrating Jewish secular culture. Now Jewish music is all over the place.”

The structure of the festival is not sustainable, either, she said. It doesn’t have an endowment, which means the funds to put it on must be raised every year. Amy Tobin, the executive director of the JCC East Bay, told the J Weekly that she is committed to presenting Jewish music next year, although the form of that presentation has not yet been determined.

While Shapiro is stepping down as director of the festival, she has not lost her interest in Jewish music. She spent 2014 in Poland on a Fulbright Fellowship. She is a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union and is exploring how non-Jews are presenting Jewish music in small towns in Poland where there are no Jews.

See video below for Shapiro’s remarks to the Berkeley City Council on Feb. 24.

YouTube video

Check out a full listing of the performances at the 30th annual Jewish Music Festival.
Look at the brochures of the festival put together by the Magnes.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...