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Junior Klezmer Orchestra
Alumni Feature: Then and Now

Jake "Yasha" Shapiro

JKO 2011-2019: Membership: 4th Grade through Senior Year High School


2023: PhD Student in the Harvard Biophysics Program

In a few words, how did your time in the JKO influence you personally and/or professionally?


My last name, Shapiro, comes from the German town Speyer. Playing in the JKO helped me learn about the traditions and culture of my ancestors who lived in Germany and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Learning and playing Klezmer music enabled me to understand the unique aspects of my Ashkenazi origins and develop that facet of my identity further. Additionally, the JKO ignited my love of Klezmer music, with its relatively free structure and augmentation of the instruments.  The clarinet purposely squeaks, cries, and bends the notes expressively, like a vocalist singing scat.

How has the music and "Yiddishkeit" (Jewish content) you learned in JKO enriched your adult life?

As many of the songs we played and traditions we learned about in the JKO were related to major life events—life, death, marriage—playing them led me to think more deeply about these topics and their importance both in my life and in the Jewish community. It also taught me historical lessons: Specifically, how and why these traditions and music developed in European Jewish communities. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Yiddishkeit of the JKO helped strengthen my Jewish identity, as much of what I learned is unique to the Jewish experience. What it means to be a Jew is a topic that I have been thinking deeply about, and one answer to that question is certainly traditions and culture, such as the awesome Klezmer music I played in the JKO.


What do you think the value of learning klezmer and Yiddish music is?

Learning Klezmer music connects us to our roots. It gives us a glimpse into the lives and beliefs of our European ancestors. Being part of a continuing tradition builds meaning into life, and learning this music places us smack in the middle of this tradition. From a musical perspective, learning Klezmer music gives musicians a unique band experience. From the unique stylization of the music to the loose, open structure of the pieces, Klezmer music is challenging yet rewarding and exciting to play.


What words of guidance would you like to share with young musicians who are just joining the JKO?

Really imagine what this music meant to your ancestors and to the Jewish communities in Europe. The music is so lively yet can be so somber--so full of emotion that it is hard to understand it in today's world without thinking about where it came from. This will help you not only to play it better, but understand why you are playing it and why it is so important to the Jewish community and your Jewish identity.


Graduation Testimonial (2019)

Thank you for an unforgettable Klezmer experience these past six years. I loved every minute of rehearsing and performing Klezmer music with the JKO and learned so much about the music of our people along the way. These lessons, both in music and in history, will stick with me forever.


Most meaningful to me, I learned how important it is to keep the Klezmer culture alive in our community and beyond. Teaching little children about Klezmer's instruments and origins, and sharing my Klezmer experience with Northwestern students, was exciting.  And I will never forget the joyous smiles of the elderly folks at our nursing home concerts and the freilachs in the rain at the Jewish Cultural Festival!


I'm sad about leaving the JKO but excited to see what's in store for the rest of the band in the years to come, I know it will sound great!  And whenever I'm in town, I'll be sure to drop in for a rehearsal or a concert!

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