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Junior Klezmer Orchestra
Alumni Feature: Then and Now
Rabbi Raysh Weiss, PhD
(Was in JKO 1994-2002)
From 1994 until 2002 I was privileged to be part of the Junior Klezmer Orchestra. The experience of playing under the tutelage of Ms. Lippitz and other very talented and devoted teachers who are members of her Maxwell St. Klezmer Band was absolutely formative in my development, both musically and in many other significant ways. My experience playing klezmer music not only introduced me to a music with a rich ethnic heritage but also helped me to develop the skills of playing and performing in a serious musical ensemble.
This organization has provided a venue for musical expression for numerous young musicians from all over the Chicago area, opening for them the possibility of exploring a rich ethnic musical tradition under the aegis of expert and caring professional musicians who serve as teachers and musical coaches.
In a few words, how did your time in the JKO influence the trajectory of your career?
Almost 30 years ago, I encountered Klezmer music for the first time as a new member of Lori Lippitz’s Junior Klezmer Orchestra. Lori taught us not only Klezmer—she established an ideal model of trans-denominational cultural exchange far ahead of its time. Young adults from all walks of Jewish life convened in her studio, learned music almost lost to our people, and shared this music with audiences far and wide—all while cultivating our own unique sense of Jewish unity and mutual appreciation for each other’s Jewishness. As with all of Lori’s many other innovative projects, the JKO is filled with an unparalleled sense of heymishness, and warmth. Most importantly, Lori’s work favours a rhetoric of affirmative meaning over one of survival. Being part of the JKO has influenced many of its alumni well into adulthood. Former JKO members, who are now in their 20’s and 30’s, and now some of us nearing our 40's, are still enthusiastically engaged in Jewish music, and—perhaps even more importantly—in Jewish communities throughout the country.
One a personal level, the skills that I acquired during my years with the JKO have been enormously important to me in subsequent years and have truly helped to shape my life endeavours as a young adult. As an undergraduate student at Northwestern University, I founded and led The WildKatz Klezmer Ensemble, the first klezmer band ever to be organised at Northwestern. This group, which clearly owes its origin to the inspiration of the JKO, has continued well beyond my graduation from college in 2006. After graduating from Northwestern, I was awarded a Fulbright Research Fellowship to study the Klezmer Revival in Germany and spent the academic year 2006-2007 in Berlin completing my research. My findings from this time culminated in the completion of my 2009 MA thesis and were published in a University of Michigan anthology on German-Jewish culture in 2016. My academic interest in klezmer is clearly the result of having been inspired by my early experiences in the JKO, which set me on the road to exploring this rich musical heritage on a deeper level.
My experience in the Junior Klezmer Orchestra and the tutelage and inspiration of Lori Lippitz has clearly played a critical and formative role in my development, as a musician, as a person, and as a committed Jew. Growing up Orthodox, JKO was arguably my first really serious encounter with non-Orthodox peers, creating not only music, but building relationships. JKO helped deepen my appreciation and eagerness to embrace the concept of Jewish pluralism later on as a Jewish professional. Being a part of the JKO has been one of the greatest privileges and most formative experiences of my life.
Besides your career, how has the music and "Yiddishkeit" (Jewish content) you learned in JKO enriched your adult life?
See above! JKO opened up so many different connections and relationships. Through my experiences at JKO, I learned of other opportunities to learn about and perform klezmer music—it is truly a life gift that keeps on giving!
What do you think the value of learning klezmer and Yiddish music is?
One of the best ways to understand a culture is to learn its music. Learning klezmer and Yiddish music is a fantastic way to unlock a rich heritage unknown to many contemporary Jews. It affords you a whole new emotional and spiritual vocabulary to embrace your own experiences and forge your own creative Jewish identity. Diving into this world also connects with you a whole international network of klezmer and yiddish music lovers.
What words of guidance would you like to share with young musicians who are just joining the JKO?
"You should be so lucky!" In all seriousness, savor these years. Make time to jam informally with your bandmates. Lori is an incredibly inspiring trail-blazing musician, scholar, activist, and an example in every best way—learn her amazing story.