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#MakeItHappen Project in Action: Three Rivers Klezmer Festival: Jammin' Yiddish Dance Party

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David Zaidins works as a cancer researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Drug Discovery Institute. He is a Moishe House Pittsburgh resident as well as the sax player in his klezmer band, Carnegie Shpil Company. David's idea to bring the Carnegie Shpil Company, Pittsburgh's premiere student klezmer ensemble, together to host an evening of klezmer music and world class Yiddish dance instruction was chosen to receive a #MakeItHappen micro grant! #MakeItHappen asked young Jews from around the world to submit ideas for what they would do to create a meaningful experience in their Jewish communities. With the support of several community partners, more than 150 ideas were selected to receive a $1k or $5k micro grant to help them go from dream to reality! 

Describe your #MakeItHappen project idea and how it came to life. Last year, we, the Carnegie Shpil Company klezmer band, threw a small Purim dance party where the band played and a dance leader led the dancing. We all had a great time, so we wanted to put together a larger event this year. We needed a source of funding to make it happen. Getting this #MakeItHappen grant enabled us to put together a much bigger dance event, which paved the way for several other events and evolved into the Three Rivers Klezmer Festival. We brought in Alan Bern, a world renowned composer, pianist, accordionist and educator, Steve Weintraub, international dance-leader extraordinaire and Susanne Ortner-Roberts, Pittsburgh klezmer musician and educator to lead several workshops for both dancing and playing. Leading up to the dance party was a phenomenal concert featuring new and old Jewish music from Dr. Bern and Ms. Ortner-Roberts with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley.

What was your favorite moment from your #MakeItHappen event? For the months leading up to the dance event, the Carnegie Shpil Company klezmer band had been practicing our dance repertoire in the absence of dancers. Having a room full of participants, of all ages and backgrounds, learning to dance to our music gave the songs new meaning to us. Not only does the music instruct the dancing, but the dancing instructs how the music should be played. Learning that the two cannot exist in the same capacity without the other was a revelation.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in putting your idea into action and how did you overcome this? From the moment this event received its #MakeItHappen funding, the band was determined to maximize the event’s impact on our community. We were bringing together world-class talent and felt we needed to expand the proposed dance event into a week-long festival to both better showcase the teachers’ and performers’ talents, and to add context to the community dance. Our challenge was that big ideas quickly led to bigger. The #MakeItHappen microgrant helped us to leverage more support from the community, proving that our challenges were merely catalysts for greater successes down the road.

If you could plan a follow up event, what would it look like and why? We tried our best to make all of our events as participatory as possible--the party had a dance instructor teaching dances; it wasn’t just an awesome concert. We held two dance workshops for people to learn the dances and for the band to learn to play for dancers and so on. But one thing we didn’t get a chance to do was a workshop focused more generally on the question of what does it mean for us as Jews in the diaspora to be creating new Jewish culture, inspired by our Eastern European Jewish heritage. This could take many forms, but I’d imagine inviting artists, writers, musicians and dancers together for a day-long retreat. We’d ask them to bring works-in-progress and we’d challenge them to respond to artistic and literary expressions from Eastern Europe, e.g. short stories by modern Yiddish writers, movies and art from the interwar period when there was an amazing flourishing of modernist Jewish creativity in places like Poland and New York City.

What does your future hold?  The Carnegie Shpil Company hopes to continue to be Pittsburgh’s premier student klezmer ensemble; we have already set our sights on making next year’s klezmer festival bigger and better! We plan on strengthening our relationships with all the instructors brought in for the festival and plan to have more regular community events throughout the year. We hope that this festival has strengthened the interest in and knowledge about klezmer music and Yiddish dance in our community such that events like this may be sustained for many years to come.

If you could have invited anyone from history to your event, who would it have been and why? We would have invited noted Jewish ethnographer S. Ansky (1863-1920), who wrote The Dybbuk. He was comfortable both in Russian society at large and Russian Jewish society. He helped document the traditional practices of Jews in Eastern Europe. He would be very interested to see how the culture that he studied in his 1911-14 ethnographic survey of Eastern European Jews is being translated by young Jews in Pittsburgh today.

If you could invent a new Jewish holiday, what would it celebrate and when would it occur? If I were to create a new Jewish holiday it would be The Day of Love or יום של אהבה that would be celebrated on August 3rd. This would be a day that we would put aside to really appreciate the good things that we have in our life, both big and small. We would put aside time to thank G-d for all of the wonderful things that we have in our life, including the people that we interact with on a daily basis and people who impact our life from afar, such as our favorite musicians. On this day it would also be vital to the celebration that we tell the people in our lives how much they mean to us. It may seem awkward to say to your friend “I love you” but it is really important for people to take a moment and appreciate the people around them. Learn more about David's idea here!

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.