Ellie Shapiro receiving her doctorate in Jewish studies and interdisciplinary studies from Graduate Theological Union.
Ellie Shapiro receiving her doctorate in Jewish studies and interdisciplinary studies from Graduate Theological Union.

At 66, her Ph.D. on Jewish music in Poland is dream come true

Many 50-somethings are counting the years to retirement, socking away as much as possible for the days when they can loll on the beach with a book, travel to distant lands or, simply, sleep late and have breakfast in bed.

Not Ellie Shapiro, though.

When Shapiro was in her mid-50s and at the height of her career — she was the director of the internationally renowned, Berkeley-based Jewish Music Festival — she decided to go back to school for a graduate degree.

“I always liked the idea of going deeply into a subject,” said Shapiro, an alumna of Oberlin College in Ohio who initially entertained the idea of pursuing a master’s degree in Jewish studies.

But it was Naomi Seidman, the Koret Professor of Jewish Culture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, who told her that her best option would be to pursue a doctorate. Convinced, Shapiro chose Seidman as her thesis adviser.

Twelve years later, Shapiro, now 66, was just awarded her doctorate in Jewish studies and interdisciplinary studies from GTU.

Along with gearing up to teach a class or two at GTU, she is preparing her dissertation for publication by an academic press — “The Sound of Change? Performing ‘Jewishness’ in Polish Small Towns,” an analysis of the growth of Jewish cultural festivals in Poland (particularly those that include music).

Shapiro became enthralled with the subject in 2003, several years before she began graduate school, when she visited Poland for the first time and was astounded by the growing and overwhelming interest there in Jewish music and culture. In Krakow, a city where about 56,000 Jews resided in 1931 (almost one-quarter of the total population), but which, like most Polish municipalities, has very few today, she went to the Jewish Culture Festival, a weeklong celebration that attracts more than 30,000 people each year.

“It blew me away,” she said, noting that events at the Jewish Music Festival she ran would draw “300 to 800” people. ”It was almost an out-of-body experience.”

Once Shapiro embarked on her research, she was hooked. Today, she said, there are more than 50 Jewish cultural festivals throughout Poland, most of which feature music. Shapiro focused on three in the southwestern part of the country, each in a small town that had significant Jewish populations before the war, but no recorded Jews today.

Why so many Jewish festivals with so few Jews, any reasonable person might ask? The answer is complex, suggested Shapiro, but also understandable.

As Shapiro writes at the outset of her dissertation, “The war’s traumatic legacy and the Holocaust make artistic expression a particularly effective means of expressing what cannot be articulated in words. Stimulating emotion and memory, Jewish music offers a uniquely conducive entry into a difficult topic, its presenters serving as ‘memory makers’ who may impact perception of the local Jewish past.”

In other words, Shapiro said, “having Jewish music is a nonthreatening gateway” through which to reintroduce Jewish culture to a country where Jews once thrived and where few now remain. “It reinforces values of plurality, diversity and multiculturalism and perpetuates democratic civic life.”

During her dozen years of study, Shapiro said, she visited Poland a number of times, once on a Fulbright scholarship. She not only became close to the subject, but also to a number of the people who run Jewish programs there, including some who found out as adults they were Jewish.

Traveling to Europe was hardly just an opportunity to see another part of the world and meet new people. It was hard work, as were her classroom obligations at GTU and at UC Berkeley. One of her biggest challenges was mastering the Polish language, which she was obliged to study as part of her doctoral requirements.

And Shapiro did much of that while working full time at the Jewish Music Festival, where she stayed on as director until 2015, which turned out to be the 30th and final year of the festival. On her way out, she was honored by the city of Berkeley.

Shapiro said that she felt sustained in her efforts by a core group of friends, loved ones and colleagues, who buoyed her spirits when it would have been easy to succumb to discouragement. She said it was often daunting to attend graduate school with students many decades her junior, who “were coming out of classes in critical theory” and “were running circles around me.”

Indeed, said Dr. Audrey Kavka, an Oakland-based psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who specializes in the major-life transitions of older adults, one of the greatest hurdles for those who shift gears professionally in later years is finding “group cohesiveness,” a set of fellow travelers in sync in their career and life paths.

If you’re in your 50s or 60s and going back to school, it is hard to find a peer group among your fellow students, she said. At the same time, she added, it’s difficult to talk about school and professional issues with your like-age friends, many of whom are winding down their careers and getting ready for retirement.

“You’re not a perfect fit with either group,” Kavka said. “You may feel like the oddball.”

But, in the end, none of that mattered to Shapiro, who said that pursuing her doctorate was “the biggest gift” she could give herself.

“I never wanted to be on my deathbed regretting [what I hadn’t done],” Shapiro said. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.