John Jay Alum Uses Scholarship to Preserve Music of Romaniote Jews

Gabriel Zuckerberg in Ioannina, Greece, summer 2017 Credits: Eva Klein

HANOVER, N.H. – Dartmouth College sophomore Gabriel Zuckerberg, a Waccabuc resident and graduate of John Jay High School in Cross River, has been named a Dartmouth Stamps Scholar. Established in 2014, the Dartmouth Stamps Scholars Program recognizes and rewards exceptional students, such as Zuckerberg, who consistently exemplify leadership, perseverance, scholarship, service and innovation.

The first Stamps programs were launched in 2006 at Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan. Since then, they have spread to a network of nearly 40 universities. Scholars receive annual awards ranging from $5,000 to $69,000, with additional funding for overseas study, educational conferences and leadership workshops. The Stamps Family Charitable Foundation is based in Atlanta.

Each Stamps scholar is given the opportunity to design an experiential learning plan to build on or respond to what he or she has learned during the first years at college. Zuckerberg, who is majoring in neuroscience and music and minoring in linguistics, will use the scholarship to document and preserve the music of Romaniote Jews, who have lived in the Eastern Mediterranean for more than 2,000 years and can trace their lineage to ancient Rome.

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According to Zuckerberg, little ethnomusicology work has been done on the Romaniote Jews’ musical traditions. And there is an urgent need for this work because of the community’s decreasing population.

Zuckerberg connected with a once vibrant Romaniote community when he helped preserve a cemetery in Ioannina, a city about 250 miles northwest of Athens, through Project Preservation, which is the Dartmouth campus Hillel’s annual Jewish cemetery restoration program. Ioannina is the capital and largest city in the Epirus region of Greece. However, only about 50 Jews still live in Ioannina, many of whom are Holocaust survivors.

This summer, Zuckerberg is returning to the project as a student co-leader. His priority will be to preserve the community’s cultural identity by closely interacting with the remaining population and documenting their prayers and songs. Zuckerberg says he plans “to transcribe the ancient prayer melodies into a format—using modified sheet-music notations—that captures their intricacies.” Ultimately, he hopes to make these prayer melodies more accessible to all Romaniote Jews around the world.

His interest in the program began when his late rabbi, Marcus Burstein, brought Zuckerberg to his first Greek Jewish Festival in 2015, organized by Kehila Kedosha Janina, the sole Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and a designated landmark located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The festival, which occurs each May, typically has an attendance of more than 8,000 people. The prayer melodies at the festival sound, as Zuckerberg describes, “so unique yet hauntingly nostalgic of my Jewish upbringing.”

Zuckerberg says his passion for understanding this “mystical albeit familiar music” has only continued to grow over the years. The intimate experience of working in the cemetery as well as learning about the rise of a powerful neo-Nazi party in Greece have contributed to Zuckerberg’s personal mission to continue preserving the Romaniotes’ culture.

“By incorporating aspects of this tradition into one’s own prayer, or by even just becoming aware of the Romaniotes’ unique history,” Zuckerberg explains, regardless of our differences, “we can all contribute to preserving the memory of the many Romaniote Jews murdered in the Holocaust and to recognizing their cultural identity in the modern world.”

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