Jews in Irish Music – Bobbi-Nikles

16012Bobbi Nikles is an acclaimed force in the Bay Area music scene and beyond. The founder of Fiddlekids Music Camp, which she led as director for many years, she also performs in a wide array of bands. Her luscious fiddling and driving rhythm add fuel to every project she’s with, including Black Brothers Band, Douce Ambiance, Wake the Dead and many more. A sought-after teacher at camps, workshops and in her private studio, Bobbi’s creative and nurturing style incorporates her depth of knowledge and her experience as a teacher for over 30 years.

“My father’s family came in the early 1900s from Russia to New York.  Their name was Shearn.  My mother was Lori Beller and she came from Vienna through London to New York when she was 12, during the Holocaust.

Her parents had a store that had tailored goods and a lovely home with nice furnishings. They were considered pretty wealthy. They had to leave everything behind, except for a few little things, one of which was this little pendant that I wear.

16014It’s interesting that it’s a 4-leaf clover, almost an Irish thing. It was always in my mother’s blue jewelry box and she would let me look in it every now and then. Out of everything in the jewelry box it was this little pendant that I loved and I had hoped to get when I turned 13.  As it turns out I didn’t get it till I was in my 30s even though I checked-in on it many times over the years.  When I finally got it, I noticed the bite marks on it and imagined that my grandmother wore it when my mom was young and that the bite marks were those of my mother.  

1 Lori Beller, motherMy mother lived with a Jewish family in London. Her mother put one ad in one Jewish newspaper, and they got one response from this family that said they would take her. So my mother was not Kinder Transport, she was just an individual transport. She did fine and her parents survived. Her brother went to Holland, her father went to Shanghai, and my grandmother stayed in Vienna until she got things organized and she was the first to come to NY. She started to work in a little hat factory. And then my grandfather came from Shanghai, brother from Holland, and then my mother from England. So the four of them survived. Lots of their relatives didn’t. For my mom it was always an adventure. She didn’t have hard times; she had a good time. She traveled on a mail boat from London. She was the only passenger, the only child, the only girl, the sailors treated her well. But boats were being sunk and this and that, but they made it, and everything was good. They had been very assimilated in Vienna and very assimilated in New York. She spent about 18 months in London, and was 13 when she arrived in NY.

bw Irma-Paul Beller w Martin-Lori ShearnShe went to high school in Manhattan and my father was growing up in The Bronx, and they eventually met the way a lot of people met then, in The Adirondacks, where they had these little camps. One weekend they met at Schroon Lake when they were in their mid-twenties.

bw Baby Bobbi


Eventually they got married, and had each kid in NY, but I was only 3 weeks old when they moved to CA.

My dad started as a Kaiser physician. Believe it or not, that was very out of style for the times. They were paid very poorly and most of the doctors wanted to have their own private practices and see much bigger dollars. My dad did not want that, he was interested in different things. His mother probably did not agree with his decision. She had beautiful carpets and Tiffany lamps in their beautiful home in The Bronx, but my dad was never interested in anything fancy that they had, and he actually wanted to get away from under her wing.

1 IMartin Shearn, fatherGoing to the West Coast was attractive in that regard, and he did not want to be in private practice. He did not wish to perform services based on potential reimbursement or market his services, and that was something he carried forward until the end of his career. While Kaiser was still small, in the ‘50s, your patients were there already as members; you didn’t have to seek them out. He could concentrate on what they really needed, and have no incentive to do procedures. He was one of the “grandfathers” of Kaiser in a way, because that was pretty early, coming out of WWII and the steel plants in Richmond. They had made ships for the war. Then they wanted to offer medical care to their workers. And they did. My dad joined them 10 years later. I know because I have a very early medical record number, under a million ~! 600 thousand. So he stayed with Kaiser and loved his work. At one point Kaiser considered advertising in the Yellow Pages and the doctors vetoed it. They did not believe in it; nobody advertised medical services.

1Bobbi, Wendy & David Shearn

It was a special experience to go on grand rounds with him and see his patients on a Saturday, if you got selected to go. There were three of us kids and we couldn’t go that often. He was the first in the family to do medicine.

1 Paul Beller, maternal grandfather





This is my maternal grandfather, Paul Beller, who did sheet metal work in a factory that made the pushcarts that were in Central Park, that the hot dog vendors used. His son followed him in that work.

On my father’s side they had an air conditioning and TV repair store in the upper Bronx. My dad had asthma and various other childhood conditions, like allergies to fish. He was bookish and did a lot of reading. So he got into medicine, and all of his kids pursued it, as well.

My brother and sister became Kaiser doctors, and I went into physical therapy.

Even though music was what I considered I was best at, I never thought of music as a career when I was an adolescent. I have a Masters in Physical Therapy and practiced that for many years, and eventually made my way back to music when our daughter was young.

Music was a big part of my family growing up. My father played cello and my mother played piano. She also worked at the Oakland Symphony as their assistant manager for many years.

flt and fid

My brother played piano and my sister played flute, and I played violin.

My parents liked us to get together and play chamber music in the house. I went to Cazadero Music Camp. I had some recitals. We had house concerts in our house in the early days, because of my mom’s connection with the Oakland Symphony. So we might have a pianist play, and they would invite their friends. I think it was always free, something my folks would put on as a party, and they would gift the pianist a certain amount of money, but no one was ever charged.

They would also have Mitch Miller parties where they would sing his songs with their friends. Kinda folky, songs like Little Brown Jug. It was super-embarrassing for this 8 year old girl. They couldn’t sing anything on pitch. I was just flabbergasted. They had a couple other of those books that a lot of people had of American Folk Songs.


Shira Kammen and I both grew up in El Cerrito and both studied violin with Anne Crowden after she first arrived from Scotland. She subbed for the Oakland Symphony, so my mom met her and got me connected to be her student. One of my mother’s cousins from growing up was a man named Ziggy Nissel. He was a founding member, second violin in the Amadeus String Quartet. They were an extremely tight group, never had subs, when one of them was sick they didn’t perform. When one of them eventually died they broke up. When he came through on tour he would stay with us. His home base was London, but he and my mom grew up together in Vienna. He played a little bit at our house and he did let me try his Stradivarius once. I had adoration for a few classical musicians. One of my favorite albums growing up was Erica Morini. I wore that one out.

The violin was my first instrument at age 5. I loved the violin. I loved it so much I put it under my pillow and I sat on it when I got home from school one time, and I crushed it and I was very sad. It was a half or quarter size student instrument and it was not until I was 10 or 11 that I got my first full-sized violin. I still have that, and gave it to my daughter. I played that same violin until 2000 when I commissioned the violin I play now which was made by Thomas Croen in Oakland. He continues to take care of this violin. So, from the time I was 5 to 12 I played classical violin and I worked my way through three different teachers and I was quite advanced in what I was playing. I have been teaching violin myself for over twenty years.

In junior high I was in orchestra. It was a time when it was very embarrassing to be carrying a violin case. It wasn’t cool and maybe someone made fun me. So I quit. I didn’t realize how traumatic that would be. And then I thought, “What am I going to do with all of my musical energy?” I think it was only a week or so later that I started guitar.

bw Bobbi Guitar

And I sang my way through my teens. Folk Music. I went through the family folk music books and learned a lot of songs like Red River Valley, cowboy songs, and this and that. I was exposed to folk this way, but we didn’t have many records that weren’t classical. In high school I joined the small acappella group that grew out of the chorus. I led it, and conducted at my high school graduation. During this whole period from when I was 12 to 16 I would visit my violin every month or so in its closet and play my old pieces. There was a little thread of connection. Some time around 1970 I heard my first Irish music when I went to the play Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas produced at El Cerrito High School. There was a violin that played a tune. I had no idea what it was and sought out the name and somehow I remembered how it went.

I thought “wow, I like that sound.” It was Rights of Man, the hornpipe.


A few years later I went to UC Berkeley, but didn’t take any music courses. I went for 3 years and dropped out. In the year I was out, 1975, when I was 20, I met Keith Livingstone at a KPFA picnic, and was exposed to a little bit of Scottish Music.

I learned Wind that Shakes the Barley, and Fairy Dance, and a couple of other tunes, and we went and played at the Dickens Faire. He went to Scotland and brought back these tune books for me.



I learned a bunch of tunes from them, and by this time I’m starting to really play fiddle.

Then I went up to Seattle to attend the University of Washington to finish my undergraduate degree in Psychology and wasn’t playing any music. A couple of years later I started their Physical Therapy program. I lived in Washington for 10 years. There was a gal that I was in a Medical Ethics class with who played the fiddle. Her name was Helen White, and she was from Durham NC. It was 1981 and Fiddle Tunes had started in Port Townsend. Helen knew about the world of fiddle, Tibetan Medicine, and she was a North Cascades ranger. She was in the scene up there amongst the seminal Old Time players. So we formed a band and I learned Over the Waterfall and a few other tunes. We learned one set and played one dance. But I’m still not playing very much at that point because I was just ensconced in my physical therapy studies. When Helen moved to Virginia I visited her there and was exposed to some more of the Old Time fiddling. Then, Rodney Freeland started the East Bay Pickin’ Potlucks, which were very open and sweet, and the shades opened, and I could see “whoa, there’s a lotta music in there.” At the time our daughter was a toddler and I was still trying to figure out my musical life. I did a round of lessons with Irene Sazer from the Turtle Island String Quartet. She had studied Classical and Jazz at Peabody. She taught me some classical pieces and I did a little concert for friends.

We got a toddler package, adopting our daughter when she was almost 2. It was marvelous, but there was no time to spare. I was still working as a Physical Therapist, but trying to figure out my music. I found my way to Fifth String Music and I took some lessons from Brian Godchaux. At that point I was briefly playing mandolin because our daughter kept grabbing my bow when I tried to play, so I thought I’m going to take up a plectrum instrument so she can’t get close to me to grab it. After about 3 or 4 lessons, Brian said, “You know, you play violin, bring your violin in.” When he heard me play he said, “Get back to the violin. Stop playing the mandolin.” I did and never looked back.

I played with a bunch of pick-up bands for contradances. Carlo Calabi and I played as the Curly Tones. We brought in Paul Kotapish. He became an important mentor for years afterward. Paul and Betsy Branch and I had a band called FaultLine. For a while I played some Balkan music with Danny Carnahan, Lisa Croen and Paul. There was an event called Hell Broke Loose in Berkeley that happened once a season as part of the contradance scene. At one of those Kathrine Gardner asked if I was going to play “northern” or “southern”. I went “huh?” I didn’t know the difference, but I started to do my homework, and I realized there’s this southern music I seem to be drawn to, and then there’s this northern stuff. The plot started to thicken there. Meeting Paul was important because I went to hear him with Kevin Burke in Open House and bought If the Cap Fits.


That was my first Kevin Burke album, and likely my first Irish record. Maybe not, because we had a Dave Bromberg  album that had several sets of tunes on it that I learned. But in terms of pure Irish that Cap Fits was my first and I learned a lot from it.

Around the time we got our daughter and I started playing for dances I left Physical Therapy. There was a huge void for me personally. I became our daughter’s first violin teacher. And she was my first student. That very rapidly turned into a successful venture. It suited me. I had the skills from Physical Therapy. I had the confidence. I loved working one-on-one with people, as I had as a therapist. I liked designing individualized care programs; it would be that way with students, as well. You might teach Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but everyone learns it differently. I found that very rewarding. I did educating around posture and body mechanics. That’s an important part of Physical Therapy. I knew how to help get people fitted on their instrument, to get the right kind of shoulder rest and hand position. It’s a certain set of observational skills that I had been trained in, and now I was using them. I was delighted and it gave me a sort of credential. I was entering into a new realm, and I felt really confident in it. And the timing of it was perfect, taking on my daughter first, and within 3 months I probably had half of her friends taking lessons.

I was really playing a lot by then. I had a lot of students. One of my early students was a young man who came to me at age 7, his name was Harry Whitney. His father was Searle Whitney who died recently. Harry was incredibly obsessed with Irish Music as a child. And, he was a composer. At that age. He could scarcely have time to learn a tune before he had another tune in his head. He was listening to Planxty and all the Irish Music, and I was trying my best to keep up with Harry. He had started on piano and he was already composing pieces. He was important in that I had to stay one step ahead of him. By preparing his lesson I taught myself. He studied with me for several years. I got more and more involved in Irish music at that time, and grew to love it. Around this time I went to the Valley of the Moon fiddle camp, and was exposed to Martin Hayes. They would always have 3 teachers. That year it was Bruce Molsky, Martin Hayes and Alasdair Fraser. So, talk about everything coming together ! And meeting lots of players. I met Laura Risk there and she and I became very close, and I learned a lot from her. Through Laura I met Shay Black, and went to one of his early sessions at the Starry Plough. Liz Carroll and I  were both on staff at the first year of Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp. She and I became friends and I would stay in touch with her and when she would do local shows I would usually see her. She performed at a Freight show and that was when I met Michael Black. Afterwards we went for a beer at the Albatross and Shay was there, Michael started talking to me about teaching his daughters violin. It took a while, from that meeting, it was a year and a half before I got the girls. They would all come at the same time beginning when they were 7, 9 and 11. I taught them for quite a while and when Michael came we would talk, and before you knew it I was playing with The Black Brothers.

Black Brothers Band

I still play with The Black Brothers. Our biggest tours are around St Patrick’s “season” when we’ll have a dozen shows. Before The Black Brothers I had played with Melanie O’Reilly and Myra Joy had joined that band. It was great playing with Myra; she and I always clicked.

Besides The Black Brothers, I’ve mostly worked in pick-up bands. Kyle Alden, Maureen Brennan, Paul Kotapish and I played at Schmidt’s on Solano.


I played in Wake the Dead for 6 years, subbing for Kevin Carr before he decided to commute to all their gigs from Oregon. I’m still in the band, but there’s not much work for me. I learned a lot. I had not been a Deadhead; I learned it all when I joined the band.

Fiddlekids1I started a camp, FiddleKids, in 1998 when our daughter was 7. It’s now a program of The Freight & Salvage. We just finished our 19th year. I ran it as a cottage industry, a family business I started when our daughter was running wild at Valley of the Moon, Fiddletunes and Lark. I was having a blast, absolutely loved those camps, but felt there was a huge void for kids. That first year I had Betsy Branch, Helen White and myself as teachers. We had 27 kids. It was an instant success.

Again, it was timing; there was nothing like this camp then. What we offered was a week of intense immersion in 3 different fiddle styles, all traditional, and everything learned by ear. The kids loved it and the parents loved it. And their teachers loved it. I started it at Prospect Sierra School which was 2 blocks from our house in El Cerrito. Then I moved it to Tehiyah.  These are day camps. I ran it like it was an overnight camp for the staff and they stayed at our house, we had dinners together and jams in the evening. Everybody who came wanted to keep teaching. We also had dance. Kyla Brooke was the first year dance teacher. And we taught Art, as well. 19 years later, it’s still done the same way. This year there was a second session added. Over the years some wonderful musical bonds have formed between a lot of the musicians there. Liz Carroll was on staff one year. Laura Risk. Cathy Whitesides. Mike Stadler. John Blasquez. Julian Smedley is currently our director. Evie Laden has been our dance person most of the years. Kalia Kliban. It’s something I’ve invested a huge amount of my energy in. For 12 years I ran it completely by myself, with my mother helping me fold the tee shirts and serving the snacks. I treated it with a lot of love and attention, and it really served the family, as well. Eventually I needed to distance myself a little bit, and Steve Baker, who was then the Executive Director of The Freight, said “I think we can help you. This will serve our community education goals.” So we worked it out so that I continued to direct it for another 3 years while I began to hand off some of the administrative functions. I still teach there and it’s still fun and exciting to see how healthy it is and serves the public, and there’s still nothing else like it.

I think Jews play Irish Music because it taps into something genetic. The harmonic component of Irish music, the minor aspect has some links to Klezmer. It’s really intense. I’ve always been drawn to the minor tunes more than the major.

My parents were atheists, but we attended services from time to time. I loved the music. I was not bogged down by the meaning, because I didn’t know Hebrew, but I loved the singing. I would sing harmony. It was very natural for me. During my singing years, one summer I was in the synagogue choir at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. So, I knew that music. And I always feel that way with Klezmer. When I hear that music, I know that music, but I haven’t studied it. At Fiddletunes this year Alicia Svigals was there teaching. She was in the Klezmatics.

What is the draw ? Irish music is just fabulous. It’s very rich. It’s beautiful. It appeals to some of that sadness that maybe is in every man’s soul. I don’t know. The first tune I learned Rights of Man fits into this whole story. My new CD has a lot of minor tunes, too. It’s not a coincidence.


Bobbi’s CD “Fire in the Air” can be found on iTunes and Pandora

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