Real Music & Real Estate . . .

Yiddishe Cup’s bandleader, Bert Stratton, is Klezmer Guy.

He knows about the band biz and – check this out – the real estate biz, too.

You may not care about the real estate biz. Hey, you may not care about the band biz. (See you.)

This is a blog with a gamy twist. It features tenants with snakes and skunks, and musicians with smoked fish in their pockets.

Stratton has written op-eds for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.



My parents stopped hanging around with friends who were getting rich.  One of my dad’s childhood buddies was building shopping centers.  That man was off the list. Toby, my father, was not going to eat out at fancy restaurants.

My parents mostly socialized with self-employed business people: the hardware store owner, the sewing machine guy and the shoe store guy.

The sewing machine guy, Alex Kozak, sold record albums as well as sewing machines.  (Appliance store owners used to sell records.)  He was a World War II Red Army veteran — a Hungarian Jew who escaped the Nazis and fought with the Russians.  I borrowed his huge cavalry boots for my high school Canterbury Tales presentation.  Mr. Kozak was big — about one and a half Isaac Babels.  When I was in college, Mr. Kozak sold me Bechet of New Orleans and Be-Bop Era, RCA Victor Vintage Series.

Alex Kozak (right), 1962, age 43, with friend Ellis Powell

Alex Kozak (right), 1962, age 43, with friend Ellis Powell

My parents often socialized with Holocaust survivors.  My dad liked the men; many knew baseball and were for the most part no-nonsense.  What was there to talk about — the good old days?   Keep it short. My dad liked that.


The hardest Yiddishe Cup gigs were the Holocaust survivors’ luncheons.  (Those luncheons are rare now.)  The crowd wouldn’t pay attention.  They would kibitz through the music.

The gigs weren’t supposed to be wallpaper (background music). We were doing a show.  Pay attention, please!

Another thing: we got paid peanuts.  “Just a short program for the survivors.”  You couldn’t say no, and you couldn’t get mad at the kibitzers either. What exactly was a “program”?  Whatever the hostess said.

Most every Jewish baby boomer in Cleveland grew up with Holocaust survivors, unless he lived in Shaker Heights.  And even in Shaker, there were probably a few DPs (Displaced Persons) in the double houses.

I had a classmate, Gary (not his real name), who re-told his parents’ Nazi horrors to the local newspaper.  This was in the 1960s — pre-“Holocaust,” the term. Gary’s father worked at a kosher poultry market.  Gary was a super Jew.  He often stayed home for obscure (to me) Jewish holidays.  Some of the Jewish kids teased him when he came back.  (The goys were oblivious.)

I copied Gary’s style.  I wrote a letter to the Cleveland Press protesting the first U.S. Christmas stamp with a religious symbol (Madonna and child), 1966. I said the new stamp violated the separation of church and state.  I got letters back.  One reader said, “Go to Vietnam where men are men and not homosexual like you.” That got me to write more letters.

I wrote about Poland expelling its last Jews in 1968 . . . What would the Poles do when they ran out of Jews?  That, too, got some play.

I vied with Gary for champion of Jewish teenage letter writers.  All I had to do was write “Jew,” and I would get half-baked, vitriolic feedback.  I enjoyed yelling “Jew” in the newspaper.  I had been through so little.  I wanted to experience World War II.  Then go home and eat Jell-O.

Coda:  At a recent Yiddishe Cup concert in Detroit, I saw Sewing Machine Guy’s daughter Veronica for the first time in about 40 years. She said her nephew had the cavalry boots now — the ones Mr. Kozak, an officer, wore as he rode into Prague with the Soviets in 1945.

Yiddishe Cup plays 7 p.m. Wed., Sept 29, Fairmount Temple, and 7:15 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 30, Park Synagogue, for Simchat Torah.  Cleveland.

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1 "Kenny G" { 09.22.10 at 9:46 am }

I haven’t read this yet – for the bus – but perhaps you’d enjoy a recent book entitled “Stop Acting Rich – and Start Living Like a Real Millionaire.” I browsed at it at a books store and put a hold on it at CPL.
I think you should be very selective here in who you allow to post. I suggest the following – something like: “Do not post on my blog unless you are at work. This is to be strictly a work diversion!” That would give you much more space in the end for your text.

2 Irwin { 09.22.10 at 8:37 pm }

I liked your article, Bert. I would like to have seen you in those boots! I also would have liked to experience growing up with other survivors.

Instead, I grew up in Euclid, Ohio, and my parents were the only Holocaust survivors around. I lived in a family that felt totally separated from most of the community.

It’s sad to me that most of the survivors are gone now. I guess it’s left for us to tell their tales.

3 Ellen { 09.24.10 at 10:52 am }

Irwin, I didn’t know about your parents.

I have a dear friend who only recently published her story about being a child survivor.

All I knew growing up was how much my grandfather hated anything German. My brother came home from college driving a VW, and Popie didn’t speak to him for a year.

I think we need a gathering where we all exchange histories. So many stories get lost in the day-to-day shuffle.

And such a different childhood you Clevelanders had. I was either in small-town Midwest — where I was one of only a handful of Jews — and my mother had to keep having “meetings” with the junior high bandleader because he kept me as last chair clarinet because I was Jewish, or in Los Angeles where I was told I might want to find another Brownie troop because I looked like a goy and everybody in the troop was Jewish…. oy vey.

Bert, not only are you entertaining us with your schtick, you are a catalyst for so many memories and stories.

4 "Kenny G" { 09.29.10 at 12:04 pm }

Ellen – In case you don’t already know about it, and you’re in the Cleveland area, you sound like an excellent match with the “New Generation” group of the local Kol Israel Foundation organization. I have a phone number of (216) 831-0187.

If you’re not in Greater Cleveland, you may want to contact this guy – Leo Silberman, President (at least last year). I’m sure the younger group has put together writings or whatever you might benefit from.

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