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 Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post.



I’m not Orthodox, but I can walk the walk. Walking is a major part of my religion.

Last week my wife, Alice, and I walked home from Rosh Hashanah services. We were at Altamont and Compton roads, in a mostly black section of Cleveland Heights — close to a mostly Orthodox neighborhood.

Three black boys pulled up on bikes. The boys were out of school because Cleveland Heights closes on Rosh Hashanah.

I had on a yarmulke. I like to wear a yarmulke in public once in a while, just to “out” myself.

D’Shawn, leaning on his handlebars, said, “You Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said.

He turned to Alice. “You Jewish?”


Total Jewish?” he asked.

“Yes,” my wife said, smiling. She knew D’Shawn. Alice teaches gym in the local public school and knows a lot of kids. “Being Jewish is a good thing. The food is good . . .”

“You go to that building [synagogue] up on Taylor?” D’Shawn asked.

“No, we go to the big temple — the one with the dome — over there,” Alice said, pointing toward Euclid Heights Boulevard.

Alice wears slacks. She doesn’t wear a wig. She doesn’t look Orthodox. (She isn’t — not by a long shot.)

“You breaking Armish?” D’Shawn said.

I said, “Breaking Armish? Did you say ‘breaking Armish’? What’s that mean? You mean ‘breaking Amish’?” Either way, it made no sense to me.

"Breaking Amish"

Breaking Amish is a reality TV show about Amish kids breaking loose in New York. The first episode was on last week. (I Googled this info when I got home.)

D’Shawn apparently thought Alice was “breaking Armish” because she doesn’t look like a member of the local black-hat Orthodox crowd.

Side B — “Beer and Coconut Bars,” a classic blog post — is below this video.

This clip may be the most innovative vid on earth. By Jack Stratton. Michael Brecker (on electronic wind instrument) jams with Uncle Milty Friedman.


A version of this post ran on last year (12/6/11).  This version has more illustrations and pics!


My dad admired bankers. In my dad’s pantheon of great Cleveland Jewish families, the number one clan was the Bilsky family, who made bagels, then went into medicine (son #1), bowling alleys (son #2), and started a bank (son #3).  My grandmother used to say “The Bilskys make big bagels out of little bagels.”

Scott Bilsky, 37, called to book Yiddishe Cup for a Fairmount Temple event.  He said 12 Bilskys would be at the temple party.

Dr. Harold Bilsky, son #1, had liked Yiddishe Cup.  Harold had grown up with my dad on Kinsman Road.  Harold wouldn’t be at the gig.   He died in 2007.  Leo, son #2, wouldn’t be there either. He died in 1998.  I asked Scott, “What about the banker?”

“That’s my grandfather Marvin,” Scott said.  “He’ll be there.”  Marvin is 90.

At the gig, I talked to Marvin during our breaks. He told me, “Everything I ever did began with a B — baker, banker and builder. Plus brewer.”

That “brewer” part was news to me — Bilsky a brewski?

Marvin Bilsky, 2011

“My father bought Cleveland-Sandusky Brewing in 1955,” Marvin said. “There were very few Jews involved in the brewing business then. In the 1960s, Israel came to us for brewing tips and equipment.”

Marvin said there were only four other Cleveland breweries in the 1950s: Carling’s from Canada (“very nice people”); Standard Brewing; Erin Brew, Irish; Leisy’s, German; and Pilsener’s P.O.C., Czech.  Bilsky’s brewery bottled Gold Bond beer and Olde Timers Ale.

“We all used to meet on Mondays.  I didn’t have any trouble with anybody,” Marvin said.

The last local brewery in town was Carling, which closed in 1984. National breweries killed off the locals.

My father never taught me about brewskis. He rarely drank; it would have interfered with his worrying. (Old Jewish joke.) I knew about Carling’s from old Cleveland Indians’ radio ads. “Hey, Mabel, Black Label . . . Carling Black Label beer.”

Bilsky’s brewery was just a blip in the Bilsky biz history.  The Bilsky business was Bilsky’s Bakery, which had started on Kinsman and moved to Cedar Center in 1948.

Who invented the Cleveland coconut bar?

That was the question I should have asked Marvin.   My dad had loved coconut bars (and halvah).  I should have asked.

Marvin was in the phone book . . . .

“Marvin, this is Bert Stratton from Yiddishe Cup, the klezmer band.”

“Thank you for the concert yesterday. You did as well as you could,” he said.  “No, seriously, we enjoyed it!  To answer your question, I’ve always said my father invited the coconut bar, but — and I have to tell you this — I went to Sydney, Australia, and I went down into the subway there.  They have a small subway system.  They had coconut bars down there!  They didn’t call them coconut bars. [Australians call them lamingtons, says Google.]  Where did they get them?   Maybe from England.   Australia used to be part of England.”

“Marvin, I have a friend, my age — his grandfather was Kritzer’s Bakery on Kinsman —  my friend says his grandfather invented the coconut bar.”

“It was my father!” Marvin said, laughing.  “Who knows.”

I called my cousin George Becker, whose father had owned Heights Baking on Coventry.  George said his father didn’t invented the coconut bar.

Yippee, one less Coconut Bar King to contend with.

Former Clevelander Scott Raab wrote in Esquire (July 2002): “Ask for coconut bars in any Jewish bakery from New Jersey to Los Angeles and you’ll get some version of this: ‘So, you’re from Cleveland . . . We don’t have ’em.’”

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1 Jack { 09.27.12 at 12:03 pm }

total jewish

2 Ted { 09.27.12 at 1:06 pm }


3 Kenny G { 09.27.12 at 1:56 pm }

UNBELIEVABLY long, Bert…. I can barely catch my breath! First I set the printer to “1-4”; then I have to write “5” in the box; on and on…. One day late with Yom Kippur on a Wednesday and SO many pages…. Sure hope there’s no connection there.
I’ll probably comment again once I read this manuscript.

4 marc { 09.27.12 at 1:59 pm }

Whats next, Breaking Hasidish?

5 Kenny G { 09.27.12 at 4:30 pm }

Okay, read it. Took about three hours….

These bakeries were gone by the time I got here in ’73. Did experience many Davises [bakeries, at various locations around Cleveland] (somewhat Jewish, but also reflected neighborhood found in.)

Also, Steiners, Amster’s, Fairport.

I love a GOOD Jewish bakery, and most other kinds of bakeries, too.

I’m always very fascinated with the Amish and have gone relatively frequently to “Amish Country” – both the smaller one centered around Middlefield and Mesopotamia, and the larger and far-more-touristy one within and near Holmes County. We go to their shops, cafes and restaurants that they frequent, and we listen to their conversations, (at least I do), etc.

Just like the Orthodox – the beards, hats, Germanic language….

One of many things I like about the atmosphere around University Hospital is seeing the Amish there so frequently. I’ve seen them get the pie slices in the main cafeteria. Nothing like the familiar; I wonder what they think of them.

I miss the Amish and their baked goods that were frequently appearing in the Tower City flea markets.

My Motorcars Toyota salesman “informed” me the Orthodox women are required to wear black. I set him straight – it’s their way of trying to look stylish, but hardly a religious requirement or even a many-generations custom. He seemed to barely believe me….

6 Seth { 09.28.12 at 4:05 pm }

Kritzer, Kritzer, Kritzer = coconut bars. Everyone of my relatives 75 years has verified it…yes, we’re all biased.

It’s the story that made me popular with my kids and acceptable to my friends.

I also believe that Heights Baking was a successor to one of my grandfather’s bakeries when he ended up on Coventry. Care to come with me to see what we can find in the Baker’s Union archives?

Loved Jack’s music and video…not that Uncle Milty would agree, but that’s the same view that Elizabeth Warren famously stated to counter the 1%’ers belief that they all pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, Armish buttons or orth’dox tse-tse.

7 Bert Stratton { 09.28.12 at 4:59 pm }

To Seth:

Please clarify your “75 years” in the first paragraph. Seems like you might have dropped a word.

Bakers Union archives. Wow. The secret recipe is there!

8 zach { 10.01.12 at 11:42 am }

Lots of breweries in Cleveland now. My brother lives right down the street from Fatheads (in North Olmsted) which is my favorite in the area. Buckeye Brewing is a hidden gem and Great Lakes is a don’t-miss as well.

9 Seth { 10.01.12 at 4:20 pm }

75 years or older.

Here is part of one of the 80 year old’s reply when I forwarded your blog post to him:

Dear Seth,
I suppose the the credit for those coconut bars may get misplaced in time but our grandfather was the person who created them.

He actually created several new kinds of breads that were unique. I took a couple loaves back to Bellefaire once and gave them to the director to try. He later reported they were very good!

Grandpa was very creative in his bakery but I don’t know if he ever tried to promoting them (coconut bars) elsewhere. His customers loved what he produced so he would have a tough time selling them anything else that he hadn’t produced.

If he had had an excellent education he would have had a greater success in business then he experienced!

People who knew him would stop and tell me what a good man he was. Myron and I always bragged about him to everyone we knew!

10 Kenny G { 10.03.12 at 10:12 am }

I have found the coconut bars a Cleveland thing, not a Jewish Cleveland thing. Popular in non-Jewish-related establishments, too.

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