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 GOT A GIG . . .

I landed a gig. Other musicians wanted in on it. We played for a Russian immigrants’ club at the Mayfield Road JCC, in 1988. The Russians liked the waltzes. Screw klezmer. I had hired two musicians who played with the Kleveland Klezmorim, Alan Douglass and Joel O’Sickey; and a Swiss jazz bass player, Francois Roland.

For the next gig, I hired a black jazz guitarist. All his Dm chords came out like Dm7’s (jazz chords). His name was Jewish though: Larry Ross.

Those were the first two paying Yiddishe Cup gigs. The very first Yiddishe Cup gig was non-paying. We played on John Carroll University’s Jewish hour. The radio show host — a cantor, my cantor — couldn’t turn down a fellow congregant. Also, he often requested Jewish musicians stop by John Carroll to play on his show, and few did. John Carroll is a Jesuit school. Does Yeshiva University have a Catholic hour? The line-up for the John Carroll radio gig was Sandy Starr, fiddler from Indiana U.; Francois the Swiss; and me.

The rest is  . . . whatever.

Here’s my essay that was in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Friday:

Keeping Faith with Israel

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — I’ve been hearing bad things about Zionism since at least 1975. That was the year I wore a sticker which read “I Am a Zionist.” I got the sticker at the El Al ticket counter at Ben Gurion Airport. The United Nations had just passed the Soviet-sponsored “Zionism is racism” resolution. (The U.N. revoked that conclusion in 1991.) I wore the sticker in Greece — my next stop after Israel. I was 25. In Greece, a slightly drunk Greek man kissed the sticker, mistaking it for the blue-and-white Greek flag.

Back home, several of my friends were into edgier causes than Zionism. One friend said he was going to Cuba to harvest sugar cane. He didn’t go to Cuba, but he talked about it. I took a Hebrew class at Hillel at Case Western Reserve University to pick up basic Hebrew expressions, which I then used in Israel. I had grown up attending The Temple (also known as The Temple-Tifereth Israel and Silver’s Temple) in University Circle, and hadn’t learned much conversational Hebrew. (The Temple in University Circle is now the Maltz Performing Arts Center.)

”The Temple” — the name — sounded snobby, and it was. One Shaker Heights boy got a ride to temple in a limo. The driver wore a chauffeur’s cap. The limo wasn’t a Rolls; it was a Buick station wagon. The Temple was founded in 1850 by German Jews. The Temple moved to Beachwood 25 years ago. The Temple is not snobby these days.

Last century, The Temple wore its Zionism elegantly, in a Theodor Herzl, well-bred, top-hat way. Abba Hillel Silver was the senior rabbi. He was God-like –or at least Moses-esque –with a mane of silver hair and a booming voice. Rabbi Silver — along with Rabbi Stephen Wise of New York — were the two most prominent rabbis in post-war America. In 1947, Silver addressed the U.N. General Assembly. Silver said, “We are an ancient people and though we have often on the long, hard road which we have traveled been disillusioned, we have never been disheartened. We have never lost faith in the sovereignty and the ultimate triumph of great moral principles.”

The Temple, in the 1950s, sometimes held Sabbath services on Sundays instead of Saturdays, in a nod to their congregants’ acculturation into mainstream Christian-dominated America. My family put out Easter eggs, and I got Christmas presents. (No Christmas tree, though.) On the Jewish High Holidays, my mother wrote to my teachers: “Please excuse Bert’s absence from school due to religious observances.”

In the run-up to the 1967 Six-Day War, my parents attended an Israel Bond rally for the first time. They, and a lot of other Jews, thought there might be a second Holocaust. But after the quick Israeli victory, my parents began to utter “Jew” — the word — in public places in, for instance, restaurants, not caring whether other diners overheard them. In 1967, several of my high school friends wore “Jewish Power” buttons, purchased via mail order from a hippie button shop in Greenwich Village. I didn’t wear the button. The button-wearing kids had grown up in the Jewish section of South Euclid, near Cedar Center, not with the Italians like I had, closer to Mayfield Road. That Italian bread at Alesci’s, on Mayfield Road, was my go-to purchase on my walks home from elementary school.

My “I Am a Zionist” sticker is long gone, but I recently picked up a Jewish-star pin at a benefit for the American Friends of Magen David Adom (Israel Red Cross). I have played klezmer music at many community events and dozens of Israeli Independence Day celebrations. This year’s Israeli Independence Day celebration is Tuesday, and my band will be there.

Non-Jews, intrigued by the music, sometimes come up to me after performances and ask me some tough questions: “Do Jews believe in Jesus?” “How do you say c-h-a-l-l-a-h?” “Is Israel going to make it?”

My answers are: a) Jesus was a great man, but Jews don’t consider him the son of God; b) “Challah” is pronounced with a guttural “ch,” like you’re clearing your throat; c) It’s always a bad bet to count the Jews out. We’ve been around a long time.

The Jewish community in Cleveland numbers about 80,600. A Cleveland State University professor, Samantha Baskind, recently wrote an essay about Cleveland’s Jewish community for Tablet, an online magazine. She mentioned how Cleveland sent 1,700 Jews to Washington on buses for a pro-Israel rally in Washington last year. The headline of the article was “Cleveland’s Jewish Community Punches Above Its Weight Class.”

Here in Cleveland, we hope and pray that Israel punches above its weight, too. On Tuesday, my band will play the tune “Am Yisrael Chai” for Israeli Independence Day. “Am” means “people” in Hebrew. “Yisrael” means “Israel,” but in a biblical sense, as in “children of Israel,” meaning the Jews of Israel, Cleveland, and everywhere else. “Chai” means “lives.” Put it all together and you get: The Jewish People Lives.

Bert Stratton, a frequent contributor, lives in Cleveland Heights and has also written for The Wall Street Journal and New York Times. He writes the blog “Klezmer Guy: Real Music & Real Estate.”

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1 Stan Dub { 05.15.24 at 10:58 am }

I enjoyed the column about Zionism. Actually I like many of your columns but that one was obviously poignant just now. We have met (I’m very tall and roughly the same age as you) but not recently.

My experience growing up in Cleveland was very different than yours. My parents were Holocaust survivors and our family arrived in Cleveland in 1953. We lived in Cleveland Hts, not far from Park Synagogue. I was raised orthodox, sort of, but drifted away to secularism eventually. Today I pay dues at a reformed temple (not yours) that I rarely set foot in. Years ago when I lived briefly in Akron we were undecided whether to join the (only) Conservative or (only) Reformed temple. A friend was a member of the Reformed temple and urged me to join his, arguing “why does it matter which temple you join since you’re not going to go anyway?” He was right.

My son was a junior tennis star and a strong student. He was Bar Mitzvahed at Park Synagogue, though we rarely attended anywhere after that. I’m sorry to say we did not hire your band for the party. He attended Emory University where he was starting on the tennis team as a freshman but quit. I urged him to major in something useful, like maybe accounting, but he majored in Philosophy instead. He then went to CWRU Law School, graduated, passed the Ohio Bar and was sworn in as an Ohio attorney. Then he took a 3-week trip to Israel, his first time there, and stayed. He has become ultra-orthodox (AKA haredi) and is now totally immersed in that lifestyle. Not my choice but it makes him happy. He has a nice house in an ultra-orthodox community not far from Jerusalem. His lovely wife started a business and makes a good living while he spends his days studying Talmud. They just had their 6th child. The kids are great, the oldest being 11. Go figure.

An anecdote, following up on the tune you’ll play. In 1980 I made a business trip to Rome and visited the Forum by myself. I found the Arch of Titus, erected around 75 AD to commemorate the Romans’ sack of Jerusalem. There is carving on the front of it depicting a victorious Titus in a chariot, leading a procession of Jewish slaves, one holding a large menorah. You can find that carving in any book about the Forum. It was a hot summer day and I walked inside the Arch to get some shade. Inside someone had carved into the stone, the inscription “Am Yisroel Chai L’od”. (I think that translates to “Nation of Israel, live forever”.) I thought that was very cool.

(P.S. I returned to the Arch a few years ago and found the Italians had constructed a chain link fence around the Arch to keep the tourists at bay. Too bad.)

2 Bert Stratton { 05.15.24 at 11:50 am }

Stan, that’s some comment! Comment of the year. Really enjoyed your story. (Maybe we met thru Ivan Platt, the ice cream man. Maybe something to do with tennis)

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