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.


 
 

Category — Miscellaneous

GOTTA SERVE SOMEBODY

(This is a good one. It was originally published in City Journal 12/24/15).

“I don’t like rich people,” said Irwin, the singer in my klezmer band, as we loaded in our sound equipment at the country club. The club manager as usual made us go through the kitchen door. At the luncheon—a bar mitzvah—she wouldn’t let us eat the chicken fingers at the kids’ table and would only serve us lemonade, not soda pop. Definitely no beer. We were service-industry workers.

Didn’t the club manager realize Irwin and I are middle class? Irwin is a retired middle-school art teacher. I’m a landlord. We dabble as working class several hours a weekend, period. Forty-four percent of Americans self-identify as middle class, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. “Upper middle class and upper class” account for 15 percent. “Lower middle and lower” is 40 percent. Nobody says rich.

At my apartment buildings, many of the tenants are food-service industry workers, and some don’t like me on principle; I’m the landlord. These tenants all lived rent-free as children, and now, in their twenties and thirties, they have to pay for walls and a roof. About 5 percent of the tenants don’t pay on time. Many of the servers and bartenders come home late and begin partying at 3 AM. When I ask for the rent, the tenants sometimes get sassy: “You want the rent? Let me pull your coat to this—my bathroom ceiling is still leaking.” Luckily I know some jazz slang.

My older son said I seem miserable in my real estate job. I said to him, “Nobody said the job was supposed to be fun. It’s a way to raise a family and hopefully provide decent housing.” Real estate is not music.

In the music biz, weddings are the Rolls Royce of gigs. Nobody wants to be a wedding singer except real musicians. They die for wedding gigs. The money is good and there’s often salmon. One musician in my band brought baggies to gigs. That was particularly useful at buffets. Was he middle class, working class, or just hungry? I seem to go through a couple social classes a day. I suspect most poor people don’t.

I’m a part owner of a medical office building. There, some of the tenants play golf on Wednesdays. The doctor-tenants complain unhesitatingly and often. Irwin—the artist in my band—put up six original paintings in the medical building lobby. A doctor texted me: “If you’ve got money for pictures, then paint my door.” So we painted the door. The door painter said to me, “If you gave that doctor a gold-plated key to heaven, he’d complain the lock was broke. He’s Dr. No.”

The medical building was a house of pain and uneven temperatures. Very few patients were in a good mood there, unlike at bar mitzvahs and weddings, where everybody is happy (except the club manager). I visit neighboring office buildings and say to receptionists, “I have a general question for you. How’s the temperature in here?” Everybody is too hot or too cold. I read how women and men react differently to air conditioning and heat. Apparently everybody needs their own personal bubble. I’ll probably never get the temperature right.

Irwin has memorized all of Bob Dylan’s “list songs.” Driving to a gig, Irwin sang this for me: “You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed.” When we got to the country club, we went through the kitchen door.

Dr. No was late with his rent, on purpose. He was punishing me. I was in his corner office, the area with the family pics and diplomas. Dr. No said, “Take a seat.” I sat, he stood, and he lectured me on climate control. He was hot, and I was sweating the rent. Eventually he handed me the check.

At weddings, I work with a photographer who writes “no wraps” in his contract, meaning no sandwich wraps for him. He insists on a hot meal. But sometimes you get it cold. If my food-industry tenants could have seen me in Dr. No’s office, they would have loved it.

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July 6, 2022   No Comments

THE FUNERAL STRATEGIST

I’m a funeral strategist. I advise mourners on funerals. No charge, by the way. The big Jewish funeral parlor in Cleveland is BK Broiler (Berkowitz Kumin). Some funeral services last only 15 minutes. Others go way too long. It’s bad when too many relatives speak, but I once attended a funeral where nobody spoke. That’s worse. The entire funeral was 12 minutes. Come on! The sweet spot is 25 minutes with two or three eulogies.

A tip to eulogists: don’t say, “She enjoyed traveling in her later years.” Talk about her upbringing and prime time.

I try to arrive at the funeral parlor 20 minutes beforehand, to work the family room, where relatives sit. I like to say hi, catch up, and offer my condolences.

The employees at BK Broiler wear dark suits and are very proper. They never say anything off script. They say, “This ends our service here. Please go to your cars and turn on your lights.”

Why doesn’t the chapel at B-K Broiler have windows? Are funeral-home windows forbidden in Jewish law? (Shuls must have windows, my rabbi once told me.) Maybe it’s because mourners at funeral homes don’t want to see passersby laughing and joking.

Think about it. Or don’t think about. I’ll think about it for you.

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June 29, 2022   1 Comment

A FAN’S NOTE

I got a fan letter yesterday.

Dear Bert,
My bucket list is to see you perform again. I’ve had serious medical challenges for 10 years & I want to see you perform & I want to replace my CDs, as they are worn out from overuse. Are you still writing? Are you still touring? Please let me know what your schedule is. I want to see you perform at least one more time. You have brought so much joy to so many & still do thru your CDs. God bless you.
Dianne

Dianne attached a photo of me and her together. “Me” was this guy:

b stratton cruise pianist pic

Bert Stratton — the guy above — is a pianist and singer on the Caribbean Princess cruise ship.

I wrote Diane back: “wrong bert stratton.”

Caribbean Princess Bert Stratton is my Googleganger.

A few years ago a man phoned me and said, “Bert, this is Joe. I’m upstairs.” I was in my basement. Joe was upstairs in my house? Creepy. Turned out, Joe was upstairs at the other Bert Stratton’s house.

The other Bert Stratton knows me. A Cleveland acquaintance ran into him on the ship and asked if he knew me. He did. He knew of me.

Bert has all my fan mail.

There’s a klezmer concert at Cain Park, Cleveland Hts., this Sunday (7 p.m. June 26), featuring  Jack Stratton, drums; Michael Winograd, clarinet; and Josh “Socalled” Dolgin, keyboard and vocals. Free. No tix necessary. Just show up.

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June 22, 2022   2 Comments

FOOT NOTE

The fitting room at the orthotics store had a small stage, fit for one person. I sat on the stage, and the orthotics guy sat in front of me, in the front row so to speak, and looked at my feet. He had a box with foam in it. He said, “Step in it.” I wondered what this had to do with my sore knee.

Afterward his assistant said, “That’ll be two eighty.”

$2.80?

Nope.

My wife didn’t like my outing to the orthotics store. She thought orthotics weren’t worth it — at least for me. My issue was more of a head case, she said.

The orthotics man gave me plaster of Paris casts of my feet. I have the casts in my closet in case I ever need more orthotics.

. . . More orthotics, please!

Big Bert Stratton and his klez group Yiddishe Cup perform 2 pm Sun., June 19 at the Beachwood Library, Beachwood, Ohio. The show is free and indoors. You’re supposed to make reservations ahead of time, but if you don’t, just show up and ask for “Hedy.” You’ll get in.

Li’l Jack Stratton and his klez group Yiddishe Pirat perform 7 p.m. Sun., June 26, at the Cain Park amphitheater, Cleveland Hts. The show is free and no tix necessary.

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June 15, 2022   1 Comment

BOUNCE CITY

When a rent check bounces, the bank charges me a fee. I didn’t bounce the check. Am I supposed to ask the tenant beforehand, “Is your check good or is it tissue paper?”

Eve, a tenant, ran a beauty parlor and was a chronic check-bouncer. She screamed at me: “My freaking check is good! Why don’t you put it in! I hand-delivered it to the manager yesterday.”

“The bank charges me!” I said. “I just called the bank. The teller said it was no good.”

Eve was at the bank. The check was good now, she claimed. And I had just gone to city hall and filed an eviction on her for $100.

I said, “OK, I’ll put the check in if it’s good.”

“The check is good!” she said. “I pay my rent and I intend to pay it until the end of my lease, at which point I’m out of here. And you haven’t fixed the back screen door.”

I said, “I’m evil, I know that. You don’t like me, and I don’t like you.” I hung up and called the bank.  The check was good.

Peace and love.


Yiddishe Cup plays a free outdoor concert tomorrow (6:30-8:30 pm Thurs., June 9) at the Cedar-Fairmount, Cleveland Heights. The show is in a secret location — the parking lot in back of Firestone, 12420 Cedar Rd. (The parking lot’s entrance is on Grandview Road.) Bring a chair.

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June 8, 2022   3 Comments

UNHINGED

Henry Polatsek, an elderly man in my neighborhood, gave me postage stamps. My first stamp was the 4-cent Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation (1961). Mr. Polatsek also periodically visited my elementary school and passed out stamps to all the kids. He once took me to a stamp show at the Manger Hotel. The show was just old guys and me.

I ran into Mr. Polatsek years later — when I was in my 20s — and asked him about his collection. He said it had been stolen. “Now I only collect pictures of my grandchildren,” he said.

My mother sent stamps to me when I went off to college. I told her to stop. She sent me W.C. Handy (1968) and Leif Erikson (1968). It was embarrassing — a hip college kid getting collectibles from his mom.

I gave up stamp collecting. Still, I like the idea of stamps, and I use them.

Alfred F. Stern. He was a stamp dealer on Superior Road, Cleveland Heights. I went to his apartment. He had all the American stamps, plus Israeli, U.N. and new countries. I got the first stamps from Malaysia. I still have a U.N. souvenir sheet. I got it for my Confirmation.

The U.N. and Israeli stamp markets crashed. I should use my 4-cent stamps for postage. I had a tenant who plastered her rent envelopes with low-denomination stamps. She was old and apparently a former stamp collector.

Yiddishe Cup plays a free outdoor concert next week — 6:30-8:30 pm Thurs., June 9. It’s in the parking lot in back of Firestone, 12420 Cedar Rd., Cleveland Heights. Bring a chair.

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June 1, 2022   1 Comment

BASIC STUFF

In my 30s I kvetched about not living in New York, or someplace else equally glamorous. And I judged people by their tastes in music and their bumper stickers, and where they lived. I’ve given up on all that.

In my 20s I was bad, too. I hung around with Harvey Pekar, who said to me: “I’m hateful. I’d like to have a cool way to slip my George Ade article [published in a local magazine] to my ex-wife [an academic]. She’s small-minded.” Pekar had a lot of bitterness. Worse than me. It was cool to be cynical and pissed off.

I’m still working on that — the opposite. Not being cynical and pissed off.

Getting married and staying married was my best move. Starting the klezmer band was another good move. Having kids was a terrific move. The rest is commentary, and I don’t mean Commentary.

Yiddishe Cup plays a free outdoor concert at the Cedar Fairmount district, Cleveland Hts. 6:30-8:30 pm Thurs., June 9, in the parking lot in back of Firestone, 12420 Cedar Rd. Bring a tire iron and be ready to rumble. We’ll play klezmer and soul music.

yiddishe cup 5_22_22

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May 25, 2022   No Comments

FLOWER SHOP POWER

Tim Stanton, the owner of Stanton’s Flower Shoppe, didn’t need retail any more. His walk-in trade wasn’t walking in. He was moving to a warehouse, to work the internet and crank out $400-$500 funeral home packages.

I saw Tim once more. I was with my oldest son, and Tim was with his oldest son. I said, “It’s been a good run.”

Tim agreed. He had entered the flower shop at 22 (in 1976) and walked out 33 years later. Tim often paid his rent late but included a flower bouquet whenever he did. He had known my dad. Not too many tenants went that far back. Tim said, “Your dad gave me a start. I always appreciated that.” I was glad my son got to hear that.

In the mid-1970s, I used to take lunch breaks in back of the flower shop in the alley. Probably the coolest place — temperature-wise — on the West Side. Always shady and usually with a lake breeze. I was pointing up bricks in the building basement. That was a make-work project, proposed by my dad. I wanted to be a blue-collar guy, and my father said, “Go ahead, be a blue-collar guy and see how much fun it is.”

A plumber, who saw me pointing bricks, said, “These walls are going to be standing long after you and I are both dead. Why are you doing this?”

Because my father said so. I didn’t actually say that. I didn’t say anything.

Tim Stanton — in his heyday — employed his mother, sister, brother and several others. I re-rented the flower store to a 26-year-old woman who started up a gelato shop. I hoped she would walk out 33 years later. She lasted nine years. Not bad. Now the place is a coffee shop.

About the gelato woman. The first time I met her I said, “You don’t want to be on your death bed thinking you didn’t give it a chance. People regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did.” That was my shpiel, lifted almost verbatim from Stumbling on Happiness by psychologist Daniel Gilbert. “If you don’t give it a try, you’ll never know,” I said.

Gilbert also wrote: “Because we do not realize that our psychological immune systems can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice, we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward.”

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May 18, 2022   2 Comments

PHILIP ROTH, PRIMO LEVI AND ME

Philip Roth was envious of Primo Levi. Levi was a chemist and had something to write about. Roth had nothing. Levi dealt with businessmen and scientists, plus he had his concentration-camp experiences. All Roth had was the occasional lecture at colleges, like Bard or Penn, where he interacted with young women.

Solution for Roth: He decided to do research. He would approach taxidermists and say, “I’m a novelist. You’ve probably heard of Portnoy’s Complaint. Maybe not. Can I watch you skin that cat?” Roth learned about taxidermy for I Married a Communist.

Roth and Levi and me. (It’s my blog) . . .

I used to write about nothing. No research. Sometimes I wrote about my parents or asthma. I wrote a whole novel about wheezing. I also wrote a detective novel (unpublished — like my wheezing book) about a Slovenian cop. I did the Slovenian-cop thing before novelist Les Roberts did. I once saw Roberts at a lecture at a temple. (Roberts is a lantsman.) I told him I had written a Slovenian-cop book, which had failed miserably. Roberts said, “I’m glad.” Funny. Roberts was a producer for Hollywood Squares before he moved to Cleveland. He should have stayed in California. (Roberts wrote novels about a Cleveland Slovenian cop, in case you’re lost here.)

I recently booted a tenant for nonpayment of rent, plus he was scaring other tenants by banging on the walls and swearing loudly. He said to me, “I don’t have to tell you this, because of HIPAA, but I’m bipolar and I don’t have any place to live but my car.”

I patiently listened to his story and finally said, “I wish you the best.”

“Don’t wish me anything, man. I’ve worked three jobs and now nobody will hire me. I don’t want your wishes.” He moved. More real than Roth? Less real than Levi? It is what it is, to quote somebody.

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May 11, 2022   2 Comments

HAPPINESS

Because I play happy music (i.e. klezmer), people think I know about happiness. And I do. Here are some guidelines for more happiness:

  1. Wear shorts to a wedding. You’ll draw attention to yourself and away from the bride. Perfect.
  2. Invent a new colonoscopy flavor. Don’t do pineapple, cherry, lemon-lime or orange. These flavors have been taken.  I’ll write up a story about you and submit it to the Wall Street Journal.
  3. Convert to Christianity (or Judaism). Why spend your life in one religion?
  4. Drop in on your neighbor and see what kinds of Smucker’s jelly they have. If they have Sugar Free Apricot, call the police.
  5. If you feel really bad, grip a pen horizontally in your mouth and bite down until the ink cartridge explodes. This activates the happy muscles in your face — the ones that make you smile.

I had an essay in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Sunday, “Strike up the (klezmer) bands for Ukraine.”

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May 4, 2022   1 Comment

I GOT FAMOUS

I wrote something about the Midwest — how cool and tough and underappreciated the Rust Belt is. The question: how much BS on the Rust Belt can the world absorb? A lot. My piece, “My Rust Belt Doesn’t Rust,” didn’t even mention Ukraine. Didn’t need that crutch.

The New York Times ran it. Then everybody copied the Times. The Plain Dealer picked it up. Then everybody else. I got in the International New York Times. All this because I love the Midwest. Readers in Circleville and Marquette and Muncie loved the piece.

We have better manners in the Midwest. We don’t raise our voices. We don’t care about college credentials. We resent the term “flyover country.” Right now I’m googling myself to see where my story has popped up. It’s in the Anchorage Daily News.

I live and die for the Browns, Guardians/Indians and Cavs. I miss the steel mills. I like to work hard with my hands. I play clarinet. That counts.

Google “Stratton + Rust Belt.” Amazing.

[fake profile]

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April 27, 2022   1 Comment

HORA EXPERT

I’m an expert on the Jewish hora. How it goes down or doesn’t go down. I’ve analyzed horas at simchas where I’m playing, and simchas where I’m not playing — like at family functions, where I’m just another regular Joe Jew guest. Usually I get out on the dance floor at these family celebrations and roll with the lame DJ.

One time I banged up my knee the afternoon before the relative’s bat mitzvah party. I tripped on steps while fetching earplugs for the party. I asked the bartender at the party, “Unusual request here, but can you get me a bag of ice for my knee?” No problem. I sat out the hora. It went on about 10 minutes. It was the standard DJ crap: “Now circle right, now left. Everybody into the center.”

I would have danced; I’m not a hora snob, but I was freaking out about my knee. I thought my knee might go south for months. You never know, particularly when you reach my age.

Yiddishe Cup occasionally does some simchas where we play the hora and then are replaced by a DJ. One thing  the DJ does that Yiddishe Cup can’t compete with: the DJ gets his “dance facilitators” to carry the bat mitzvah girl in on their shoulders. (At Yidd Cup gigs, we have the kids carry us in.)

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April 20, 2022   1 Comment

A WALKER IN THE CITY

Roll it . . . I buy a slice of pizza on Broadway and walk by the Cooper Union, then down St. Mark’s Place. I notice the Fillmore East is going to reopen as a circus. I go up Second Avenue and see bus ads that say Prisoner of Second Avenue on them. That’s a Neil Simon play. (When Simon was on Dick Cavett, Simon said his problem was he couldn’t stop writing.)

I arrive at 215 Second Avenue, my destination. I’m thinking of renting a room here, but the sublet guy isn’t home. A friend of his is in. He’s Joel. Another guy is here, too. He’s Joe. The guy I’m looking for is Joey. The place is a dump. All these guys are crashing here. Joel has a hacking cough and a pornographer’s beard. The windows are dirty and have iron gratings. I’ll take the place.

I use Spic and Span to clean the refrigerator and kitchen table. Joel says, “Don’t be so middle-class about it.” Joel is a graduate of Queens College, as are Joe and Joey. Joel spits blood in the toilet and doesn’t flush it. He floats his pink toilet paper! The cat shit is encrusted all over the bathroom. Joe is the editor of Monster Times.

I head over to Greenwich Village. I know a recent Brandeis graduate there who has enrolled in NYU law school. He lives on Waverly Place and is seemingly normal. He’s not in. I go to Fifth Avenue and look up a girl whose father I know from Cleveland. The doorman says I can buzz her. “I’m Bert,” I say on the intercom.

“Who?”

“Bert like in Bert Parks.”

This girl is a buyer for Bloomingdale’s. She’s heading out to New Jersey for a grand opening. I head over to the 34th Street YMCA, where I’ll spend the night, I think. A girl there — at the Y — asks me, “Where are you from?”

“Michigan.” (Michigan is cooler than Ohio.)

“I’m from Minnesota!” she says. She says she’s going to be an actress. Her boyfriend shows up.

Walkin’.

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April 13, 2022   3 Comments

MALPRACTICE

My wife, Alice, said the sore on my nose wasn’t healing, so I went to the dermatologist. He said, “I’m pretty sure this is cancer. Basel cell carcinoma. If it’s benign, we won’t call you back.”

Three weeks passed. No call back. Good. Nevertheless, I told Alice, “Maybe I should call the doctor. He said he was pretty sure it was cancerous.”

I called. The skin doctor’s receptionist put me on hold for five minutes. Then a nurse said, “We’re waiting for a fax.” I waited a long time.

The doctor got on the line: “I have to apologize. We are using a new lab, and they failed to send a report to us. I take the blame. I should have followed up. It’s basil cell carcinoma, just like I expected.”

Skin cancer. I hate that — when you beg for a diagnosis and get a bad one. Suddenly my world revolved around appointments and follow-ups. I went to a specialist who did Mohs surgery — deep-dish nose drilling.

What if I hadn’t called the dermatologist? Nobody nose.

I wrote an op-ed about baby-naming for the WSJ last week. “Who’ll Win the Baby Name Game.”

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April 6, 2022   5 Comments

I NEVER REPORT
MY MUSIC INCOME

I never report my music income. I’m a musician, not an accountant. I don’t give a shit about taxes. I play music eight hours a day, and in between I wait for the phone to ring for gigs. I have no life except music, and I’m proud of it.

I owe people money. Big deal. That’s standard in the music biz. My standard line is “Can you lend me five bucks to get home from the gig? What’s five bucks?”

One musician yelled at me, “Five bucks is pathetic! At least ask for a twenty!” He gave me a twenty. Nice.

I occasionally hock my instruments and show up at gigs with student-level gear. This, too, annoys bandleaders. Charlie Parker hocked his horn; I’m in good company! A bandleader once told me, “Tools, man, where are your tools?” I have tools — cheesy student tools, which I play better than you. I once asked a rabbi for gas money and he gave it to me. I have bad habits. I’m flawed.

What about you? Are you perfect?

[fake profile]

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March 30, 2022   1 Comment

THIS IS ABOUT YOU

I remember lillies in the alley, humming.

I remember cheese that yelped.

I remember South Euclid Home Days where Andrea Carroll sang “Please Don’t Talk to the Lifeguard.”

I remember soldiers surfing on toothbrushes.

I remember horse manure that was supposed to stink but didn’t.

I remember horses without names that cut themselves on glass.

I remember four people without names: Boris, Patty, Jake and Mona.

I remember bath towels that cried out for redemption and got it.

I remember throwing a rock through a window at Gino’s restaurant in Ann Arbor.

I remember destroying my thesis on glue because I knew I’d flunk.

I remember being on edge. Years later, I learned it wasn’t all about me.

It was about you. This is about you.

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March 23, 2022   1 Comment

A TOO-JEWISH POST

Yiddishe Cup’s most religiously scrupulous gig was for the get (divorce decree) rabbi. We played a Purim tish (gathering) at his house in Cleveland Heights. All black hats and beards. The rabbi’s drosh (speech on a liturgical text) was in Yiddish. I thought I was in a Chagall painting.

My Conservative rabbi, when he heard about the get gig, couldn’t believe I’d been in the get rabbi’s house. My rabbi had never been in there.

I knew all the rabbis in town. In Cleveland, Jewish denominations typically don’t party and pray together, so the rabbis don’t all know each other. If you want a mishmash of Jews all in the same room, go to a smaller town, like Akron, Ohio. In Akron, the Orthodox and non-Orthodox will mix it up. It’s a matter of survival. Small numbers.

Musicians, take note of this: Don’t play “Hava Nagila” for the Orthodox. They usually don’t want it. Too goyish. Nevertheless, at one Orthodox wedding, the bride’s aunt repeatedly requested the band play “Hava Nagila.” I said no. Then some New York yeshiva buchers asked me for the song. I said, “Are you trying to embarrass the band?”

“No, we heard you’re a klezmer band and we’d like to hear it.” Yeah, right.

Still, the mom didn’t want it. Again, the mom’s sister said play it. And again, the buchers said play it. The mom finally relented. We played it. The world ended.

Coda: The buchers danced with ruach to the tune. “Hava Nagila” is originally a Hasidic nign from Hungary. Look these Jewish words up. Don’t have time to translate. Gotta find my funny hat for Purim.

I had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Monday. “We Are All Ukrainians Now.”

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March 16, 2022   3 Comments

NUDE MUSIC

I used to sell klezmer. I traveled to arts booking conferences in Chicago, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh. The conferences were trade shows. I hung up a Yiddishe Cup banner in a booth and smiled at people I didn’t want to smile at. The people I smiled at were bookers, also known as presenters. They represented Carnegie Hall, the Oshkosh (Wis.) Opera House and points in between. In show-biz lang, these places are called “soft-seat auditoriums.”

My booth was sandwiched between a puppeteer, a classical pianist, and a “mentalist” — a guy who bent spoons. I was with the self-represented artists. The booths that got the most traffic were manned by talent agencies. For instance, if  a presenter wanted to hire the Klezmatics or the Klezmer Conservatory Band, the presenter would find the talent-agency booth that repped, say, klez, Irish music, jazz and dance.

This, just in . . . there are too many artists. At one Midwest Arts Conference, a portion of the exhibit hall was devoted specifically to “New Music.” I saw bookers hanging out there. I was getting no action; nobody was hanging out at my booth. And I even gave out candy! I said to the convention administrator, “Yiddishe Cup does new music.”

She said, “Klezmer isn’t new music!”

“We do nude music,” I said. I was giddy, having done nothing for two days. Still, she wouldn’t let Yiddishe Cup in to the special section.

One time, in Pittsburgh, I got sick of the whole conference schtick and went home a day early. I left a bunch of flyers at my booth. A couple weeks later I got a call from the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. We played NYC. Note that. We got that gig without me being at the booth. Lesson?

Kansas City: a Beloit College student ran up to my booth and declared his love of klezmer — klezmer in general, not necessarily Yiddishe Cup. We got that gig. Our first airplane outing. We flew to Midway, rented a van, and drove up to Beloit to play for student bodies in the college chapel.

By the way, right after we landed at Midway, we  ate at Pepe’s, a Mexican restaurant on Cicero Avenue. I still pass that place somewhat regularly, because my daughter, Lucy, lives in Chicago. The restaurant isn’t Pepe’s anymore. But it’s still Mexican. I digress.

Yiddishe Cup plays nude music.
nude music

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March 9, 2022   2 Comments

SMELLY SHUL

Congregation Beth Am’s social hall smelled. The stained drop-ceiling tiles were caked with decades of latke grease. And where did Beth Am get that gefilte fish air freshener it used in the back entrance? My bubbe’s place on Kinsman Road circa 1960 smelled better. My klezmer band, Yiddishe Cup, played the last wedding at Beth Am in 1999. The Beth Am building is now the New Community Bible Fellowship, with crowds like for Yom Kippur.

Beth Am had approximately 400 adult members on closing day. The temple membership – Conservative affiliation — debated downsizing, closing, or possibly merging with a bigger temple out east. One-fifth of the congregation voted to stay. Four-fifths said, “Let’s go.” The rabbi, Michael Hecht, said “Let’s go,” and his vote counted disproportionately. Like most congregants, I respected Rabbi Hecht. He liked opera and classical music, and he put musicians in the same category as physicians. That alone was worth paying full dues. Rabbi Hecht knew some Greek and said “musician” meant “healer by Muse,” and “physician” meant “healer by physics /nature.” I don’t know if that’s right, but it sounded good. He also said any congregant, no matter how poor, can give tzedakkah. If you’re broke, give blood, he said. That has always stuck with me.

Rabbi Hecht was not warm and fuzzy. He wouldn’t wear a full-out costume on Purim. Maybe a crazy hat, at most. He was a Yekkie (German Jew) who sermonized on how life is not fair. He said improve the planet. He said distribute “artificial justice.” Rabbi Hecht was born in Germany in 1936, came to America as a child, and started Johns Hopkins at 16. He wrote articles for Good Housekeeping, Conservative Judaism and the Cleveland Jewish News. Nothing terribly prestigious there, but still, copy. When Rabbi Hecht died at 80 in 2017, the funeral service lasted more than an hour. It was at the newer synagogue by the outerbelt – the congregation that Beth Am merged with. Many eulogizers hammered on about Rabbi Hecht’s love of music. He used to go regularly to the Cleveland Heights Library to take out classical CDs to duplicate. According to one eulogizer, Rabbi Hecht liked the Beatles. The eulogizer said “In his [Rabbi Hecht’s] collection he also had some Led Zeppelin and even Metallica.” Rabbi Hecht had three adult children. They must have been the rockers. Rabbi Hecht hated rock. It was always too loud. At a Chanukah party he told Yiddishe Cup to turn its speakers down — twice. Our sound guy finally said, “I can’t turn it down. Our sound system is completely off.”

Whenever I drive by the New Community Bible Fellowship, I think about the smelly Beth Am social hall and Rabbi Hecht, and the congregants who sniffed around.

I had an essay in the Wall Street Journal last week about playing clarinet for Holocaust survivors. “Holocaust Remembrance at Cafe Europa.”

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February 23, 2022   2 Comments

ONE COTTON-PICKIN’ YID

I get emails — which I ignore — from Hadassah magazine and The Forward. I’m a cotton farmer in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Fourth generation. I have 9,000 acres. You don’t know what an acre is, so why am I telling you this?

I have 30 employees. Right now two guys are from South Africa. Harvest season just ended. The Africans have to leave the country by tomorrow, Thanksgiving. Several Hispanics. Blacks. Whites. I treat everybody fair. I also grow soybeans and harvest pecan trees. I have a cotton gin. Everybody uses my gin.

I’m on the board of Anshe Chesed Temple in Vicksburg. My great-grandfather came over from Germany in 1886. No, I don’t live right on the farm. And no, my acreage is not one big square.

I should mention Rolling Fork isn’t too far from Yazoo City, where Stratton’s mother grew up. Stratton says he wants to take me on a tour of the Northeast. I’d lecture and he’d play clarinet. No thanks.

Stratton was just here for a family wedding. He brought his clarinet. He spent a lot of time hanging around with the wedding band, trying to convince them to let him play the hora. Didn’t happen.

Every town in the Mississippi Delta, back in the day, had at least 10 Jewish families.

I’ll stop here. I don’t do interviews. If you want to know more, visit the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in New Orleans. It’s new and I’m in it.

[This post is based on a conversation I had with a farmer at a wedding in Little Rock this month. Eighty-seven percent true. And by the way, I did play some clarinet at the rehearsal dinner.]

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November 24, 2021   3 Comments