Category — Shul Talk
I live near two large Amish settlements — Middlefield, Ohio and Holmes County, Ohio. I know some of the differences between the various Amish sects. Some Amish use battery-powered lights on their buggies. Some don’t. Some use the triangular orange “slow vehicle” sign, some don’t.
I’ve only been around Amish and Jews once. I saw an Amish man in the lobby of Green Road Synagogue — an Orthodox synagogue in Cleveland. I said to myself, “I’m wrong.”
This “Amish“ guy was probably a hipster Jew trying to look Amish, with a wide-brim hat, beard, no mustache and a vest. Like Solzhenitsyn.
I saw 15 Amish women in blue dresses and white bonnets come out of the kitchen. They carried parfaits on trays.
Then I saw a horse and buggy at the side door. (How does a horse and buggy get to suburban Beachwood? By truck.)
Solzhenitsyn stacked bales of hay in the temple lobby and brought in chickens. He was John, an Amish from Middlefield, and he worked for an Orthodox Jew who owned a mattress factory and was hosting a sheva brochas (post-wedding dinner). Yiddishe Cup played the dinner. We played our usual repertoire of Yiddish, Hebrew and klezmer. I asked the Amish buggy driver what he thought of the music. He said, “It sounds like Mozart.” Maybe because of the violin?
The man stacking the hay said some Amish in Ohio play harmonica — the 10-hole diatonic model. “That’s all, for instruments,” he said. “Other instruments [like flute, guitar] might lead to forming a band.” A Jewish joke?
The rabbi jokingly asked if Yiddishe Cup knew any Amish songs. We tried “Amazing Grace.” Probably a first for Green Road Synagogue. The Amish liked the song. We also played a Yiddish vocal, “Di Grine Kusine” (The Greenhorn Cousin), which the Amish didn’t seem to go for. I thought they would like our Yiddish repertoire, since the Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch.
Now I know: go easy on the Yiddish at Amish-Jewish parties.
The Klezmer Guy trio plays Nighttown, Cleveland Hts., 7 p.m. Tues., April 23. $10. Play it safe and make a res: 216-795-0550.
An evening of social commentary, plumbing tips, and song. As if Garrison Keillor was raised on pastrami.
Alan Douglass, piano and vocals; Bert Stratton, clarinet and prose; Tamar Gray, vocals . . .
Next week “Klezmer Guy” posts up on Tuesday (April 23) instead of Wednesday. Just so I can remind you one more time about the April 23 Nighttown gig.
Mazel Tov to Sen. Jack Stratton (I-Calif.) for reaching his goal on Kickstarter. His band, Vulfpeck, hit the mark today.
Jack the Tummler . . .
April 17, 2013 1 Comment
A tenant called my father, Toby, and said, “It’s 54 degrees in this apartment. I’m cold. I can’t even take a bath.”
“We’ll get you some heat,” my dad said. Old buildings are hard to heat; some suites boil while others freeze. Hopefully, the sun would come out tomorrow and raise all apts.
A second tenant called. She said her rent would be late. I answered that call. I said OK, basically.
Toby said to me, “You’ve got to get on them sometimes.”
“I quit,” I said.
“Go ahead and quit. If you want to get temperamental on me, quit.” Toby didn’t raise his voice. I wasn’t worth histrionics.
“I’m out of here,” I said.
I went to the Cleveland Clinic to a headache specialist. He said I should drink more alcohol, and if that didn’t work, try biofeedback.
Benny — a building manager — said I should put a cold potato on my head. He said, “Put the potato in a refrigerator, cut the potato into pieces, and put them in a cloth around your head. It sucks the swelling right out.”
I went to the JCC for a massage and tried the whirlpool.
My dad died from leukemia. My then-5-year-old son said, “You won’t see Grandpa Toby again. Never! He’s dead.”
My headache suddenly went away.
Now I had a real headache — running the business.
This happened last month . . .
CLEVELAND’S FUNNIEST RABBI CONTEST
I was a judge at Cleveland’s Funniest Rabbi contest at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. I knew three of the five rabbis. One rabbi had hired Yiddishe Cup for various temple functions. Another recently hired Yiddishe Cup for a simcha. A third rabbi religiously books Yiddishe Cup for Chanukah.
Was I biased? Was I on the take?
The rabbis told jokes in front of 250 paying customers. The judges — three of us — made public comments and rated the rabbis. Afterward, an audience member said to me, “You were very nice.”
Why not be nice? It’s petrifying to tell jokes in front of 250 people. Besides, the rabbis were raising money — for the Maltz Museum? (For me?)
I stocked-piled interesting adjectives in advance. My arsenal: droll, gut-busting (didn’t use that one), cheery, sharp, zany, wacky, witty and perturbing.
Nobody was perturbing, unfortunately.
I gave the highest rating — a 10 — to the rabbi who eventually won. Turns out he wasn’t even a rabbi. And I didn’t know him. (He owes me a gig.) The winner was Kiva Shtull, a retired ER doctor, a mohel and the spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Shalom, Bainbridge Township. He got wry, droll and zany.
He’s a mohel with a sharp sense of humor. Worth watching:
More funny. Benyamin Bresky cornered Yiddishe Cup for an interview on Israel National Radio. The interview begins with Yiddishe Cup’s version of “Essen,” which Ben declares “the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.” Click here.
March 6, 2013 2 Comments
Beth El–the Heights Synagogue is the cool shul in Cleveland. Beth El recently held a jazz jam night.
Bud Sullivan blew tenor sax in the shul basement. I almost didn’t unpack my clarinet when I heard Bud’s quality licks. I eventually played along to “I Got Rhythm” and read a blog piece.
The rules for the next jazz night at Beth El: no prose or poetry.
I don’t think it was me. A poet read a five-minute screed about Nazi death camps. I — and probably others — hit the scotch schnapps hard after that guy. A comedian followed with Jewish jokes — straight from the Internet — for another five minutes. Deadly.
I’m a member of Park Synagogue, a block from Beth El. Park Synagogue is to Beth El as U. of Michigan is to Oberlin. Beth El is crunchy, cool; Park is the “big tent” champion – filled with thousands of hot, cold and in-between Jews. (I like both shuls.)
At Park Synagogue, I once brought in an Orthodox-style rapper for Purim. The rapper was half Orthodox/half reggae-man. The congregants nearly plotzed: a rap-a-holic in peyes and all- black.
This Purim Yiddishe Cup collaborates with a soul singer. Her name is Tamar. Perfect.
Bring your schnapps. You might need it.
Sly and the Family Stein at Park Synagogue.
Yiddishe Cup plays Purim at Park Synagogue, Cleveland Heights, Sat. (Feb 23). The service is 7:15-7:45 p.m.; the Jewish music is 7:45-8:45 p.m.; the Sly and the Family Stein portion begins around 9 p.m. Free. Open to the public. Wear a 1960s costume if you want.
I wrote “Rust Belt Chic” for today’s CoolCleveland.com.
This video has some chazones (cantoral music) in it.
Is this what a hipster looks like? . . .
February 20, 2013 3 Comments
My 32nd wedding anniversary was no milestone.
But it was, sort of, because I got my wife, Alice, to go to synagogue — a major accomplishment. I used the come-on of a free bottle of wine.
My temple passes out Israeli wine to all the anniversary couples. For example, every married couple with an October anniversary gets a bottle of vino on the first shabbat in October. Alice and I took our places on the bima (altar), next to eight other couples, while the congregation sang and clapped along to “Simon Tov,” a song of congratulations. Thirty-two years of marriage was worth something — a bottle of wine. The “winning couple,” as the rabbi put it, was celebrating 55 years of marriage.
It was like a Reverend Moon ceremony. The congregants read aloud: “These couples have come to the synagogue to give thanks for the institution of marriage and for their mutual love and devotion.”
No preening bat mitzvah girls on the bima. No nervous bar mitzvah boys. Just married couples: old guys with gray ponytails, younger guys in bankers’ suits.
The Bible reading that week was from the Creation Story. The rabbi mentioned that ever since Adam and Eve fouled up, we are all going to die, which makes life interesting. Because if we lived forever, we wouldn’t do anything. For instance, “Why diet if you can put it off for 500 years?” the rabbi said. “Things get more interesting when there are time constraints.”
What did Adam and Eve do when they became empty-nesters? They had no peers. Who did they hang out with?
We went to the Oak Road duplex we had rented as newlyweds. The owner of the duplex wouldn’t let us in.
We went to our starter house, where our three kids were born. We got in. The bungalow looked better than when we had lived there. The kitchen had been gutted and remodeled.
We went home –- to our present house, where we bounce off the walls nightly, waiting for grandchildren to appear.
One in four divorces is by 50-and-overs. About half my friends are divorced and/or remarried. I look for reinforcements for long-term marriage wherever I can. I need an ally.
I found one. No, two: the synagogue and a bottle of wine.
This happened in 2010. Been back for more wine since.
I wrote a quasi-review (more of a rant) about Harvey Pekar’s latest — and probably last — comic book. The review is at today’s CoolCleveland.com.
October 17, 2012 8 Comments
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 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 CoolCleveland.com last year (12/6/11). This version has more illustrations and pics!
BEER AND COCONUT BARS
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.”
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?
“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.’”
September 27, 2012 10 Comments
On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, I’m on the Shaker Lakes bridge, hanging out with the Reconstructionist crowd. The Reconstructionist Jews are here for the Tashlikh ceremony. (Tashlikh is Hebrew for “casting off” – the symbolic casting-away-of-sins ceremony. Participants toss crumbs into a river or lake.)
I’m not a Reconstructionist, but I know a lot of the shul members.
I see others too. The guy who comes every day with his dachshunds, and the paraplegic guy, Brian. I run into a Swedish-American who is a convert. He says, “The Swedes taught the Jews about herring when the Swedes conquered Poland.” Good info.
The Recons leave, and a chavurah (small worship group) from a large Conservative synagogue comes through. A member tells me about a bar mitzvah in Minnesota that was too loud. Tell me about it.
The Recons at 3:30, the chavurah at 4:30.
I could go to Park Synagogue at 4:45 p.m., but that would be too much tash-likhing.
The Park Synagogue rabbi, at the morning service, had said, “It’s easy to do the right thing when you’re in shul, but the big test is the day after Rosh Hashanah — the days after the holidays. The routine days. The days when your wife shrinks your favorite sweatshirt, or you run a stop sign.”
Question, rabbi: Am I allowed to be bad on Rosh Hashanah — before I start to be good?
I get a phone message from a new tenant Rosh Hashanah afternoon. He has yet to move in. He needs to talk to me.
I tell my wife, “The guy doesn’t want to move in. I can smell it.”
I can’t resist calling him back. It’s late Rosh Hashanah. Around 6 p.m. I can do business at 6 p.m.
The guy is going to catch a break. I am not going to be vainly ambitious, grossly envious, insanely selfish, or indifferent to him.
“My mother is very sick,” he says. “I can’t move in.” He is 25. His mother is very sick like my mother is very sick; my mother is dead. The guy is lying. Not many 25 year olds have very sick mothers. I could ask him what exactly his mother has. I could ask him for a letter from the doctor. Instead, I say, “I’m sorry to hear about your mother,” and I tell him he won’t get his security back because he kept the apartment off the market for five weeks.
He says, “How about half back?”
I say no.
I have heard too many young people talk about their very sick mothers.
“My God, the soul you have given me is pure.” That’s in the Tashlikh prayer.
My soul is about 49-percent pure. That’s as good as it gets in the real estate biz. The kid found a cheaper place down the street, or moved in with his girl friend. That’s my guess.
Footnote: This was Rosh Hashanah, 2010.
ROSH HASHANAH PRAYER
There are risks that go along with being active.
Don’t be static. You’ll have plenty time for that when you’re gone.
The devil (yetzer hora) is always working. He don’t take no vacation.
Adapt to a colostomy, mastectomy, prostate surgery, the inability to walk, depression.
Don’t focus on what you’ve lost.
Focus on what’s good and what’s right in front of you: your children, your parents, the memories of your parents, your relatives, your friends, your community.
Life is not for the weak-hearted. Display some willpower! Do not take the short view. Seasons come and go. Get used to it.
This year we will not get wrapped up in things evil, harmful, or petty.
The health of our body is not just our singular “body,” but it’s our “bodies” — the people we work with, the people we love, the people we hang out with, the people we pray with.
Social isolation is not good. We’re all connected, particularly on days like Rosh Hashanah.
This is a day of aspiration and hope.
It’s our only hope.
Do not dwell on the bad. That is too easy.
Aspire to change. Focus.
September 12, 2012 3 Comments
When my parents spent winters in Florida, I occasionally represented them at their friends’ funerals in Cleveland.
I didn’t like the work. My mother would call from Boca Raton and say, “Edith was such a good friends of ours. Please go, son.”
But I went. The hardest part was walking from my car to the shiva house. I pictured a bereaved relative opening the door and saying, “Who are you? Have you no decency? We don’t want any!”
That never happened. I mingled with mourners. I was often the youngest non-relative there. Occasionally the rabbi would recognize me . . . “You have such a Stratton punim.” I looked like my mom or dad. Take your pick.
I eavesdropped. That was the action. An old woman said, “When I feel sick, I want to die. Then I get better and want to live.”
“Let me tell you something, deary,” another woman said. “They don’t ask when you want to die.”
My Cleveland Heights friends didn’t talk like that. They talked about marathons, 10Ks and Tommy’s milk shakes. A rabbi talked to me about the Cleveland Browns. Rabbis are into sports now, but a generation ago it wasn’t that common.
A food broker said, “I sell Heinen’s.”
Heinen’s didn’t interest me — not until at least fifteen years later.
I spent about twenty minutes per shiva call. The mourners were always appreciative.
My parents made me do it.
While shiva repping, I met a California man who produced Joel Grey’s shows for 27 years. I said, “I’ll send you my band’s CD and you can show it to Joel. No, on second thought, I won’t send it, because Joel might sue me for ripping off Mickey Katz tunes.”
“Don’t worry,” the producer said. “Lebedeff’s people tried to hit Joel up for royalties on ‘Romania, Romania’ for years. No luck.”
Yiddishe Cup plays 7 p.m. tomorrow (Thurs. Aug. 9) at Cain Park, Alma Theater, Cleveland Hts. We’re doing a tribute to Mickey Katz.
A documentary filmmaker from D.C. plans to be there. You might wind up in the movie.
Tickets are $20-22 in advance and $23-25 manana. Discounts for seniors and students. www.cainpark.com and 216-371-3000.
August 8, 2012 1 Comment
Rabbi Samuel Benjamin — from my synagogue — was arrested by the cops and beat up by congregants. Then he got fired. He went off to Jerusalem.
He resurfaced stateside in Jacksonville, Florida.
This was in 1926. Rabbi Benjamin fought the great Conservative-Orthodox civil war at the Cleveland Jewish Center, East 105th Street, in the early 1920s.
Rabbi Benjamin oversaw the construction of a huge new sanctuary, complete with a swimming pool, and was supposed to keep the shul Orthodox. He tried. But the Conservatives wanted him out. Punches were thrown. One of the punchers was a certain Philip Rocker. Check it out.* The rabbi left town.
The Cleveland Jewish Center, aka the “Polish synagogue,” aka Anshe Emeth Beth Tefilo, stayed at East 105th Street for a couple decades, then moved to a park-like setting in Cleveland Heights.
I belong to the Heights shul — Park Synagogue. I do not see any signs of civil war. Very few congregants know about Rabbi Benjamin.
Rabbis don’t get in fights like they used to, either. Does any rabbi don boxing trunks with the Jewish star? I think there is a Russian rabbi in New York who does. [Yes, Yuri Foreman. Photo: Foreman taking a punch from Miguel Cotto.]
My rabbi doesn’t fight — my guess. If he does, he’s a welterweight. He’s not big.
Some rabbis play basketball. Several Cleveland rabbis played an exhibition basketball game at the Cleveland Cavaliers pre-game this month. There was no score in ten minutes.
Next year for the pre-game, the rabbis should reenact the Conservative-Orthodox civil war of 1921.
* “Near [Rabbi Benjamin's] house was Philip Rocker, son of Samuel Rocker of The Jewish World. He waited for the rabbi and when he saw him he attacked him and beat him up quite severely.” From Jewish Life in Cleveland in the 1920s and 1930s by Leon Wiesenfeld, 1965.
Jumping ahead about 90 years . . .
THE JEWISH WEDDING BAND WARS, 2009
The Orthodox Jewish (OJ) music scene is centered in New York City, where most of the OJ gigs are.
An OJ band not based in New York is called an “out of town” band, even if the band plays its own hometown. There are a couple home-grown “out of town” OJ bands in Cleveland.
The Barry Cik Orchestra dominated the Orthodox Jewish Cleveland music scene in the 1980s. Cik had yikhes (lineage), coming from a long line of distinguished Hungarian musicians. I played a couple gigs with him. His talented son Yehuda became an Ortho pop star.
Barry Cik was superseded in Cleveland by the Kol Simcha Orchestra in the 1990s. Some bridal couples perceived Cik as not being frum (religiously observant) enough. The Orthodox world, in general, was becoming increasingly more ritually observant.
Cik placed an ad in the Cleveland Jewish Times (no longer in existence) in 1991 that read in part: “I am as scrupulous in shimras Shabbos [guarding the Sabbath] as I can be, and I don’t believe that I’m any less Shomer Shabbos [Sabbath-observant] than most anybody else.”
Cik sometimes played for non-Orthodox Jewish simchas (celebrations) with mixed dancing — men and women dancing together. Kol Simcha — the new band– typically didn’t play for mixed dancing. Kol Simcha picked up a chunk of Cik’s frummer gigs.
Kol Simcha’s drummer got in trouble for using treyf (non-kosher) meat at his kosher Chinese restaurant, so he left town. Still, Kol Simcha — the band — stayed in business. The lead singer, Rabbi Simcha Mann, was a very good singer.
Several years later Simcha Mann’s expert keyboard player, Yosef Greenberger, put together a one-man band, which cut into Kol Simcha’s full-band wedding business.
Simcha Mann and Yosef Greenberger took their dispute to an unofficial beis din (house of judgment), where three rabbis decided Greenberger could keep his one-band and Rabbi Mann could have the full-band scene. The two musicians agreed not to cut into each other’s turf.
This ruling held for 13 years, 1996 to 2009.
In 2009 Greenberger and Mann remembered the ruling differently. Greenberger recalled the rabbis saying the ruling was void if new competition came to town. Greenberger’s Jewish-law counsel, his toyan, backed him up in writing. Mann disagreed.
New bands were playing Cleveland. Yosef expanded to a full band. Orthodox bands from Columbus, Ohio, and Detroit came through. A young Orthodox musician started a new Cleveland Ortho band.
Yiddishe Cup joined the fray! But Yiddishe Cup had three major flaws:
1. Yikhes (lineage/pedigree). We had none.
2. We didn’t know the OJ repertoire very well.
3. Yiddishe Cup’s name was unorthodox.
For Ortho purposes, Yiddishe Cup became Shir Perfection. (Shir is Hebrew for song.) We had an Ortho singer who knew all the Ortho tunes. We held a couple rehearsals. These get-togethers were secretly called Project O. (‘O” for Orthodox.) One musician called our project “Project Zero”; he didn’t like OrthoRock music and dropped out.
We didn’t get any gigs. We thought we might get a couple. For instance, Yiddishe Cup once played an OJ wedding for the daughter of an Orthodox blues harmonica player. The dad, who didn’t blow on shabbes, sat in with us.
We were looking for Ortho gigs like that.
March 28, 2012 11 Comments
If I didn’t lead a klezmer band, I might not hire one. Yiddishe Cup might be too Jewish for me.
“Too Jewish” means anything — or anybody — more Jewish than oneself. Example: Franz Rosenzweig, a German Jewish intellectual, said nothing Jewish — no matter how far out — was alien to him. I tried Franz’s approach: I davened (prayed) with the yeshiva buchers in Boro Park, Brooklyn; drank schnapps at Telshe Yeshiva, Cleveland; and soaked in the mikvah (ritual bath) in Cleveland Heights. Also, I read Rabbi Sherman Wine’s God-is-dead books. I covered a lot of humentashn (bases).
Would I hire a klezmer band?
I did. I hired Yiddishe Cup three times — for my kids’ b’nai mitzvot parties. (And I got a decent price.)
1. For my daughter’s bat mitzvah party, I also hired a troupe of hospital-therapy dogs for the cocktail hour.
2. For my younger son, we had a DJ party, plus the klez band party. My son organized the DJ party. He hired the DJ — himself.
3. My older son had a trivia quiz, plus the klezmer band. That worked out well. He wound up on Jeopardy!
Yiddishe Cup plays, at minimum, 15 minutes of Jewish music, and we use a dance leader, so everybody knows what to do.
Naturally, the goys like us best. Jews have hang-ups.
I know about Jews and hang-ups. I have belonged to more shuls than the Pope. I was Reform, then Conservative, then Reform, and now Conservative again.
My friends and relatives don’t always hire Yiddishe Cup. But I go to their parties and have a good time. The weddings are enjoyable; the bar mitzvahs are sometimes difficult. The DJ and his “dance facilitators” can be loud and obnoxious. The DJ announces, “The young adults will gather on the dance floor for a group photo.”
Get in the picture yourself, DJ. You look 18. And the “young adults” are not young adults, they’re animals. Stow the glow sticks. Bring out the cattle prods.
The optimal level of Jewishness is Yiddishe Cup with therapy dogs.
Yiddishe Cup plays The Ark 8 p.m. Sat (Feb.4), Ann Arbor, Mich. Here is an unrepresentative video from last year’s show:
February 1, 2012 11 Comments
Zemach Zedek, on Lee Road by the old Cleveland Heights post office, is the only storefront shul left in Cleveland.
I was in Zemach Zedek (Z.Z.) a few months ago with my cousin’s teenage son Aaron, who was visiting from Kansas City. Aaron is Orthodox and wanted to go to morning minyan (quorum).
Because I’m a lefty, I needed left-handed tefillin (tefillin). The nine other guys in the minyan had to scramble for lefty tefillin. (Lefty tefillin are wrapped different than righty. Fact: Lefty tefillin go on the right arm.)
Afterward, I asked Aaron if he wanted to go back the next day to daven (pray). He said, “I don’t think anybody there speaks English. It was like Europe or something.” So we went to Green Road, to a Modern Orthodox shul.
I knew the rabbi at Z.Z. Rabbi Kazen. He wasn’t there. He was living with family in New York, I heard.
Chabad-Lubavitch –- headquartered in New York –- had sent Rabbi Kazen out to Cleveland in 1953. Rabbi Kazen was a shochet (ritual slaughterer) at Coventry Poultry while running the shul. Coventry was the last live kosher poultry market in Cleveland. (Rabbi Kazen was involved in a few “lasts.”) Coventry Poultry closed in 1995 to make way for a parking garage. My wife, Alice, did a photo project on Rabbi Kazen in 1980:
I admired Rabbi Kazen. He drove a school bus — often filled with Russian immigrants — and lived on Glenmont Road in the student area. He appeared to be the emes: the real thing. He fed the poor and was usually in a good mood. Rabbi Kazen looked like Menachem Schneerson, the late head rabbi of Chabad. (No biggie. Half of Chabad looks like Rabbi Schneerson.)
I first heard the word freylekh at Rabbi Kazen’s in 1978. A davener (worshipper) said to Rabbi Kazen, “Your daughter’s khasene, rabbi, it should be freylekh.”
What? I didn’t understand the Yiddish “punch line.”
I guessed the first part correctly (chasene) from the context. Wedding. [Years later, an Orthodox woman said to me, “Does Yiddishe Cup play chasenes?” I said, “Yes, we’ve played for Hadassah.” She said, "Chasenes!"]
I asked the davener at Rabbi Kazen’s what freylekh meant.
Freylekh is “cheerful, lively.”
Freylekhs is also a klezmer term for a lively fast dance. I say “freylekhs” a lot now. I announce: “The band is going to play a freylekhs, hora, ‘Hava Nagilah’ medley . . . whatever.” And we hit the downbeat.
Rabbi Kazen died last week at 92 in New York.
Strike up a freylekhs — and a “Chicken Dance” lick — for Rabbi Kazen and Z.Z.
July 20, 2011 11 Comments
The “shul with a pool” movement peaked in the 1920s. Major synagogues in large Eastern and Midwest cities sometimes built sanctuaries with pools attached. My shul – at its previous location (East105th Street, Cleveland) — had an indoor pool. It’s still there, the pool and the shul (now Cory United Methodist Church).
The church has famous Jews’ names carved into the frieze. Hillel, Maimonides, Rashi . . .
Jews and swimming. It’s in the Talmud somewhere: A Jew must learn to swim.
I started my serious swimming — my lap swimming– at the Mayfield JCC in 1995. I thought I was going to jail; that dingy pool had no natural light. Russian women in bathing caps and Russian guys in Black Sea briefs bumped into me in the lap lane.
For serenity, I tried the newer JCC in Beachwood. But that didn’t solve my problem. A doctor/lap swimmer there thought he was playing water polo. He would bump and splash me. I liked the guy but not in the water.
My favorite indoor lap pool is at the Intercontinental Hotel in Chicago. I’ve only been there once, but I’d like to go back. My daughter, Lucy, a renowned globe-trotting event planner, lined up the Intercontinental-with-pool for me.
Johnny Weissmuller trained at the Chicago Intercontinental (formerly a Shriners’ athletic club and hotel). It’s an historic landmark.
The most beautiful part of the Chi pool: three signs that read laps only. The pool’s fourth lane has an open swim sign. Usually it’s the other way around: Three lap lanes for horsing around and one for swimmers.
I politely asked a young dad and his bobbing kid to leave my lap lane. They did. Then other bobbing dorks encroached. Couldn’t these kids read laps only? There was no lifeguard. I muttered, “What a disaster.”
The young dad, overhearing me, said, “The sun is out! You’re alive! Sorry if we’re ruining your swimming.”
The dad did not understand lap swimming. He did not realize lap swimming is a quasi-religious experience. Lap swimming is a combination of mediating, praying, thinking and just zoning out. A lap swimmer needs a shul in a pool.
The New York Times ran an op-ed piece by me on Sunday. Click here to read it. The article was about love, junk food and Jewish tongue.
Why didn’t the Times use this Ralph Solonitz illustration?
May 11, 2011 11 Comments
Bialy’s Bagels in University Heights, Ohio, was my bagel supplier for years. I would go swimming; go to Bialy’s; buy 15 bagels; eat two; drive to my mother’s, give her three; and take the rest home.
I was on a bagel diet; I actually thought eating sesame and poppy seed bagels was a good thing.
My back-up bagel purveyor was Amster’s at Cedar Center. The counter woman there, Marilyn Weiss, volunteered for school levies, racial integration projects, and did a ton of schlep work at my shul. Amster’s was all about Marilyn’s personality. Unfortunately, she died in 2000, and the place closed a few years later.
I also went to Better — as in “Better Bagel” — on Taylor Road. The owners were New Yorkers who wore kippot (yarmulkes) and Brooklyn Dodgers shirts. I figured they knew bagels.
They didn’t. Their bagels were too doughy and not crispy enough on the outside. Better Bagel changed its name to Brooklyn Bagel. No better.
Go to Bialy’s. If Bialy’s ever closes, we’re in bagel trouble in Cleveland.
April 20, 2011 15 Comments
Yiddishe Cup does the occasional Torah march. We escort Torah scrolls and marchers in a parade from a “desanctified” synagogue to a newer synagogue.
We’re doing a Torah march Sunday, going from tiny Congregation Bethanyu in Pepper Pike, Ohio, to B’nai Jeshurun Congregation (BJ), a half mile away.
BJ is a shul-eater. It eats guppy shuls.
BJ is one of two “big tent” Conservative synagogues in Cleveland. The other is Park Synagogue. Park is bigger, but BJ is working on its mergers and acquisitions.
Two of BJ’s “guppy” meals were temples that had split off from BJ and — after decades of independence — re-docked with the mother ship (BJ).
Jewish unity: Jewnity. Jewnity means all Jews under one roof.
Rabbi Milton Rube, the emeritus rabbi at Bethanyu — the tiny shul that is closing — had been an assistant rabbi at BJ in the 1970s, when he and a group of young congregants split off. That’s how it goes; the young rabbi and young congregants think the stodgy old rich members are running the show too much.
Last month, in the Cleveland Jewish News, Rabbi Rube said he personally won’t re-dock with BJ. He’s joining Park — the competition.
This is newsworthy, but not everybody thinks so. I tried to discuss Rabbi Rube at shabbes dinner (because temple gossip is a shabbes tradition at my house), but my friends at the shabbes table didn’t know what I was talking about. Did they even read the Cleveland Jewish News? No. Did they think the Jewish News was only for their parents? Yes. And their parents are mostly dead.
What if some day there is only one “big tent” Conservative shul left in Cleveland? Which will it be, Park or BJ? Who’s interested in that discussion?
If you are, please bring a challah (preferably from On the Rise bakery), a side dish and terrific chocolate dessert to my house this Friday night.
THIS BLOG IS UPDATED every Wednesday morning. No more Friday morning updates. (Nobody was checking in then anyhow.)
Please stop by here every Wednesday morning for the latest. That’s probably what you’re already doing.
The Wednesday-morning tan email reminders will continue to go out, as usual.
April 6, 2011 11 Comments
Maybe a collage artist can do something with my yarmulke collection, from 22 years’ worth of gigs. I know an artist — a bad one — who did something with old saxophone reeds.
My Guatemalan yarmulkes, crocheted by Mayan Indians, are from neo-hippie weddings. There are no bouquet tosses, garter-belt strip routines, or formal introductions at these weddings. The Mayan kippot (yarmulkes) are particularly popular with female rabbi brides. That’s a niche — weddings of women rabbis — that Yiddishe Cup has cornered in the Midwest.
The most heymish lids are grandmas’ knitted yarmulkes.
My blue suede yarmulkes are from A-1 Skull Caps. The lids don’t breathe. Skull cap. I like a yarmulke that breathes.
Camouflage kippahs exist, too. One Yiddishe Cup musician, a pacifist, declined to wear his camo lid at a Zahal-themed bar mitzvah. Zahal is the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The bar mitzvah boy’s father wore combat boots and a full Israeli uniform. The band wore IDF T-shirts and camouflage yarmulkes. (Nobody noticed our musician in street clothes.)
I have six purple kippot from a bar mitzvah. I thought the band might want to wear the lids again at another bar mitzvah. Go for the clean David Clark Five look. The guys declined.
We wore sports yarmulkes — plus basketball jerseys — at a sports-themed bar mitzvah party. The party even had a cheerleading squad:
Mazel tov / Let’s shout hurray / It’s Jeremy and Sam’s bar mitzvah day!
I say oy / You say vey / Jeremy and Sam are men today!
Yiddishe Cup’s keyboard player, Alan Douglass, frequently asks, “Is this a yarmulke gig?” He’s a goy and can’t figure out what’s up with the various Jewish denominations.
My Conservative rabbi wears a throwaway satin lid that funeral homes and synagogues give out. He apparently doesn’t want to look different from his congregants. I haven’t asked yet — after 20 years — why he wears the throwaway.
My white satin yarmulke from Dec. 9, 2007 has “Ananth Uggirala” — the groom’s name — in it. The groom’s parents were Anjaneyulu and Manorama Uggirala. I had to announce them. Tip, please.
You need good hair clips for a yarmulke. Bobby pins are the worst; they take your hair out with the yarmulke. Duck bill clips – also no good. The best clips are the surfboard barrettes. If you don’t have these clips, get some, particularly for outdoor gigs.
If you drop a yarmulke, you don’t have to kiss it before putting it back on. A lid is a lid. It’s not a holy object. Also, goys, wear the lid at the wedding ceremony; you’re not exempt.
At an American-Israeli wedding, one of the chuppah (bridal canopy) bearers smoked and balanced a drink. His yarmulke fell off. Secular Israelis, they’re funny that way.
It’s shocking when you see an Orthodox guy without a lid. For instance, an Orthodox man might go into a non-kosher restaurant on a road trip and take his yarmulke off. (Some Orthodox, when in the sticks, will go to a fast-food place for a salad.)
I wore a yarmulke for a week when I hitchhiked the coast of California in my twenties. I had seen a photo of Bob Dylan wearing a yarmulke at the Western Wall. Dylan did yahm-ops at The Wall every couple decades, it seemed.
My Easter basket of yahms makes for a moderately interesting pop-psych experiment on shabbes: Who is going to take the pink, who is going to take the matzo-textured lid, and who is going to hide behind the black lid?
Have fun with lids. That’s in the Torah somewhere.
January 5, 2011 8 Comments
My nephew visits Big League baseball stadiums around the country as a hobby.
I visit Big League klezmer towns in the Midwest as a hobby. My remarks (below) are challah-to-challah comparisons. I’m not comparing Milwaukee to Paris.
The best Midwest klezmer towns:
1. Pittsburgh . . . Squirrel Hill, Shadyside. Everything you need. (Pittsburgh is not in the Midwest, but so what. It is west of the Alleghenies.)
2. Chicago. The Midwest klez capital. Maxwell Street Klezmer Band is the band in the Midwest. A Cleveland boy — a Northwestern student — worked in the Maxwell Street office; I had that kid wired. Yes, a klez band with office help. Chi is that big. Powerful klezmer forces prevail in Chi. Max Street does not allow Ohio bands within 80 miles of The Loop. Yiddishe Cup played Rockford, Ill., once.
3. Detroit. West Bloomfield, a Motown suburb, has Temple Israel, a very attractive modern temple. There is such a thing. At concerts, the Temple Israel ark is curtained off by a striking yarmulke mandala.
4. Kansas City — as marvelously tough as Cleveland. KC’s Country Club Plaza is like Shaker Square but bigger and older.
5. St. Louis. Yiddishe Cup played there twice, then it all died out — the gigs. My Cleveland rabbi, who is from St. Louis, has a couple seats from the old Busch stadium. He should install the seats on our shul’s bima (altar) and invite Enos Slaughter to give the d’var torah (torah lesson/sermon).
Good custard — Ted Drewes — in St. Louis. Similar to Cleveland’s East Coast Original Frozen Custard.
6. Milwaukee. Its claim to fame: songwriter Sigmund Snopek III, who wrote “Thank God This isn’t Cleveland.”
7. Minneapolis. There are a lot of klez bands up there: Prairie Heym Klezmorim, Klezmerica, etc. Two much klez in Minnie. Yiddishe Cup will never play there.
8. Cincinnati. The Plum Street Temple, where Stephen Wise officiated, is the most rakish and Moorish synagogue in the country. Check it out.
9. Buffalo. Terrific art museum. Underrated.
10. Indianapolis. Overrated. A suburb of Atlanta.
Cleveland isn’t ranked. That wouldn’t be fair. But off the record, Cleveland is number one.
This blog will now come out TWICE A WEEK: WEDNESDAY and FRIDAY mornings.
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The week’s total verbiage will be roughly the same, but in two chunks instead of one.
Please return here on Friday morning, Nov. 5, for Chunk 2. (Or don’t drop by on Friday, and catch up next Wednesday. Same old routine.)
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November 3, 2010 5 Comments
I sometimes celebrate the High Holidays a week or two before the real ones. I have the shul almost to myself. The upside: no annoying people.
However, this plan defeats one of the purposes of the High Holidays– hanging out with large numbers of Yidn. My rabbi says if you attend the real High Holidays– and shul in general– you’ll feel less lonely.
I sometimes get agitated on Rosh Hashanah morning because there is so much commotion and noise in the shul. Then the rabbi sermonizes about loneliness and community, saying, “Hell is other people according to Sartre, but what’s the alternative– sitting at home in your underwear watching reruns?” Point taken.
In the sanctuary, I see a doc who gave me a colonoscopy. I see, several rows over, a PhD scientist who is so anti-religious his seat needs an ejection button; his wife forced him to come. The guy next to me, a real estate broker, says, “How’s occupancies?”
“Commercial, bad. Residential, OK,” I say. I don’t mind some biz talk on yuntif. No big deal.
I see a weight-loss doc in the loges (the elevated seating around the perimeter of the sanctuary). Her picture is occasionally in the Cleveland Plain Dealer next to the word “obesity.” She’s in excellent shape.
A Jew visiting from New York gives me greetings from a New Rochelle cousin. Nice.
A couple people say hi to me because of the band. I don’t know their names.
After services, a worshipper asks if I remember him. Yes, I know him. A few years ago Yiddishe Cup played his son’s bar mitzvah. He is happy I remember him.
“You have to come over for shabbes,” he says. “And you won’t have to bring your clarinet.”
Happy New Year.
1 of 2 posts for 9/8/10. Please see the post below too.
September 8, 2010 1 Comment
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, 1960, smelled crisper.
Yiddishe Cup played the last wedding at Beth Am in 1999. The Cleveland Heights building is now the New Community Bible Fellowship, with crowds like for Yom Kipper every Sunday morning.
Beth Am had approximately 400 adult members on closing day. The shul debated downsizing, closing, or merging with a bigger temple. Syn biz: shul income comes from dues, social hall rentals and contributions. That’s it.
I voted not to merge with the bigger, newer shul out east. “If I forget thee, O Heights . . .”
One-fifth of the congregation voted to stay. Four-fifths said, “Let’s get out of here!”
The rabbi, Michael Hecht, said “Let’s go, people.” His opinion counted. Like most congregants, I respected Rabbi Hecht. He liked opera, classical music and musicians in general. He put musicians in the same category as physicians. That alone was worth paying full dues. Rabbi Hecht, who knew some Greek, said “musician” meant “healer by Muse,” and “physician” meant “healer by physics /nature.”
He also said a congregant, no matter how poor, can give tzedakkah (charity). If you’re broke, give blood, he said. That stuck with me.
Rabbi Hecht was not warm and fuzzy. He was not Mr. Jingeling. He wouldn’t go full-costume on Purim. Maybe a crazy hat. That was it. He was a Yekkie (German Jew) who sermonized on how life is not fair. He said we should try to incrementally improve the planet. He called that distributing “artificial justice.”
Richard Shatten, a Beth Am congregant, indirectly gave me the nickname Klezmer Guy. He didn’t realize it.
Richard died of a brain tumor at 47. When I went to his shiva, Richard’s wife said, “Here’s the klezmer guy.” She blanked on my name. Richard had known a lot of people, the room was crowded, and I didn’t blame his wife for not knowing my name. Richard had been an urban-planning strategist, who via non-profit and academic jobs tried to halt the town’s economic decline. He also played clarinet.
Richard took a solo at his oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah party. Gutsy, because he hadn’t played much since high school.
Richard liked to schmooze with me at shul, because for one reason I had “primary source data,” as he called it; I knew tenants’ credit histories, their education levels, where the tenants were moving from, and where tenants’ parents lived. Richard couldn’t get enough of that. He wanted to attract young people back to Cleveland. He himself had gone to Harvard and come back.
He hosted his kid’s bat mitzvah party at a formerly anti-Semitic country club near Shaker Square, just to do something totally urban. No way was he going to the generic party center out by I-271.
When Richard died, his funeral was out by I-271. Couldn’t be helped. The newer shul out there – the one Beth Am merged with, and Richard had voted against — was the only place big enough to hold all Richard’s friends and family.
June 30, 2010 7 Comments
Goys and many highly assimilated Jews think Yiddishe Cup plays primarily for Orthodox Jews. Not true. We play mostly for non-Orthodox Jews.
But we do play the occasional Orthodox Jewish gig.
Some of these gigs go NYC-style, fast-talking, cell-phones-beeping-everywhere frenetic. You’re in Israel but without the jet lag.
We play mostly OrthoRock tunes at Orthodox affairs. OrthoRock isn’t klezmer. It’s rock with liturgical lyrics. A classic OrthoRock tune is “Moshiach” (Messiah). Another is “Chazak” (Strength). These two tunes — plus a hundred others, some of which are popular only for a month or so– are the standard OJ (Orthodox Jewish) repertoire. Yiddishe Cup doesn’t learn the new tunes frequently enough. (We don’t get many OJ gigs either.)
The Orthodox families who hire Yiddishe Cup are typically left-wing Orthodox. Left-wing, here, means on the liberal end of ritual observance. The client might request, for instance, American rock and roll toward the end of the party.
Yiddishe Cup’s most right-wing gig was for the get (divorce decree) rabbi. We played a Purim tish (table gathering) at his house. All black hats and beards. The rabbi’s drosh (speech on a liturgical text) was in Yiddish.
My Conservative rabbi, when he heard about the get gig, couldn’t believe I’d been in the get rabbi’s house. He had never been in there.
Yiddishe Cup knows the rabbis the rabbis don’t.
Cleveland is large enough that Jewish denominations typically don’t party and pray together. If you want a mishmash of Jews 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. You’ll see every kind of Jew but Jews for Jesus at an Akron Jewish gathering.
Musicians, take note: Don’t play “Hava Nagila” at an Orthodox simcha (celebration). Too goyish. Nevertheless, at one Orthodox wedding, the mom’s sister repeatedly requested “Hava Nagila.” I said no. Then some yeshiva buchers (students) from New York 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.”
The mom didn’t want it. Again, the mom’s sister said play it. Again, the buchers said play it. The mom finally relented. We played it.
The buchers danced with ruach (spirit) to the tune. “Hava Nagila” is originally a Hasidic nign (wordless melody) from Hungary. It’s a great tune.
1 of 2 posts for 12/2/09. Please see the next post too.
December 2, 2009 2 Comments
Some Jews don’t like choirs in temple. Some can’t stand guitars. Some can’t stand temple.
I have a friend who is down on “temple Jews,” meaning people who actively participate in synagogue life. They’re too conventional, possibly.
I’m a temple Jew — at least on occasion.
My family belonged to Silver’s Temple, named after Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. The temple’s official name was The Temple.
“Which temple do you belong to?”
“The Temple” morphed into “The Temple – Tifereth Israel ” after the rabbi and his son — also a rabbi — died. My family didn’t fit in there, in the 1960s, because many of the members were a lot richer, mostly from Shaker Heights. One Shaker kid arrived in a station wagon driven by a chauffeur in a shiny-visor cap.
My youngest son went through religious high school at The Temple. The place had mellowed by then. Nobody cared anymore if you weren’t a descendant of the Deutsche Yehudim, Cleveland’s original German Jewish settlers.
When my parents left Silver’s, they went to a more middle-class temple in the ‘burbs. My mom taught macramé there. Volunteered in the sisterhood gift shop. Collected “donor points,” to reduce her ticket price to the annual temple dance.
Yiddishe Cup has played some of these parties. Not so many lately, because few people want to dance at temples. They’d rather stay home and watch people dance.
My parents joined this heymish (homey) suburban synagogue after I was confirmed, so I didn’t much care what they did.
(Heymish, the word, should be banned, starting now. Too heymish.)
On the High Holidays, I sometimes went with my parents to the heymish temple, or I’d go to Hillel at Case Western Reserve. After Rosh Hashanah services, I’d eat at Tommy’s restaurant with my 20-something friends.
Years ago a woman told me, “I joined Fairmount Temple because I like the music there.” She had another reason: Brith Emeth didn’t even have money to carpet, she said. She liked Fairmount Temple’s bent toward classic Reform music. That stuck with me: joining a temple for the music.
I go to my synagogue because, among other reasons, I like the music and the rabbi — who likes my band. Yiddishe Cup is scheduled to play my shul’s (synagogue’s) holiday celebrations until roughly 5800. (We’re at 5770 now.)
I played a different shul’s holiday gig, where the rabbi left early to attend a rock concert. The rabbi told me the band’s name. Famous. I wasn’t impressed. I was peeved. The rabbi was walking out on Yiddishe Cup.
It’s impossible to be a rabbi.
My synagogue uses a choir once in a while. I like the choir. Took me a while. Some Jews think a choir is super-goyish. Not true. In Europe there were synagogue choirs as far back as the 1500s.
Some temples have rock bands. I’ve subbed in one. The congregants really enjoy that groove.
I can see picking a shul for the music. Why not.
September 23, 2009 10 Comments