Real Music & Real Estate . . .

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

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

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

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

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


Category — Shul Talk


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.

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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.

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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.

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September 23, 2009   10 Comments