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


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.

yarmalka-quiltMy 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.

bubby1The 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.)

beathing-yarmulke1I 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.

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January 5, 2011   9 Comments

. . . TOWNS

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.)

Hebrew clock. Pittsburgh JCC

Hebrew clock. Pittsburgh JCC

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.

Yiddishe Cup at Temple Israel, 2010

Yiddishe Cup at Temple Israel, 2010

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. Too 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.

Plum Street Temple

Plum Street Temple

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.

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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.

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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.

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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