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 — Sports Pages


Terry wanted to sell Notre Dame paraphernalia from an empty store I had across from St. James Church.  He had just come back from South Bend, Ind., with a carload of merchandise.  [Terry isn’t his real name.]

He sang in two church choirs, knew the bishop, and knew the town’s development director, Kelly.  He knew the mayor too, FitzGerald.   And probably knew the former building director, Fitzgerald.

Terry wanted the rent lowered.

I couldn’t figure out if he had any money.

He kept talking choirs.  He sang in two — St. Ignatius and St. Malachi.  That wasn’t money.

I told him my building manager sang in a choir too — a Ukrainian one. “Call the manager to see the inside of the store,” I said. “He lives in an apartment right above the store.”

“You own the apartments above too?” Terry said.  “I’m looking for a place.”

That was a bad.  Maybe Terry’s car trunk had all his worldly possessions, plus the Notre Dame gear.

I told him I had a vacancy upstairs. “Too bad about Notre Dame’s final twenty-two seconds against Michigan,” I said.

He didn’t want to talk football.  I couldn’t blame him . . . Michigan and Notre Dame.

Terry didn’t rent — the store or the apartment.

I’ve only had a couple commercial tenants who also lived in the building.  I had a photographer who lived in the basement of his shop.  That was free living quarters. The photographer installed a dishwasher, stall shower and kitchen.   He was down there for decades, and the city never looked.  That photographer should have had a bumpsticker: “Thank God I’m a Morlock.”  (In the 1980s, ethnic bumperstickers were a fad in Cleveland. “Thank God I’m Slovenian” was the most popular, I think.  “Thank God I’m Jewish” was special order.)

I had a barber who lived over her store.  She paid extra.  Her store had a window sign: “Fighter Chick Parking Only.”  She was a lesbian Puerto Rican cage fighter who got along with everybody.  (She’s still there, but doesn’t live in the apartment.)

I had a Chinese tenant who lived beneath his meditation and “healing arts” studio.  He lasted 10 years.  (He didn’t live under the store all those years.  Only after his divorce.)   If you develop a following, you can make it in a business like healing.  Yoga is another field like that.  Charisma-driven.  I have a yoga store that seems to be doing well.  The owner is very outgoing.

I had a tenant who re-sold children’s toys.  She left me a basement of orphaned Fisher-Price kids.  A whole basement: the kids, plus broken schoolhouses, gas stations and school buses.  Also, Little Tykes picnic tables and Big Wheels.  I wish she had left a Fisher-Price dump truck.

2 of 2 posts for 11/25/09

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November 25, 2009   1 Comment


When I was growing up, saying “Jewish music” was like  “Jewish cars.”   Didn’t mean a thing.

On second thought, “Jewish cars” did mean something.  It meant, for example, the Boat — an Olds 98 owned by my friend Mark’s father.  The Boat had electric windows and was oceanic.  (Mark was richer than the rest of us, I think.  He lived by Cedar and Green roads, and his doorbell lit up.)

Years later, a West Side gentile called those humongous Detroit rides “Jew boats.”   So maybe there were Jewish cars.

Re: Jewish music . . .

I learned about that at the house of another high school friend, Shelly Gordon.  His parents knew Israeli and Yiddish music, cold.   Shelly was rarely home.  I was an adult when I got interested in Jewish music, and Shelly had already moved to Israel.  (His parents were such impassioned Zionists most of the family wound up in Israel.)

Shelly’s parents were Labor Zionists (Poale Zion).  They seemed to know every classic Israeli tune and how to dance and/or sing it.  And the  Gordon family  attended a Yiddish camp in Michigan.  (Farband/Jewish National Workers Alliance.)

The parents didn’t know sports, which was odd because Shelly turned into a star athlete.  He played tennis for Ohio State and became a tennis pro in Israel.  Shelly did that for more than 30 years.  (Still at it.)  He never took a private tennis lesson.

Shelly didn’t care about Jewish music; he cared about the Browns, Buckeyes and Indians.  In Israel he logs on — to this day — at about 3 a.m. to catch Cleveland sports scores on the Internet.  He has a yarmulke that reads “Cleveland Cavaliers.”

When I went to Jerusalem in 2006, I played The Wall.  Shelly.  At the Israel Tennis Center, Shelly was like Moshiach (Messiah); he had the highest seniority and everybody deferred to him.  He had even beaten Andy Ram, a Wimbledon doubles champion.  “Andy was 12 at the time,” Shelly pointed out.

Shelly’s dad, Sanford (the man who knew all the Hebrew tunes),  never played tennis.  In fact Mr. Gordon was so oblivious to sports he didn’t even sign Shelly up for Little League.  Mr. Gordon was not an immigrant or DP (Displaced Person); he was a NASA scientist and full-time Zionist.  Baseball meant nothing to Israelis, thus, it meant nothing to Mr. Gordon.

Shelly went to a Zionist camp in Michigan.  (Habonim Camp/The Builders.)

On the flipside: My parents played tennis; didn’t collect Jewish song books;  didn’t send me to any kind of  camp; and my dad managed a Little League team.  So I wound up playing klezmer music.

When Mrs. Gordon died last month, her body was flown from Israel to Cleveland, to Mt. Olive Cemetery.  A twist on shipping an American Jewish corpse to Mt. Olive, Jerusalem.  Mrs. Gordon wanted to be buried next to her late husband.

At Mrs. Gordon’s funeral, I had time to kill because the mourners, following Orthodox tradition, shoveled mounds and mounds of dirt into the grave.  Took a half hour.   I noticed Mr. Gordon’s tombstone said on the back side: “A kind and gentle man loved by all.”  In his case, true.

Mr. Gordon was eydl (polite/refined).  Also, a rocket scientist and excellent balloon twister.  His wife, Beatrice, had gone to college and social work school after raising children.  She wasn’t idle.

When my kids were little, I took them to the Gordons often.  (The Gordon grandchildren were in Israel.  That worked out well for my family.)  I called Mr. and Mrs. Gordon “Beasan” behind their backs.  It was a contraction of Beatrice and Sanford, as in: “Let’s go to Beasan’s for pizza and some magic tricks.”

What a pair.
1 of 2 posts for 11/11/09.  Please see the post below too.

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November 11, 2009   2 Comments


My father, Toby, got a letter from a Piney Woods Arkansas man, extolling my dad’s homemade foot powder: “Mr. Lesbert:  Do NOT stop making the powdor!  Do NOT stop!!”

Toby used to make the foot powder in the basement.  The company was Lesbert Drug Co., named after my sister, Leslie, and me.

My dad stopped making the stuff.  The Arkansas man was about his only customer.

Then Toby started selling cosmetics. Then he starting buying buildings . . . on and on.  He was the Jewish Willy Loman.  (Kind of like how klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras was the Jewish Benny Goodman.)

My best business moment: When I opened a checking account for Yiddishe Cup.  My old man would have been proud; I had started a biz from scratch.

My banker was Ervin, a black man who knew all about Don Byron and klezmer.  Ervin was my banker for about a year.  Then he moved to another branch.  I tried to follow him.  Then he moved again.  Screw it.

Ervin printed my checks wrong.  They came out “Yiddishe Cup Klezmer Bank.”  Those were keepers.

My dad admired bankers. In my dad’s pantheon of great Cleveland Jewish families, the number one clan was the Bilsky family, who started out making bagels, then went into medicine (a son or two), and ultimately started a bank.  “The Bilskys make big bagels out of little bagels,” my grandmother used to say.

My dad schlepped me to banks. I remember a banker who called my dad “Teddy.”  That was weird.  My father’s given name was Theodore and his Jewish nickname was Toby.  This banker liked to talk Tribe — baseball — and his wife’s spaghetti recipes.  The banker was a “people’s person,” he said.  (Maybe he was a dogs’ person too.)

My father was not a people’s person.  He was the Lone Ranger.  He got the mortgage and we got out of there.


My father had one record album, an Ohio State marching band LP.  No, that was my record.  He bought it for me.  My dad had no LP records.

My dad had stock records.

Toby bought his first stock, Seaboard Air Line, when he was at Ohio State.  Air line meant train line back then.  An air line was the shortest distance between two points — the way the crow flies.

My father didn’t care I wound up at Michigan.  He wasn’t a Buckeye nut.

My band had a trumpet player — a sub — who was such a rabid Buckeyes fan I gave him time off during a gig to watch part of the game.  The other musicians were nonplussed.  “It’s just a game, man.”  They did not get this trumpeter had been in the OSU marching band and had attended every single Ohio State bowl game, including the Tostitos Bowl.  The musicians did not get my father had given me one album, the Ohio State University Marching Band, featuring the “Buckeye Battle Cry.”
1 of 2 posts for 8/19/09.  Please see post below too.
Yiddishe Cup concert: 7 p.m. Thurs., Aug. 20, Wiley Middle School, University Hts., Ohio.

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August 19, 2009   6 Comments


Yiddishe Cup’s singer, Irwin Weinberger, wrote a sweetly nostalgic song about attending baseball games with his father, who was a Holocaust survivor.  Irwin even mentioned The Rock in the song: Rocky Colavito.  (Next up, a song about Harvey Kuenn for the Detroit market.)

Nowadays Irwin is laissez-faire on sports — unless the Indians get hot again.

Guys are supposed to talk about sports, and drink when they get together.  I know this isn’t always a fact.  One Yiddishe Cup musician calls sports a “cult.”  This musician is proud he doesn’t know a thing about pro sports.

The whole town went ape-wire over the Cleveland Cavaliers. He didn’t care.

Some of the other guys did.

The previous time Yiddishe Cup was sports batty was 1997, when the Indians were in the World Series, and Yiddishe Cup was playing Simchat Torah gigs.  (Goys: Simchat Torah is right after Succot.)  We hid in the temple’s cloak room and caught bits of the action on a small portable TV.

Yiddishe Cup is not sports adverse. Yiddishe Cup plays a variety of fight songs, including The Yiddishe Cup Fight Song, which is a major-key freylekhs (hora) interspersed with the verbal chants of  “Go Cup Go” and  “De-feat Maxwell Street.”  Maxwell Street, from Chicago, is our archrival.  They probably don’t know that.

Here are other fight songs you need to know in our part of the Midwest:

1. Ohio State.  Use “Hang On Sloopy” or “Fight The Team Across the Field.”  Sometimes we hold off on “Hang On Sloopy” until the Buckeyes score.  That’s the protocol.  Be aware of this if a guest is listening to the game at a gig.  If you play “Hang on Sloopy” before the Bucks score, it’s bad luck.

2. Michigan’s “The Victors” is a biggie. This tune is one of the most insipid tunes of all time.  Or greatest — depending.

Other requests: Michigan State, “On Wisconsin,” and the Pitt fight song, which is not the same as the Steelers’ song.

Forget about Notre Dame unless they get a Jewish quarterback again.

Be flexible.  For instance, Yiddishe Cup knows “Are You From Wooster?”:

If you’re from Oberlin or Denison or Wesleyan U.,

The Scots will take good care of you before they’re through.

Wooster has many international students and a lively Hillel.  Check out The COW (The College of Wooster) with your 16 year old.  Great school.  Yiddishe Cup has played there a half dozen times.

Another good, small Ohio school is Kenyon, which Yiddishe Cup has played a few times.   Kenyon has a Medieval dining hall out of Hogwarts.  The school’s swim team dines there wearing big purple capes and eats tons of priceless food.  Swipe that college ID card.  Free food to students, $50,000 to Dad and Mom.
DOUBLE PORTION OF MANNA . . . Bandleaders’ pay.

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June 3, 2009   4 Comments


My father was particularly interested in family, money and Ohio State football.  “Family” and “money” were the biggies.  File both under “security.”  He’d been through the Depression.

He wanted financial security.   And he got it.  But not before losing a lot of money on a cosmetics firm, postage-stamp machines, race horses, and a New Mexico real estate gamble.  The cosmetics firm was in the basement.  Like Mary Kay but not pink.  Red.

His “day job” was at a key company.  Car keys.  The plant was right next to the King Musical Instruments factory.  I got a student-model alto sax, at a steep discount, out of that.  The sax’s model was “Cleveland.”  (Cool. Like my ping pong table, which is a Detroiter.)

When my dad escaped the key company — after 17 years — he became self-employed (real estate).  The only way to go, he claimed.  Even with all the aggravation.  Aggravation was one of his favorite themes.  Like he’d say to me, “You ever shave anymore?  You’re aggravating me. If you dress like a bum, your tenants will treat your building like trash.”

It took me a while to find the rhythm of property management.

Running a building is not for the faint-hearted . . .  it’s a bunch of city building inspectors trying to nail you with violations.  Put a lens cover on that fluorescent light in the basement.  What’s a lens cover?  It’s the rectangular plastic thing that shields the two-foot fluorescent tube, which is screwed into a metal holder called a troffer.

Tear down that 11-car garage. Why?  Because the eastern wall is 20 degrees out of plumb — and will last another hundred years — but the inspector says tear it down.  And get a structural engineer to do some drawings.  (My father used to give the city building commissioner a fifth of whiskey at Christmas. Maybe I should try that.)

My escape hatch is jamming with my violin buddy in my basement.  He sounds like Fritz Kreisler and I sound like Fritz the Cat.  My violin buddy writes terrific tunes and plays everywhere.  What he does is Art.  What I do is Bill.  It works.
MICHELLE HATES “MICHELLE” . . . Bride’s eponymous tune loathing.

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May 27, 2009   3 Comments