Real Music & Real Estate . . .

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

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

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

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

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


 
 

PIVOTING

Klezmer is a clichéd term. I don’t use it. I don’t even play klezmer. My new album is No Name — no label, no religion too. I like to eat. My religion is pastrami. My next album is going to be Thank You for Your Kindnesses,  I’m Out of Here. When I told my wife I’m leaving Judaism, she said, “Que maravilla!” She studies Spanish online and wants to move to Latin America.

She’s thinking about Guatemala. I like guacamole so I’m OK with that. As for the klezmer scene down there, it’s shvach (weak). I ran into a couple Israelis in Guat in April, but they didn’t like my klez. (I always travel with a student-model clarinet.) The Israelis liked my “Bashana Haba’ah,” though.

I won’t busk on the streets of Guat. Wouldn’t be a good look: a rich gringo tourist asking for pesos — or whatever they call their money — from the locals. Could wind up in jail.

Also, internet reception isn’t too reliable down there. You may never hear from me again.

[fake profile]

I wrote some real essays this week . . .

  1. an article in USA Today about throwing stuff out. How I’m tired of reading articles that begin with “Millennials don’t want Grandma’s china.”
  2. a diaTribe in the Wall Street Journal about the Cleveland Indians changing their name to the Guardians. 
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July 28, 2021   No Comments

IS IT ROLLING, BOB?

When I audiotaped my parents at dinner in 1973, I told my dad I was doing cinema verite. Don’t knock it. Louis Armstrong did a lot of audiotaping. Decades later, I played my 1973 audiotape for my adult children. My son Ted said, “You’re weird, recording everything.”

In the tape, my parents asked me questions about my college roommates.

For instance, my mother said, “What is Billy from the dorm doing?” I stonewalled my mom. Nevertheless, the tape is somewhat interesting, even the silences. As Ed Sanders once said: “This is the age of investigation and every citizen must investigate.”

“I don’t want any dessert” — that kind of thing. That’s what’s on the tape. I hope my kids throw it out. Or I will. I definitely will. There’s a bad sax solo by me on the flip side.

My dad: “What the hell you got the tape recorder on for? There’s nothing going on.”

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July 21, 2021   4 Comments

THE HEYMISH AND THE AMISH

I live near two large Amish settlements — Middlefield, Ohio, and Holmes County, Ohio. I know some of  the differences between the various Amish, like some use battery-powered lights on their buggies and some don’t. Some use the triangular orange “slow vehicle” sign.

Speaking of men-in-black, I also know some Orthodox Jews. I know the crocheted yarmulke means Modern Orthodox and the black hat is more old school. I’ve been around Amish and Jews — at the same time — only once. I walked into Green Road  Synagogue (an Orthodox shul) in Cleveland, and there was an Amish man  in the lobby. Maybe not. Maybe he was a Modern Orthodox hipster trying to look Amish. He had a wide-brim straw hat, beard, no mustache a la Solzhenitsyn.

Then I saw about 15 Amish women, carrying parfaits on trays, wearing blue dresses and white bonnets, coming out of the kitchen. Next I saw a horse and buggy at the side door of the synagogue. Orthodox Jews started arriving. Most were Modern Orthodox (like dentists and lawyers in knit yarmulkes), but a couple old-school rabbis looked Amish.

“Solzhenitsyn” stacked bales of hay in the temple lobby and brought in chickens. He was John, an Amish from Middlefield. He said he used to be a wheelwright and now worked for an Orthodox Jew in a mattress factory.  The mattress-factory owner was hosting this sheva brochas (post-wedding dinner). My band, Yiddishe Cup, was playing. The Orthodox host — the mattress man – was a musician, himself, who had some show-biz flair. He was doing a Blazing Saddles party theme. I asked the Amish buggy driver what he thought of our music. He said, “It sounds like Mozart.” Maybe because of the violin?

“Solzhenitsyn” said some Amish in Ohio play harmonica. “That’s all, for instruments,” he said. “Other instruments [like flute, guitar] might lead to forming a band.” A Jewish joke?

The rabbi, as a joke, asked if we knew any Amish songs. We played “Amazing Grace.” That’s borderline Amish. It was probably a first for Green Road Synagogue. The Amish liked the song, and the Jews ignored us.  Then we tried a Yiddish vocal, “Di Grine Kusine,” which didn’t go over. I thought the Amish would like it because Pennsylvania Dutch is Germanic, just like Yiddish. The Amish didn’t react to the  song. Now I know: no “Di Grine Kusine” at Amish-Jewish affairs.

I had a funny article in the Wall Street Journal last week about old guys playing tennis. Here’s the link. No paywall. And check out the comments, particularly if you’re an old guy.

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July 14, 2021   5 Comments

LEGAL TENDER

I never subjected my future-wife to a Diner-style quiz. I never said, “Who is Unitas or I won’t marry you.” But if I had asked important dating questions, I would have asked about money. Who is on the dime? I have a negative opinion of people who don’t know who is on the dime.

Who is on the $10,000 bill? That, I won’t hold against you. The government hasn’t printed a 10K bill since 1946. [Answer: Salmon P. Chase. Sir, your first name is a fish!]

My favorite coin is the Kennedy half-dollar because it has heft and has a good feel to it (serrated edges), and it’s half a rock — a quality nickname. I haven’t seen one in years. The government stopped making Kennedy half-dollars in 2003. You can go to a bank and request a half a rock, but who’s going to do that? I sold most of my half-dollars for their silver content decades ago, during the Hunt brothers silver boom.

I did give my wife a low-stakes money quiz. Way too late — we were already married many years. Alice knew Lincoln is on the penny and Washington is on the dollar bill. She said an Indian is on the nickel. That’s a very old nickel, Alice. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want her to have a negative opinion of me.

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July 7, 2021   1 Comment

THINK TANK

I run a bar mitzvah party think tank. I supply clients — mostly DJs — with explosives, lyrics and games. Some of my games are free, just to build web traffic. For instance, take my humiliation game; the bar mitzvah boy stands on the dance floor surrounded by searing sterno cans. We throw napkins at him.

My top-selling games are Twine Fun, Narcissism Express, Beach Sand Saturation, Toxic Candy, Enjambment and Trunk-like Bodies. I have Jewish-themed stuff, too. The kids wear bottle caps on their heads, and the last kid to lose his “yarmulke,” wins. Lots of body contact.

My best-selling game is Trash Floating in the Punch. We throw chicken bones, children’s books from the centerpieces, and lipstick-smeared plastic cups into the punch bowl. Kids reach in and fish for prizes. It’s ecological.

I strained my back at a gig. Bingo, a new game — the Grandpa Shuffle. Kids walk around like oldsters and mutter creative Yiddish curses. It’s shameful and stunning to see teenagers limp and spew “Zol er krenken un gedenken.” (Let him suffer and remember.)

I carry the classics, too: laughing gas, toilet slime kits, photo booths, giant inflatables and partisans.

Call me or my guy Irwin:

Irwin Weinberger

Super-salesman Irwin Weinberger with Toilet Slime

[fake profile]

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June 30, 2021   2 Comments

MY CUBAN COMEDY HOUR

I was in a comedy show in Cuba. I passed by a beach and saw a company picnic — a group of off-duty cops. There was a comedian entertaining the troops. There were about 75 people. It was Christmas day, 2017. The picnic shelter was just like a Metroparks’ shelter. The comedian was cracking the folks up. I said to him in Spanish, “You can make fun of me. I speak some Spanish and I’m a gringo.” He brought me on mic and asked where I was from. I said. “From the north, near Canada.” I didn’t think “Ohio” would mean anything. I said, “I’m not like the Cuban-Americans in the first row here.” There were several well-dressed Cuban-Americans, on vacation, up front. The comedian said to me, “You’re puro gringo.” Yep, that’s me.

When he asked if I liked Cuba, I said I was enchanted with it. (It’s a hellhole to live  in but great to visit.) He said I should stay in Cuba and teach him English, and he would teach me how to use Cuban currency, which is complicated; there’s one currency for locals and another for tourists  The currency joke got him some laughs. You had to be there. “Tu me ensenas ingles y yo te enseno la moneda nacional.”

He talked about the bathroom. He said, “What time is it? 3:15 pm? We have a record! There’s still soap in the bathroom!” Laughs. “Hola, todo el mundo. Me pueden decirme que hora es? 3:15. Senores, tenemos un record! Son las 3:15 de la tarde y todavia nadie se ha robado el jabon del bano.”

There’s a shortage of everything in Cuba, including soap. In Cleveland, I have a shortage of Spanish áccent marks.

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June 23, 2021   1 Comment

THE GOOD, THE BAD
AND THE NUANCED

Stan Herschfield paced his apartment at 3 a.m., waking up the tenants below. I asked Herschfield to ease up, and he said, “What do you want from me? I can’t fly.” He moved out shortly after that. About 10 years later, he called me: “Stratton, you remember me — Herschfield. I want to move back in.”

“Herschfield!” I said, emoting like I was in a bad JCC play. “You painted the floor! You complained about the deaf guy across the hall blasting organ music! You complained about the people below you fornicating! You skipped out on your final month’s rent! It cost me fifty dollars to clean the place. But you did teach me some Yiddish words.”

“I didn’t skip! Those yentzers below, they drove me out!”

“You painted the kitchen floor.”

“But I used Benjamin Moore. Only the best!”

I didn’t let him back. Maybe I should have. I’ve allowed old tenants back in. Usually not into the same suite, but often in the same building. I save records on previous tenants. F. Scott Fitzgerald said bookkeeping is not a sexy subject, but it is somewhat interesting. I wish I hadn’t thrown out my dad’s tax returns, which would make interesting reading now that I’m older and into nuanced returns. I have mini-dossiers on ex-tenants. Nothing personal, no nude posture photos like those Ivy League colleges used to do, just notes on whether the tenant paid his final month’s rent, turned in his keys and didn’t trash the place. If all’s well, I’ll let them back. Could be a decade later. The good tenants, you don’t remember. You have to look them up. Herschfield, I remember.

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June 16, 2021   2 Comments

SHOUSE. HE RAISED MONEY

Ben Shouse was a volunteer fundraiser for the Workmen’s Circle. He had a booming voice and a shock of gray hair like H.L. Mencken, and he wore suits like Mencken, and he smoked a cigar like Mencken. Politically speaking, Shouse was un-Menckenable. He was a retired labor union boss and an autodidact (he liked words like inculcate), and he was an advocate for the arts, especially Shakespeare-for-workers stuff.

Shouse phoned me, suggesting Yiddishe Cup pony up for the Workmen’s Circle annual banquet. Yiddishe Cup would be the honoree. He said, “Stratton, you know how these things work.”

I didn’t know how these things worked. Not in 1994. I thought Yiddishe Cup would be honored because we were good. Sort of an arts prize.

Two Yiddishe Cup musicians told me they couldn’t afford the price of the dinner, let alone bring friends. Crazier still, Shouse said, “Buy a table.” I corralled three people, including my wife, into coming. I didn’t want to hock friends for a chicken dinner at a cheesy Alpha Drive party center. Also, my friends wouldn’t want to listen to speeches about Workmen’s Circle, an organization most of my friends had never heard of.

Shouse phoned Yiddishe Cup’s singer and said: “Stratton gave $55. Greenman gave $25. How about you, and who are you bringing?” The singer was speechless.

One Yiddishe Cup musician didn’t even show up for the tribute.

Another Yiddishe Cup musician replayed a phone message from Shouse: “This dinner is in your fucking honor! You’re sophisticated. You know the rules. Do your part!”

Shouse raised a lot of money for the arts.

Ben Shouse

Ben Shouse (Photo by Herb Ascherman) [Shouse died in 2003.]

FREE CONCERT THIS SUNDAY.
Funk A Deli, a k a Yiddishe Cup, is playing on a front lawn near you this Sunday (June 13, 5-7 pm.).

23500 Laureldale Road, Shaker Heights, Ohio. Near Laurel School.

Bring a lawn chair or blanket. Bring dinner. Plop yourself and your possessions on the grassy median strip on Laureldale Road.

The band will play a mix of klezmer and soul music. 

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June 9, 2021   4 Comments

I’M SENSUOUS

I’m sensuous. For example, I like opera and tennis. I was born above a deli in 1950. I remember the pickles. The smell. The cukes were right in the goddamn basement. My parents got out of there in 1953 and moved to South Euclid.

At Chillicothe, I did kitchen work. Yeah, I went to prison. Had something to do with drugs. I got high on my own supply and did some bad things. Nobody died.

The whole thing went kaplooey in ’79 — the year I got busted. The Crash of ’79, for me, wasn’t a book. I  blew all my money on a racehorse –- owning one — and owed important people some money, and then one thing led to another. Like I said, nobody died.

I play tennis almost every day with some other old guys at the courts here in Hollywood, Florida. Pick up game. Half the guys speak Spanish and are bigshots from Latin America. In the afternoon I tread water in the condo swimming pool. While treading, I listen to Mozart and Verdi on my headphones,

One last thing, I haven’t eaten ice cream in at least thirty years. It’s kids’ food.

[fake profile]

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June 2, 2021   1 Comment

THE RECORD COLLECTOR

Jack Saul was a major-league record collector. You couldn’t find a seat in his house unless he moved a ton of records. Every time he played a record he’d clean it with Windex. No scratches. Smooth-h-h.

He didn’t throw anything out — since day one. He even had a John McGraw baseball card. (McGraw played 1891-1906.) When I sold my baseball cards in 2007, Jack said, “Why’d you do that?” (I wasn’t looking at ’em, Jack, and my kids didn’t want ’em. They didn’t know who Harmon Killebrew was.) “Why’d you do that?” he repeated.

The Cleveland Jewish music scene was all about Jack Saul. Musicians from the Kleveland Klezmorim went to Jack’s house in the early 1980s to record 78s. Those 78s were pristine. When Boston public radio (WGBH) did a show in 2000 about Mickey Katz, they came to Jack for clean recordings. Jack never let a record out of his house. You had to sit there for an hour, or two, and have him dub the records onto tape.

He always had time for musicians. The first time I went to his house, in 1988, I recorded cuts from Music For Happy Occasions, Paul Pincus; Jay Chernow and his Hi-Hat Ensemble; Dukes of Frelaichland, Max Epstein; Jewish Wedding Dances, Sam Musiker; Twisting the Frelaichs; and Casamiento Judio, Sam Lieberman. That last one was an Argentinian klezmer record! Jack had almost every Jewish record. And he had it in both monaural and stereo.

Jack’s favorite popular musicians were Guy Lombardo and pianist Irving Fields. Jack liked musicians who, when they improvised, stayed close to the melody. He phoned Fields when I was over. “What’s new, Irving? I’d like to get you to Cleveland.” Never happened. Everybody talked to Jack, because for one thing, he could supply them with recordings of their own works that they, the musicians, couldn’t even remember making.

Jack had a thing for Guy Lombardo. Jack’s thesis was Guy Lombardo was behind “Bay mir bistu sheyn”s popularity. Jack gave me an article from The New Yorker, Feb. 19, 1938, titled “Everybody’s Singing It — Bie Mir Bist Du Schoen. Played on the air for the first time by Guy Lombardo, Radio Made it the Nation’s No. 1 Hit.”

Jack liked my band, Yiddishe Cup. (He also liked Steven Greenman, Lori Cahan-Simon and Kathy Sebo — Cleveland Jewish musicians.) At a meeting of the Workmen’s Circle Yiddish concert committee, Jack said, “We’ve got talent in this town. We don’t always have to run to New York [for entertainers].” That meant a lot to us locals.

When Jack talked, the rest of the committee listened. He had a stellar rep — Cleveland Orchestra and Sir Thomas Beecham Society credibility. Jack had every Beecham recording. That classical-music imprimatur really cut it with the older klezmer crowd.

Flip side: the rough-edged 78 recording of Abe Elenkrig’s Orchestra playing “Di Zilberne Chasene” (“The Silver Wedding”). Jack had thousands of records like that. Gritty. But not a scratch.

Jack Saul made Jewish music in Cleveland.

 

Jack died in 2009 at age 86, and his records went to Florida Atlantic University.

P.S. A lot of this post was first published in the Cleveland Jewish News in May 2009, but it never got online at the CJN. So by local, contemporary standards, the story doesn’t exist. Does now!

P.P.S. Here’s a comment by Hankus Netsky, leader of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, posted on the Klezmershack website in May 2009:

“What a great guy Jack was. By the way, I’m the one who sent WGBH to Jack’s house for the Mickey Katz records. Before our tour with Joel Grey’s Katz review, ‘Borscht Capades,’ in 1994, I had visited Jack, who had made me the ultimate Katz compilation. We couldn’t have done the show without those recordings — Joel himself had never heard a lot of them!

“Besides the records in every corner (but not in the kitchen, the one concession to his loving and remarkably tolerant wife), the other amazing thing were the front walls of the house that had been hollowed out and replaced with speakers of every shape, size, and frequency.

“A great loss. I sure hope they have a good hi-fi up there . . .”

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May 26, 2021   4 Comments

BUYING DRUGS IN LATIN AMERICA

One fun thing to do in Latin America is buy prescription drugs off the shelf at the local drugstore. Last month I forgot my prescription pills and was in Guatemala. I emailed the Cleveland Clinic. They said it was OK for me to skip my Lipitor, but the Clinic thought I should stick with my blood-pressure medicine. But that drug (trade name Bystolic) is expensive and hard to find, even in the U.S.

I went to a farmacia, and bingo, they had it. Not called Bystolic. The Latin version is from Argentina, but the same drug. And they had a Lipitor-clone from India. Then I looked for some aloe vera because I had a sun burn. No go. I found aloe vera somewhere else. Finally, I bought some pepto-abysmal.

Just yank the Rx drugs off the shelves. My first time was in El Salvador in 1973, when my asthma inhaler ran dry, and I walked into a pharmacy and got a canister. I used that canister for the next twenty years. I have faith in expired meds.

I also bought some baby aspirin in Guatemala. The standard down there is 100mg instead of 81mg.

I wouldn’t mind running a farmacia in Latin America. Maybe next time around.

My present inventory:
1) 5 mg nebivolol, trade name Nabila. Same as American Bystolic. Made in Argentina.
2) 40 mg atorvastatin, trade name Atorgras. Same as Lipitor. Indian-made.


Want more Guatemala? Check out my article “My Guatemalan Vacation” in City Journal.

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May 19, 2021   4 Comments

CANDYLAND

Snickers was my candy bar. I also had a taste for Nestle Triple Deckers. Long gone. My wife, in her youth, liked Valomilks. She bought one a few years ago at a specialty store and didn’t like it. Too sweet.

My dad was big on Planter’s Peanut and Mr. Goodbar. I used to buy a Mr. Goodbar before visiting his grave.

Canada, that’s a great candy vacation. Kit Kat, not bad.

Chunky . . . I miss the idea of Chunky. I liked the Arnold Stang Chunky commercials.

Anna Soltzberg, my grandmother, ran a candy store at 15102 Kinsman Road, Cleveland, from 1927 to 1937. Here’s some of her the inventory: Mr. Goodbar, Sensen breath mints, Boston Wafer, halvah, Coca-Cola, peanut bars, chocolate-covered cherries, Uneeda biscuits, Dentyne, Lifesavers, Tootsie Rolls, Oh Henry, and cigars such as White Owl, Dutch Master, Websters, Cinco, Murad, John Ruskin and Charles the Great Pure Havana. (I got these brands from studying a photo of her store with a magnifying glass.) Candy stores were a common first business for immigrants.

When did Snickers first come out?

[Googled.] 1930. Frank Mars named the bar after his horse.

Reese. Who was Reese?

Here’s my Sunday Plain Dealer essay about playing gigs and not playing gigs. “The gigs disappeared. Now it’s all just talk.”

Irwin Weinberger and I played a nursing home yesterday. It was our first indoor gig in front of a live audience in 14 months.

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May 12, 2021   6 Comments

SHOPPING WITH MOM

My mother, Julia, wanted herring and a third of a pound of pastrami, sliced thin. I went to Heinen’s supermarket and got it for her, and she died the next day.

I regularly shopped for my mom while she was in assisted living. She didn’t want to exist solely on the kosher food at the Jewish facility. (That’s a common complaint of the non-Orthodox.)

Occasionally my mother came with me to Heinen’s. She got the motorized Dodgem cart. She wasn’t a great driver. She had Parkinson’s.

She schmoozed with the clerks and checked expiration dates on cole slaw. She always taught me something; in the cereal aisle, she once told me, “You get the most weight for your money with shredded wheat.”

She liked Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies and Pringles potato chips. She could eat anything. I had to buy her Boost to gain weight.

I liked the snack aisle at Heinen’s, and I liked having an excuse to go there. What kind of Milanos should I get? There were seven varieties. What kinds of Pringles? There were 15 choices. I was shopping for junk for health reasons.

She once wanted me to ask for “Jewish tongue” at the deli counter, because she couldn’t attract the clerk’s attention; she was seated too low in her motorized cart.

I said, “Jewish tongue, please!” That’s the only time I ever said that.

My mother had served tongue when we were growing up. It was bad then, and it’s bad now.

Toward the end, nothing tasted good to my mom. Everything was too spicy, or not spicy enough. The only thing that worked was shrimp cocktail. She had no taste buds left. That was about her only complaint in her last years. My mother wasn’t a kvetch.

I continued going to Heinen’s after she died in 2004. But I don’t go into the center aisles often where the junk food is; I hang around the “healthy choice” perimeter.

My visits to Heinen’s are like mini-yahrzeits for my mother. Pringles: Mom. Pepperidge Farm Milanos: Mom. Jewish tongue: Mom. That last one, I still have trouble with.

The above essay appeared in the New York Times 10 years ago. I sent it to “oped@nytimes.com” with the subject line “here’s one for mother’s day.”

Julia Stratton (1920 - 2004). 1953 photo. Leslie (front) and Bert.

Julia Stratton (1920 – 2004). 1953 photo. Leslie (front) and Bert.

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May 5, 2021   6 Comments

THE SOCIALLY AWKWARD
BOYS CLUB

The Intakes, a boys club, was a throwback to a Depression-era, settlement-house group. The Intakes met at the Mayfield Road JCC, a successor institution to the Depression-era Council Education Alliance. The Intakes’ purpose was to keep teenage boys off the streets, which wasn’t too hard because, in our case, we studied so hard we rarely went out.

The Intakes president had a regular excuse for not partying on Saturday night: “I’ve got too much homework.” One summer he got a grant to study the crystal structure of molecules at a university. He did his undergrad at MIT, then went on to med school.

The Intakes didn’t “intake” girls. We played poker, miniature golf, bowled and held meetings. Our advisor was a social worker from New York. He often called us schmucks, which we found endearing. We talked about where to spend our money, earned by selling salamis and Passover macaroons. Should we go to New York or Washington?

We rode the Hound to New York and visited the Statue of Liberty, saw Jeopardy live, and ate at Katz’s Deli. I bought Existentialism Versus Marxism in a Greenwich Village bookstore. I haven’t finished it yet.

The Intakes folded after twelfth grade. There are some other ancient-history Jewish boys clubs around town. I heard of one the other day, the Regals. They were from Kinsman. They were a generation older than my guys. The Regals are truly out of business.

intakes 1967

Intakes, 1967. Poker game.

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April 28, 2021   5 Comments

HOW MUCH WOULD YOU PAY
TO GET RID OF YOUR BACK PAIN?

I had a part-time job dealing with my back pain. I enrolled in a three-month Cleveland Clinic program for back-pain sufferers. It was a group class. Rule #1 of the class: Nobody wants to hear about your back pain. #2: Never say “pain,” it’s “discomfort.”

To get rid of back pain, I would have paid 400K.  I would have walked down Euclid Avenue naked. I would have . . . [fill in the blank]. Philosopher Viktor Frankl said how you deal with your suffering is one way to define your life. I would have bribed and cheated — for starters.

My back-class classmates were mostly whiners (like me). One woman said she lay in bed all day, using ice packs. Another used a heating pad and lay in bed all day. The group psychologist said, “What do you do to get out of your stupor?” Classmates said they lie in bed.

After class, I met a friend for lunch and said, “What a great day. It’s sunny out.” I was just doing my cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), circumventing my usual glass-half-empty M.O.

My back doctor said, “Back pain is truly one of the medical conditions that can rate a 10 on a pain level.” I told him I was at 8. He said back pain typically went away within a year, often less. I said my pain was like a hundred cell phones vibrating in my thigh all at once. (My back pain was in my thigh. Uh.) Or a thousand red ants scurrying. I had a couple CAT scans.

A woman in my class said her mantra was “I’ve got this!” Nice mantra. When she moved out of town, I took her mantra. I meditated and tried new exercises, developing new neural pathways!

“Motion is the lotion” was a sign in the physical therapy department. A couple verbal catch phrases were “Exercise to the pain but not through the pain” and “Sore but safe.” I saw a lot of PTs.

The pain ended in 10 months. Two shots in the back helped. I think about back pain a lot. Even when I don’t have it.

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April 21, 2021   1 Comment

THE ESTHER ISENSTADT ORCHESTRAS

Esther Isenstadt, a bassist, ran classified ads in the Cleveland Jewish News in the 1970s-80s: “Sophisticated music for discriminating people” . . . “Leave your records at home and bring LIFE to your party” . . . “From ‘The Hora’ to ‘Beat It.'”

I didn’t see her much around town. She worked the senior-adult circuit while Yiddishe Cup played the glam jobs: bar mitzvahs and weddings. Seriously, that’s where the money was. Esther played classical and pop, and some Jewish.

Many years later (2003), I ran into Esther at The Weils, an assisted living facility. She was 86. I told her I had one of her recycled Tara Publications Israeli songbooks. I had bought it used at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. She smiled. Then she didn’t smile, and said, “I never thought I’d end up here!”

Esther had played in four suburban orchestras, raised a family, taught elementary school, led party bands and taught ESL in “retirement.” I had learned “Shir Lashalom” (“A Song of Peace”) from Esther’s book. That tune was a must-play in 1995 — the year Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Esther had rubber-stamped Esther Isenstadt Orchestras in her songbooks. A Jewish bandleader with a rubber stamp. I got a rubber stamp.

Maybe I’ll follow her into The Weils. But I doubt it. I’m more a Menorah Park guy. Closer to town. (Esther died in 2010.)

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April 14, 2021   4 Comments

ROCK STAR #53

I was a rock star of sorts in the 1990s. My band, The Crushin’, was on MTV and charted #53 on the Billboard Hot 100. But I had a problem; nobody wanted to be a sideman in my band. Everyone wanted to be the star. I wrote the songs but everybody else thought they were the star.

Now I do mostly solo gigs and give piano lessons. I don’t play klezmer. I knew you’d ask that. I like klezmer but I don’t play it. I don’t mind listening to klezmer — in small doses.

Last shabbes my rabbi’s Zoom sermon was “What I Learned at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The rabbi must have recently seen 20 Feet from Stardom. He said you’ve got to balance your sideman role with your star-tripping persona. Joseph was a star-tripper and his brother Judah was a sideman in the band.

The rabbi asked for comments from the congregation. (He likes to work the room.) I chimed in about my old band. Most people didn’t even know I had been a rocker. I talked about my record-label deals and my A-hole manager. I actually said “A-hole.”

I’m a sideman. I accept that now. We’re all sidemen. But don’t forget this: I hit #53 on the Billboard Hot 100 (June 21, 1995) with The Crushin’s “I Hope My Afterlife is After Yours.”

 

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Here’s my recent op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about a lake with no water in it. “Rescue Horseshoe Lake. Dam It.”

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March 31, 2021   5 Comments

SAME OLD, SAME OLD JEWS

Ashkenazi Jews are the same everywhere. My Mississippi mishpocha are lawyers. My relatives in Israel are lawyers. My relatives in Arizona are lawyers. I have relatives, through marriage, in West Virginia. Some are lawyers. (By the way, West Virginia Jews request “Country Roads” at banquets; I’ve played several West Virginia Jewish Reunions at the Marriott in Charleston.)

Philip Roth wrote about New Jersey Jews. Joseph Epstein wrote about Chicago Jews. Mordecai Richler wrote about Montreal Jews. Stories populated with pickles and old guys named Herman. (By the way, there’s a Don Hermann’s Pickles in Cleveland.)

I played a wedding for a Canadian Jew and an American Jew. Under the chuppah the rabbi talked about choosing between “about” and “aboot.” That’s the big difference between an American Yid and a Canadian Yid.

Happy Passover.


Here’s an article I just wrote for City Journal. “Hanging in There.”

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March 24, 2021   2 Comments

GRAMPS THE RECORD PRODUCER

My grandfather owned a record label in Cleveland, like the Chess brothers’ thing in Chicago, except smaller. Gramps’ label churned out everything from Slovenian polkas to gospel. It was a labor of love. Gramps’ parnassah (livelihood), all along, was a shopping strip center he owned on Mayfield Road — the main drag in Cleveland Heights. Gramps rented to a print shop, beauty parlor, locksmith and bar. I hung around the bar in grade school for the pretzel rods.

Gramps used a storefront for his record label. The place had no sign. My grandfather said to me, “I’ve got this little curl in my tail — this little something different — this something the new treatment doesn’t cure. I’m in trouble. The doctors tell me, ‘We can’t straighten out your tail.’ You’re dead. That’s what. I’ve got one or two more records in me.”

Gramps liked a Slovenian-style polka group out of Wickliffe called Terri and the Soup Nuts, a popular all-girls band. Gramps said to me, “There are a lot of Slovenians in this town. A lot. Money will be made.”

Money was not made. Terri and the Soup Nuts didn’t sell many records. Johnny Pecon did better. Yonkee, way better.

Gramps had a soft spot for Terri and the Soup Nuts. He told me, “That stupid name sticks! Sticks like a burr.” He put a pic of the girls on the side of a CTS bus. No traction. Only one DJ ever spun the girls’ records — Tony Petkovsek, the “nationalities hour” honcho. That was limited.

At Gramps’ funeral, Terri asked to sing a hymn. An ecumenical, no-Jesus thing. Hey, Terri, no music at Jewish funerals. She handled the rabbi’s rejection well.

This is all history.

Terri and the Soup Nuts’ records and memorabilia are in storage at the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame. All the musicians are dead. The building on Mayfield Road is still there. Somebody should put up a Cleveland Heights heritage plaque there, right next to Subway.

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March 17, 2021   3 Comments

BLOOD AND MONEY

My dad, Toby, admired Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize-winning Vitamin-C taker. Toby was very health-conscious; he did the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises in the early 1960s. He used to jog in his underwear in the kitchen. Didn’t anybody make running shorts back then? My dad could beat me in a foot race up through my college years. Toby, in retirement, told me his best years were the Boca years: financial security and grandchildren.

Even though Toby was an exercise nut, he had lousy health. His big problem was polycythemia vera, a blood disease. He got it in his fifties. The disease kept him focused on his muni bonds and real estate investments. He wasn’t sure he’d be around the next day. He donated blood every month or two. He had to lower his red-blood count. He died in 1986, just shy of 69, from leukemia, which evolved from polycythemia vera.

My mother kept the Florida condo another 11 years after my dad died. The condo association owes my sister and me $8,160.82. That’s the golf membership dinero. The condo association has had that money since 1997. Many elderly Jews decamped from the condos (their bodies went north) in the late 1990s, and the condo association was short on cash.

Who’s playing golf at the Boca Lago Country Club these days? Is it still Jews or is it some new genre, like Latin Americans? Any cash floating around?

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March 3, 2021   2 Comments