Yiddishe Cup brings its schtick to Cain Park
by John Petkovic / Plain Dealer Reporter

Saturday June 28, 2009

YCKBWhen Ponzi schemerBernie Madoff's empire came crumbling down, a little dust landed on the collective head of Yiddishe Cup.

But like everything else over these last 20 years, band leader Bert Stratton took it all in with a laugh.

"We do shows in Boca Raton, Fla., which is a big Jewish community," says Stratton, a Cleveland Heights resident. "Well, Madoff hit the Jewish community hard, and there just isn't as much money out there for musicians doing what we're doing."

Like most things, it hit Stratton, a real wisenheimer, like a punch line.

"The whole Madoff thing made me realize that we're part of the macro Jewish economy," he says. "We're like challah at this point."

No doubt.

In 20 years, Yiddishe Cup has become a Jewish institution. The band -- Stratton, clarinet; Irwin Weinberger, vocals, guitar; Steve Ostrow, horns; Alan Douglass, keyboards; Don Friedman, drums; and Daniel Ducoff, dancer and "shtickmeister" -- has played hundreds of concerts across the country.

The band is marking its 20th anniversary and the release of its new disc "Klezmer Guy" Sunday, June 28, at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights.

In two decades, Yiddishe Cup has ridden a resurgence in klezmer -- a musical mishmash of jazzy clarinets, Eastern European folk songs, Hebrew melodies and a lively Israeli dance known as the hora.

Klezmer, aka the "Jewish blues," has long been a staple of simachas, the Yiddish word for celebrations such as bar mitzvahs and weddings. In recent years, though, klezmer has undergone a revival among Jews and gentiles alike in the United States and Europe.

"It's amazing how many non-Jews love klezmer, in the same way Balkan music has gotten popular with people everywhere," says Stratton. "We always try to add something new to it, to make it fresh."

Not bad for a "novelty," which is how Stratton saw the band early on.

"When we started, I had no idea what people would think," he says. "Then I realized that klezmer was an easy point of entry into Jewish culture, because it's this secular music and combines a broad range of styles, from Ukrainian and Romanian songs to Gypsy music."

Yiddishe Cup has managed to throw a few other things into the mix, from hip-hop to reggae to dance beats. Even the Beatles. The Jewish Six does a version of the Fab Four's "A Hard Day's Night."

"It makes sense, except the line 'I feel all right,' " says Stratton. "There's no translation into Yiddish for that -- because no Jew is going to say, 'I feel all right.' If it ain't their shoulder hurting, it's the stock market tanking."

But they laugh regardless, which has kept Yiddishe Cup in business.

The band mixes a brand of comedy known as "Borscht Belt" into its act. It's part of a self-deprecating, quintessentially Jewish "outsider" shtick made famous by "Seinfeld" and Larry David.

The Cup even has a "shtickmeister," Ducoff, who plays up the yuks by dancing while wearing zany Carmen Miranda hats.

"We were inspired to do some wild stuff more from rock 'n' roll, though," says Stratton, who came of age attending Stooges concerts, where Iggy Pop would roll around on the stage.

"I have to admit, the wildest thing to happen at our shows, though, was people suffering from heat stroke."

It's an age thing, says Stratton.

"A lot of the people into klezmer are still a little older," he says. "When they see us at a funeral or wedding, they're like, 'Oh, you're the klezmer guy' -- kind of like the cable guy who's there to just perform a function."

That's not to say there aren't klezmer-guy groupies.

"Oh sure, except they all have blue hair," says Stratton. "Playing in a klezmer band isn't as wild as everyone thinks it is."