Sextet uses klezmer to satisfy craving for Yiddish yuks

Saturday, July 24, 2004
John Petkovic
Plain Dealer Reporter

Bert Stratton used to be a rock 'n' roller.

He hung out at the wildest concerts while attending the University of Michigan in the 1960s. Iggy Pop would roll around the stage as the Stooges crashed and burned through a drug-crazed version of "I Wanna Be Your Dog." The MC5 would "Kick Out the Jams" as a room full of militant hippies freaked out.

The guitars were cranked, and the sonic revolution was amplified.

But all Stratton could do was toot along.

"That's when I realized I wasn't going to make it in a rock band," says Stratton. "It's tough being a countercultural rock 'n' roller when you're playing the clarinet."


But being a counterculture klezmer krazy is another story.

Stratton, a Cleveland Heights resident, is the colorful leader of Yiddishe Cup. The sextet, which hits the Little Mountain Folk Festival in Kirtland Hills on Sunday, plays klezmer - a musical mishmash of jazzy clarinets, Eastern European folk songs, Hebrew melodies and a lively Israeli dance known as the hora.

Klezmer has long been a staple of simchas, the Yiddish word for celebrations such as a bar mitzvahs and weddings. In the last decade, though, the music has undergone a revival among Jews and gentiles alike in the United States and Europe.

Yiddishe Cup has been riding the wave from bar to bar mitzvah. The band - Stratton; Irwin Weinberger, vocals, guitar; Steve Ostrow, horns; Alan Douglass keyboards; Don Friedman drums, Daniel Ducoff, "shtickmeister" - plays everything from traditional ditties such as "Hava Nagila" to klezmerized surf tunes.

"We're just trying to add some new things to klezmer," says Stratton. "Which is fine, since klezmer is a big dumping ground for all sorts of things anyway."

Call it musical Yiddish.

The music traces its roots to 19th-century Eastern Europe. Like Yiddish, the music morphed, grew and contracted - collecting flavors and flair along the way.

When it migrated to America, it added a pinch of blues and a dab of jazz to the mix. That provided Stratton with the perfect entry point.

"I really liked raw rock 'n' roll growing up," says Stratton. "I also love jazz and blues.

"So I was looking for something real, authentic, countercul tural. Then I came across klezmer."

Stratton found it to be the most "countercultural" of music. It was colorful, jumpy and raw. Yet it was pushed aside by changing trends, passing eras and the steamroller that is pop culture.

"Rock became the popular music," says Stratton. "And klezmer was the real underground music."

The more he listened, the more he discovered that there was a rich tradition of dusty discs dying to be heard. In the grooves, he discovered a clarinet-playing klezmer comedian from Cleveland who tickled his muse.

"Mickey Katz is the Louie Armstrong of klezmer comedy," says Stratton. "He'd parody pop songs from the '50s and '60s, doing it klezmer-style with funny lyrics."

What, you mean you've never heard of "K'nock Around the Clock" or "Nudnik the Flying Shisl"?

Well, then you probably never hung out in some schmaltzy resort in the Catskills. Or heard Yiddishe Cup's latest effort, "Meshugeneh Mambo."

The disc is not only an homage to Katz's warped comedy, it's also an attempt to revive a long, lost style of Jewish yuks.

"To actually hear 'Borscht Belt' comedy, we had to do it ourselves," says Stratton. "It's humor about little things in life, like 'my toothpaste cap is missing.' You just can't find that kind of humor anymore."

Well, almost.

The ironic, self-deprecating style of Jewish "outsider" humor has worked its way into the mainstream of American comedy, thanks to "Seinfeld" or "The Larry David Show" or Jackie Mason.

"But as Jews assimilated, so did their sense of humor; it's become very white-bread," says Stratton. "Maybe I just have a nostalgia for a time when Jews weren't so acculturated, when you could walk down Kinsman and hear some old guys telling jokes in Yiddish."

That doesn't mean Yiddishe Cup is just an ethnic yukfest from yesteryear. The group has toured the country, playing all kinds of venues - folkfests, museums, colleges, weddings, funerals.

The shows differ, of course, depending on the locale.

"Colleges and museums always have nice padded seats, so it's tougher to get people to get up and dance," says Stratton. "As for funerals, the comedy shtick never seems to go over as well."

Still, yukking it up at a funeral is easier than cramming into an elevator.

"One time we were hired to play elevator music for this party," says Stratton. "So they actually squeezed us into an elevator and had us play."

How high can this Yiddishe Cup elevator climb? Is "Borscht Belt" destined to be the best thing since sliced bagels?

"If Irish music is a Hershey bar, then Jewish music is an M and M," says Stratton. "And Jewish klezmer comedy is, like, the top tip of the 'M.' "

"It's a niche within a niche within a niche. In other words, I have my doubts."

No wonder they call it the Jewish blues.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4556

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