Washtenaw Jewish News

Yiddishe Cup: Where Klezmer meets corn
Bert Stratton, special to the WJN

igs in the sticks intrigue me.  You know, the ones where the pick-up trucks outnumber the Jews. My klezmer band, Yiddishe Cup, calls these jobs “playing Siberia.”

We’ve played Catholic colleges, Methodist retreats and towns so small they don’t even have traffic lights.  Take Richland Center, Wis.   No traffic light, but a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed warehouse.  (Wright was born in Richland Center.)

Our Siberia gigs, no matter how remote,  always have at least one Jew in the audience.  Even if we play in Lancaster, Ohio, a Jew will show up.   And for this sole Jew, we are the equivalent of secular Lubavitchers.

And another thing that always happens at our Siberia gigs . . . The local Jew apologizes to us for his town’s lack of sophistication and rugelah (rolled dough pastries). The Lancaster Jew called his town “Lackluster.”  (This sort of thing happens all the way up the Jewish “food chain”; Cleveland and Detroit Jews continually beg forgiveness from  New Yorkers and Chicagoans.)

Ann Arbor Jews wonder if Zingerman’s is in the same league as Cleveland’s old-school deli Corky & Lenny’s.  No comparison . . . apples and oranges.   Ann Arbor is the antithesis of our “Siberia” gigs; The Ark is the way-coolest place we play. The crowd is all ages and dances like crazy, and we typically have amazing local musicians sit in.

When Yiddishe Cup played Richland Center, Wis., we outdid ourselves; we had six Jews --  none of whom was about to make it into the Jewish federation’s database.   Each one announced he, or she, was intermarried and unaffiliated.

At Lakeside Association, a Christian Chautauqua-style retreat on Lake Erie in Ohio, we had one actual Jew and a Methodist minister who said she had been a Jew, named “Rachel,” in a previous lifetime.

Philo-semites -- like the Methodist minister – are just a small part of our audience.   The majority is  Middle Americans out for an evening of  “multiculturalism.”  Typically, Yiddishe Cup is part of a subscription concert series  – one week an Irish band; the next, an African dance troupe; then us. Alan Douglass, our keyboard player, said our van should have a bumper sticker, “We Brake for Ethnicity!”

In El Paso, Texas, we went on stage the week after the Irish band. The real multiculturalism -- for us -- was the audience, which was 75 percent Mexican-Americans. The concert was a free city-sponsored  picnic/barbecue/ party in a grassy field by the Rio Grande.  We played a mix of Yiddish theater tunes, Borscht Belt comedy, klezmer instrumentals and one Ladino song.  For an encore we played “La Bamba.”  The Latinos danced to everything, even “Rozhinkes mit mandlin,” a slow Yiddish lullaby, which was supposed to be a listening tune.  Our dance leader, Daniel Ducoff,  described it as a  Jewish-Mexican Woodstock.

On the Texas bandstand I complimented “the small but mighty El Paso Jewish community.”  The concert planner had told me she had hired us specifically because of the local Jewish community’s leverage.   El Paso is a town of 5, 000 Jews with a kosher  deli, Corned Beef College.  That’s not “kosher-style,”  that’s kosher, period.

In Rockford, Ill., after a concert, the organizing committee sponsored a reception for the band. We had cheese, crackers, wine and fruit.   This, for a klezmer band that eats grilled salmon weekly?   Our incredulous drummer, Don Friedman, said, “You serious? No desserts?  What, no diet pop?”

Musically, our stage show differs at Siberia gigs than at, say, JCC venues.  Yiddish theater medleys don’t make it in Siberia.  “Tumbalalaika,” too, is meaningless. Quotes from

“Hava Nagila” and "Tsena, Tsena” work well. And because it’s-a-small-world-after-all, everybody understands it when I introduce Steve Ostrow, our trombone player, as a “guy who often plays in symphony orchestras, but now gets great satisfaction  playing ‘Dreydl, Dreyl, Dreydl.’”
To hedge our bets, we usually add a “country” tune -- “16 Tons,” which  I explain “was written by that great klezmer composer Merle Travis.”  Then we break into Mickey Katz’s parody, the one about “16 tons of hard salami.”   It ends with “I owe my neshoma (soul) to the delicatessen.”
At college towns, like Ann Arbor, we do our rock version of  Sophie Tucker’s  “My Yiddishe Mama.”  Back home, this tune, played straight, makes the old folks cry.  But on the road, our lead singer, Irwin Weinberger, takes the microphone off the stand and struts around, a la Mick Jagger.  At Cottey College -- an all-women’s school in Nevada, Mo. -- the crowd intuitively understood the joke, and shrieked and howled like they were at a Beatles concert.  At that show, the lone Jew was from Joplin -- about 50 miles south of  Nevada.  And by the way, that’s Nuh-vey-da (YIVO  pronunciation),  gateway to the Ozarks.

“The Jew from Joplin” is an apt metaphor for our band.  We are Midwestern Jews – except for the two non-Jews in our band -- and we generally feel quite at home among large numbers of large non-Jews.  

The peculiar thing, actually, is when we play for Jews who can “out Jew” us ethnically.   We’ve been to America’s  Jerusalem – Boca Raton, Fla.   In fact, we’re going to be there again Feb. 11.   Everybody in  Boca Raton understands our jokes — most, better than we do.

Once in Florida we did a totally obscure comedy skit, “Essen,” which is about eating too much food at a Catskill resort, and the crowd roared.  In Ohio we had considered dropping the sketch because nobody, including our own Cleveland yidn, could relate to eating too much herring and matzo brai at a hotel.  In Florida  I asked the audience, “Anybody ever heard of Billy Hodes, the Catskills comedian who wrote ‘Essen’?”   Sure enough, an elderly man told me all about Hodes at the break.

Maybe this could be a full-time thing for us: klezmer, condos and coinage.  Miami Beach to Boynton Beach, rewind, and do it over again.

Nah.  We like the Midwest.  We like being part of the close-knit Cleveland Jewish community.  And after 20 years on the local bar mitzvah/ wedding scene, we’re  big machers in the Midwest.  We do all right in Michigan. This is our five annual appearance at The Ark.

As for the Siberia trips,  they serve as an interesting change of pace from the weekly grilled salmon gigs.

A concert organizer from Celina, Ohio called.  “You sure this music will go over here?”  he said.  “ We’re a bunch of German farmers.”  No problem, I said.  Then I  looked up Celina (YIVO pronunciation Ceh-lay-na) on a map.  It was nowhere I’d ever heard of, and I’ve lived in Ohio my whole life.

Our most Siberian gig?   We were booked into the opera house in Calumet, Mich.    That’s an old copper mining town, a four-hour drive north –  north after you cross the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula.  

We found a Jew there. In fact a Jewish mechanic with two sets of dishes (meat and milk).  He said he drove to Green Bay for his kosher meat.

Bert Stratton, Yiddish Cup’s bandleader and clarinetist,
graduated from University of Michigan in 1973, and is a two-time Hopwood Award winner.