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Fairfax's Musical Treasure

From a modest storefront, Hatikvah's Simon Rutberg turns the world on to Jewish music
Reprinted from the Jewish Journal, October 31, 1997
By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

Just north of Cantor's Deli, the boisterous wail of a klezmer clarinet spills out onto Fairfax Avenue. It emanates from Hatikvah Music International, and it's a sound so buoyant and invitingly Jewish that it beckons you over as sure as the scent of bubbe's roasted brisket.

[A glimpse inside the store...]
A glimpse inside the store

Step inside, and things really begin to get eclectic. Jan Peerce and Theodore Bikel share shelf space with brooding Israeli pop stars from the 1960s and 1970s. Old album covers of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's "The 2000 Year Old Man" and CDs of the late Allan Sherman sit near posters for Doc Moshe's "Hanukkah Homeboy" and the rap parody group "Two Live Jews." There's Chassidic music, Israeli standards, Arabic melodies and rare prewar Yiddish recordings. Debbie Friedman's kid-friendly folk is here, as are Kol Nidre recordings, Ethiopian liturgical music, seder music from Iraq and Passover "Rugrats" videos. You want Johnny Mathis singing in Hebrew? No problem. Neither is a Jackie Wilson recording of "Yiddishe Moma," which prompted an avalanche of calls when Hatikvah supplied it to FM radio station KCRW for its annual pre-Chanukah program.

The store also boasts a collection of Ladino music so rich and varied that it has attracted collectors from all over the world, including institutions such as Yale University.

And, of course, there's the klezmer. This cluttered, unassuming storefront encompasses it all - the hauntingly bittersweet sounds of old European masters, 1920s-era clarinet greats such as Naftule Brandewein and Dave Tarras, and newer groups riding the wave of klezmer's revival, including the Machaya Klezmer Band (whose bouncy spirit is what usually draws people in from the street).

This is the world of Simon Rutberg, Hatikvah's diminutive, sandy-haired and energetic proprietor. On most days, he can be found bent over boxes of new shipments, ringing up customers from behind the counter, or on the phone with fanatical klezmer fans - many of them non-Jewish - who make pilgrimages to Hatikvah from Canada, Germany and other far-flung spots where Jewish soul music has captured the hearts of a modern generation.

"This is the largest collection of Jewish music in the world," says Rutberg, gesturing toward a wall stacked with titles from floor to ceiling. "I know, because I look everywhere for sources, so I know what's out there. When I say 'Jewish music,' I mean Ladino, Klezmer, cantorial, Chassidic and Israeli music, not just stuff recorded by a singer who happens to be Jewish."

Other music stores, such as Hatikvah's neighbor, Hataklit, and Rhino Records in Westwood, also boast inventories rich in Jewish music, but neither collection is as extensive or as eclectic as Rutberg's. Without hesitation, Rutberg can scan his inventory and pluck out most anything: popular American oldies ("If you can believe it, 'Connie Frances Sings Jewish Favorites' is the biggest-selling Jewish album of all time," he says as he pulls out a CD emblazoned with a picture of the Catholic pop singer) and lesser-known discoveries that emanate from Hatikvah's speakers like voices from another world. There's the Scottish-born Jewish vocalist Lena Rothstein, who lives in Austria and sings in Ladino. Rutberg also carries what he calls "Holocaust music," recordings made in Europe during the war. Asked about an old recording by Shoshana Damari, a Yemenite-Israeli folk singer and sort of a cultural icon of the Jewish state's early years, Rutberg produces it without missing a beat. He then recommends a compilation of old klezmer recordings by Brandewein, Tarras and others entitled "Yikhes." It's a collection put together by Joe Rubin, who also produced "A Tickle in the Heart," a poignant film about klezmer musicians.

That's what a visit to this retail Jewish archive does: It satisfies the longing to retrieve one's own musical memories, and sparks the discovery of new ones. Perhaps that's why Hatikvah draws such a varied group of music lovers - from European collectors, to actors Leonard Nimoy and Ron Rifkin, to a stream of curious passersby.

And Rutberg is, in a very real sense, an archivist, providing an outlet where exotic, obscure, new or forgotten music can be heard and promoted along with the more commercial stuff. Although Hatikvah does not sell used records, it has become, in recent years, the last stop for those trunkfuls of music that sit neglected in people's attics for years.

"Look at these," he says, extracting a thick cardboard folder from a random pile. Inside are dozens of mint-condition records from the early part of the century, their titles peeking through the brown paper sheaves. "People send me this stuff all the time," Rutberg says. "Their parents or grandparents die, and when they go through their stuff, they find these old recordings. I really don't know what to do with them, but when they say they're going to throw them out, I take them. Some of this is just impossible to get."

A few weeks ago, Rutberg was sent a shipment of 300 old 78 recordings, dating back to 1910, decades before the establishment of the Jewish state. "Some of it is labeled 'Palestinian Hebrew Music,'" he says with a laugh. "Can you imagine? The 'Palestinian Freylach Hora'?"

Some older music does get reissued or born again as part of a newly released compilation. About seven years ago, Rutberg began calling major record labels to inquire about the treasure-trove of old Jewish and Yiddish music these companies had gathering dust in their vaults. "At one time, RCA, Decca, Columbia - every one of the big labels - had a Yiddish division," he says. "During the 1920s and 1930s, an incredible number of artists were recording in Yiddish. Even Irving Berlin wrote some Yiddish tunes. But, listen, when you can write 'White Christmas' and sell millions.

"Jewish music is really a small segment of the total marketplace. A Jewish artist is lucky to sell 6,000 albums. These companies drop artists if they sell only 200,000 records."

It's those inflated sales expectations that make big labels lukewarm about re- releasing old stockpiles of specialty music, he says. Still, Rutberg has begun to persuade them to open their vaults to him. What he hopes to do is ferret through these musical inventories and with the approval of company licensing departments, produce new compilations on his own - an effort that has already begun to bear fruit.

At one time, Rutberg's aspirations as a record producer had more to do with rock 'n' roll than Romanian wedding dances. The store itself - while it always sold Jewish standards - also stocked an impressive collection of rock 'n' roll, becoming a hangout for emerging talents in pop music, such as Phil Spector and producer/composer Steve Barri.

The shop was founded in 1954 by Norty Beckman. Jerry Leiber worked at Norty's Music Center, as it was then called, where he eventually hooked up with Mike Stoller. They went on to become a seminal songwriting duo, writing tunes for the Coasters, The Drifters and others. Some of their hits - "Stand By Me," "Love Potion #9" and "Hound Dog" - are now a cherished part of the pop pantheon. But in those days, Rutberg says, "Norty had a piano, so they would sit up all night at his house and write songs. Norty joked that sometimes they would sleep on his floor just to be near that piano."

As a college student in the mid-1960s, Rutberg was a part-timer at Norty's, and he remembers it as a great era on the Jewish street. "You had Fairfax High School really in its heyday then," he says. "You had CBS taping all these shows down the street. Between tapings, all sorts of people would walk up and down Fairfax. I'd see everyone from Red Skelton to Elvis Presley." During those years, Rutberg also got to meet the late R&B great Jackie Wilson, whom he eventually befriended. Helping to produce a three-CD retrospective of Wilson's music, he says, "was the greatest thing I ever did." Rutberg took over Hatikvah in 1989, but he still keeps those old photos of himself with Wilson behind the counter. As for his setting aside of his own early old rock 'n' roll ambitions, he says: "I guess it's a mixed blessing. I never thought I'd be doing what I am now, but rock 'n' roll changed anyway."

Rutberg may gripe a bit about the routine of running a retail store, but it's evident that his unique role in Jewish music has grown on him.

"My favorite time is when the shop is closed and I look at the wall and think to myself, 'This is the largest collection of Jewish music in the world, and I put it together,'" he says. "You know, it's really a love-hate thing I have with this store. You can't really make a living in Jewish music. I know I could do a lot better selling tires. But tires don't have a soul."

Copyright (c) 1997 The Jewish Journal of Greater LA

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