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Be True to Your Shul

The lead clarinetist of the Machaya Klezmer Band launches a tune so loopy and exuberant that it seems to grab the pedestrian by the lapels and drag him clear across Fairfax Avenue through the open front door of Hatikvah Music International. The proprietor, Simon Rutberg, has been blasting the Machaya CD 10 hours a day, but the melodies have lost none of their power to grab him either. He still bounces slightly to Machaya’s klezmer music--the folk instrumentals spawned in the vanished Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe. The top three or four buttons of his denim shirt are undone as he tells the history of the record store, one inseparable from that of rock ‘n’ roll and, more recently, of klezmer’s revival.

Rutberg began working here in the mid-1960s, when Norty Beckman was the owner and the sign read Norty’s Music Center. On one wall were stacked the dependable Jewish standards; on the other, contemporary pop. “In a sense, rock ‘n’ roll was invented in this store,” Rutberg says. “There’s a couple of fellas that met here. One used to work behind the counter--everyone wanted to get into rock ‘n’ roll, it was a new thing--and the guy behind the counter wanted to compose.” The duo began noodling on Norty’s piano, forging the creative relationship that would produce “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and other titles made immortal by Elvis Presley. “Those two fellas,” Rutberg confides, “were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.” Then there was the teenage genius who sometimes roamed Norty’s store. “This kid’s father died,” Rutberg recalls, “and on his tombstone was written ‘to know him is to love him.’ ” Phil Spector turned his father’s epitaph into the first of many hits.

“So this store has a great history of success,” Rutberg explains over the klezmer wail. “And I broke that--I don’t want to copy people.”

Rutberg took over the store in 1989 and renamed it Hatikvah, which in Hebrew means “hope” and is also the title of Israel’s national anthem. As a young man in East L.A., Rutberg was more familiar with doo-wop than Yiddish singing. But today the preservation of the Yiddish canon is Hatikvah’s chief objective, so thoroughly has Rutberg embraced the music. “You can’t state in English what you can say in Yiddish,” Rutberg now observes. “It can’t be translated. I’ve always said, ‘You speak English, but you taste Yiddish.’ ”

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Hatikvah’s expansive klezmer collection includes “Yikhes,” a CD of rare prewar recordings ferreted out by a professor of Iranian Studies at UC Berkeley. From a European klezmer renaissance that is not altogether Jewish, he carries both the Austrian group Gojim and the Dutch group Di Gojim. For the jazz aficionado he offers “Hora & Blue,” by the Modern Klezmer Quartet, fantastic re-interpretations of Jewish melodies in the styles of John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck.

With klezmer ensembles springing up everywhere from Austria to the Simi Valley, the store may soon be blessed with a mass culture cachet. “It’s all very strange,” Rutberg allows. “If it becomes hip, then all of a sudden a lot of guys going into rock ‘n’ roll will say, ‘Wait a minute: It was hip to be Jewish?’ ”


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