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Unorthodox Klezmer; Jerry Lapides of Fells Point plays traditional Jewish folk music with a decidedly nontraditional insturment and feel.


Jerry Lapides plays a few bars of the old klezmer wedding dance "Frailach Fun Der Chuppa," "happiness of the nuptial canopy," his harmonica infusing the festive song with an undertone of nostalgic sadness.

While he plays, Lapides has the faintly ethereal quality of Marc Chagall's Vitebsk fiddlers. And the "Frailach" has the sound and feel of the wedding music from "Fiddler on the Roof."

Klezmer was the folk music of the East European shtetl Chagall painted and Shalom Aleichem chronicled, the small-town Jewish communities lost in the furnace of the Nazi Holocaust. But the music lives. Klezmer has been making a vigorous comeback over the last two decades as more and more people in America, Europe and Israel explore their Jewish roots.

Lapides is one Baltimore musician who has found a living heritage with klezmer. He plays with the Baltimore Klezmer Orchestra, a nonprofit band affiliated with the Baltimore Hebrew University -- "they announce me as one of the only klezmer harmonica players in the world." He took third place this fall in a Jewish song-writing contest, and he has played a couple of concerts in Israel.

"What makes me feel good about the revival of klezmer music," Lapides says, "is that it's a living heritage of the Holocaust, not just a museum of the horrors of the Holocaust. It's a creative endeavor giving life to a culture that was attempted to be destroyed."

And klezmer keeps Lapides very busy, indeed. He has just come back from a klezmer "camp" in the old and endangered Catskills Borscht Belt, a gathering that attracted hundreds of people, Jews and non-Jews, from around the world.

Lapides could easily be cast in "Fiddler." A Hebrew University teacher even told him once "you look like a Hasid, you talk like a Hasid and you walk like a Hasid."

Perhaps. But in his little house on Eden Street he definitely has a post-beatnik, post-hippie look. He's wearing hiking boots, black corduroy pants, a plaid flannel shirt, a fleece-lined vest, whitish whiskers and big eyeglasses, but his cap Tevye the milkman could have worn.

He's 70 and he's been knocking about the Baltimore scene since Martick's Lower Tyson Street Cafe was a beat generation hangout and No Fish Today was a way station on the road to the post-modern millennium.

"But I don't think I was a character then, like I am now," Lapides says. "I'm a Fells Point character. Ask anyone in Fells Point. Fells Point is my shtetl."

Looks the part

Looking like a Hasid is not so bad for a klezmer musician. Klezmer pretty much started in about the 18th century with the rise of Hasidism, a folk-based reaction to the ascetic rigidity of traditional rabbinic leaders. Hasidism's founder, the Baal Shem Tov, of Blessed Name, encouraged Jews to express their piety through the ecstatic fervor of music and dance.

The earliest klezmer bands consisted of a couple fiddlers and a bass, or in those days a viola da gamba, and maybe a drum. Clarinet, trumpet and flute soon followed. The harmonica is strictly non-traditional.

The Baltimore Klezmer Orchestra plays with an American touch. Led by Ed Berman, "a magnificent clarinet player," it's eclectic enough to include a banjo and, of course, Lapides on harmonica. He doubles as a singer. The 10 musicians, all volunteers, play about once a month at such places as the university, the Jewish Community Center, synagogues, nursing homes and Jewish festivals. And they've played Artscape and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"We play one tune that has a Charleston sound," Lapides says. "Some have a Dixieland sound. So I'm not a purist, personally. You have klezmer orchestras today that have jazz and blues sounds mixed in."

As a matter of fact, Lapides played mostly blues until he answered a newspaper ad when the orchestra started.

"While I admire the standard blues and they're in my blood," he says, "I feel it's more authentic to integrate them with my own thoughts and experience. So I've written stuff like 'Science Don't Do Me No Good Blues' and 'Bagel Blues.' "

The ambiguity in hovering between klezmer and the blues isn't lost on him. It's sort of a life theme. "I used to write poems as a kid, and I took a poem and gave it a gospel and Jewish sound. That's called 'Alienation.' That's how I felt living in a non-Jewish neighborhood as a kid."

Lapides is a retired social worker who worked 26 years for the Baltimore County Department of Social Service and four years for Springfield State Hospital. He has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Maryland.

"Most of my experience was with disabled adults, mentally and physically. I used to call myself a poor man's psychiatrist."

He sings a sample of his "Bagel Blues" in a pleasant baritone: No more bagel blues. No more bagel blues.

I just turned off ... I just turned off the daily news.

Today when I ate my breakfast I didn't feel the bagel blues.

I enjoyed them all the usual way when I turned off, turned off, the daily news.

"There's a lot more," he chortles a slightly askew laugh. "I can't recall it all."

No matter, Sylvia Schildt, his translator, who is founder and president of Yiddish of Greater Baltimore, has translated "Bagel Blues" into Yiddish, and Lapides is hoping to introduce it into the klezmer repertoire.

Singing backup

He noodles another klezmer tune on his harmonica. His dog Angelo -- Angie -- joins in with a soft tenor warrph. Lapides has a repertoire of maybe 50 klezmer songs, mostly traditional.

He says he met a good klezmer harmonica player when he visited Israel. Lapides played concerts at Beer Sheba, the big town in the Negev desert, and at Yerucham nearby, where his sister, Myrna Braverman lives.

"They were heavily attended by Russian Jews, who really dig on Yiddish," he says. "Just as in Baltimore many in our audiences at Hebrew University are Russian Jews. Probably many from the same area. So there is a linkage between the Russians of Israel and the Russians of Baltimore."

At the Israeli concerts, he performed his prize-winning song "My Father's Tune," which won third at the Charlotte Yiddish Institute, in North Carolina, one of the repositories of Yiddish culture in America. He sings a little of the English version.

When I was a little boy,

My Father gave this song to play.

Though I didn't know all he knew,

The more I played it, the more I grew.

I play it when I'm happy --

I play it when I'm sad.

And it still brings the memory

Of my blessed dad ...

His father, Solomon Morris "Sam" Lapides, a cutter at the old Lebow clothing company, died when Lapides was about 11. His mother, Doris, moved him, his sister, Myrna and his brother, Julian, from Park Heights Avenue to Mount and McHenry streets, where she opened a grocery. Her family had deep roots in the now long-dispersed Southwest Baltimore Jewish community. Lapides' great-grandfather helped found the Moses Montefiore Congregation on Smallwood Street.

His father listened regularly to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast, but he had a strong interest in cantorial music. Lapides shares the interest: His earliest musical training was with Benjamin Grobani, cantor at Oheb Shalom synagogue for nearly 40 years.

"In Israel, I performed an old cantorial piece by Yossele Rosenblatt," Lapides says. Rosenblatt was one of the great cantors of the 20th century. You can hear his voice in the first talking movie, Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer."

Lapides was also inspired as a kid by Larry Adler, whom he saw playing at the Hippodrome. About a dozen years older than Lapides, Baltimore-born Adler, the world's leading concert harmonica virtuoso, was playing the Hipp when he was 9 or 10.

But Lapides only began playing serious harmonica about 20 years ago. He has played virtually every joint in Fells Point, from sitting in at the Cat's Eye Pub to the blues jam at the Full Moon Saloon. He has played standards with the late and much-lamented El Duke-O, a more or less legendary pianist, and he improvised with the brilliant jazz guitarist, Paul Wingo, at Bertha's.

And he reckons he's not very religious.

"I guess, if you mean by religious orthodox in practice and theology, I would say no. But I feel the fervor, I guess like Larry Adler, of my culture."

Pub Date: 1/05/99

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