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Where Music Aficionados Debate Who’s the Elvis of the Cantorial World

Fairfax is the best avenue in Los Angeles, containing within one miracle mile Little Ethiopia and the Peterson Auto Museum, the L.A. County Museum of Art and a farmers market. Cross Beverly Boulevard and you come upon Russian nightclubs and Israeli cafes. But lately creeping into this “one size feeds all” marketplace are a chain pharmacy, the ever L.A.-centric Asian nail salon and a feng-shui fine-tuned new shopping center.

All the more reason to thank goodness, or who knows what else, for the fact that just across from Canter’s Deli the bleat of a clarinet continues to beckon from old stereo speakers splayed out on the sidewalk. Step inside Hatikvah International Records and, like a blast from Fairfax past, you’ll hear more Yiddish than English — and smell, feel and taste it, too.

“Pardon the mess, this is where I live,” said proprietor Simon Rutberg, a wired little guy with gingery hair, constantly stepping over boxes and avoiding cats Stinky and Princess to get to his tunes. This narrow, dingy joint contains what he claims is the largest selection of Jewish music in the world. More museum than disc shop, Hatikvah resembles an indoor garage sale. And its faithful consider Rutberg more archivist than clerk.

“Oh, you can find some of this music in New York,” he said slyly, “if you know what you want and where to look. Here we have all of it.”

Not just Jan Peerce and Yaffa Yarkoni, but Bessarabian drinking songs. Ladino and Arabic. If chasidic CDs ain’t the party, there’s always Mexican klezmer — or Guns ’n’ Charoses and Doc Mo She. Would you believe there’s even a “Lambchop’s Passover Surprise” from Shari Lewis?

“The Barry Sisters outsell everything else in here,” said Rutberg, even though the last time Myrna and Claire recorded was in 1972. “Don’t deny the past,” Rutberg said, and this is the message loop running through his patter: Hatikvah is the one place to still find “the authentic” in Jewish music. Some of the songs in here are 80 years old — exotic, obscure, forgotten. You want traditional music? Which tradition? Love liturgical? Which liturgical? “Liturgies Juives d’Ethiopie,” Andalusian or a dozen different Shlomo Carlebach albums?

As if on cue, in strolled a cantor from Borough Park and his sidekick, both in the store to check out Rutberg’s inventory.

“This guy’s a big cantor,” whispered Rutberg. “Huge, huge record seller.” He hustled over to shmooze musicwares in Yiddish. The cantor’s companion was Herschel Fox, a Yiddish comedian who sang on “The Forward Hour” with William Gunther and his band.

“Dozens of times,” he said.

“We had a very lovely show last night,” said the cantor, hitting Hatikvah before flying home.

“Two of the best cantors in the world were there,” Fox jumped in. “A night of Jewish comedy, in Yiddish. Very successful.”

“How was the turnout?” Rutberg asked.

“For an Orthodox shul,” Fox allowed, “pretty good.”

Hatikvah’s record maven is a DJ spinning at the edge of the Yiddish universe. Hustling knowledge, he hooks visitors via storytelling riffs. “People come in here arguing who was the better in cantorial, Rosenblatt or Koussevitzky. Yossele and Moshe, these two were the Elvis Presleys of their era in the Jewish world. They performed constantly.”

An old Polish man, Rutberg said, once brought in four cassettes, put them on the counter and said, “You know, Simon, I’m a communist. I don’t believe in God. But Yossele Rosenblatt was the best cantor!”

If the atheists are listening to hazzonus, said Rutberg, “can you imagine the religious? We need more good Jewish atheists in here!”

He could use more of everyone in here. “There is no point in having a Jewish music store,” Rutberg said. Then why do it? “I stay here for the anger,” he said. Then in the animated pseudo-masochistic, self-preservational style of the classic Jewish humorist, he adds: “The venting.”

Rutberg’s love for the past fuels his look forward in anger. “We try to dumb down Judaism so we don’t lose the kids,” he vents. “But we end up losing everything. Adam Sandler? We’ve got Sholom Aleichem!”

Elliot Gould and Theodore Bikel are customers. Carl Reiner comes in. “Leonard Cohen always buys the same cantorial music,” Rutberg said with a grin. “Shalom Katz.” Hollywood has called too, when a movie (“Mr. Saturday Night”) or TV show (“X-Files,” “Brooklyn Bridge”) or Jewish-themed documentary needs an appropriate track.

During the 1920s and 1930s, RCA, Decca Records and the other big companies had Yiddish divisions. Rutberg mines these catalogues to produce his own compilations of the Barry Sisters, Italian Jewish musical traditions from 1954, mountain Jews’ music from the Caucasus — they all wear the Hatikvah International label. Showing off a Yaffa Yarkoni collection he produced, Rutberg explained: “Here’s the Edith Piaf of Israel. She entertained the troops. This was the first music I heard my father play.”

The phone rings, and it’s one of his performers, Fortuna, calling from Brazil. Rutberg is her U.S. distributor. Her pictures are all over the shop; her album covers hang in the window. Fortuna is arrayed like a Ladino Queen Esther. “Nobody in the world has ever tried to market Ladino music,” Rutberg said. “First of all, the market is Jewish, which is [as] big as the end of your finger. And Ladino is like a microbe in that. Which means that nobody wants it. But I really dug it. We have over 200 Ladino CDs, which is like having antique automobiles. I import them from Spain, Germany, Austria, France. They’re my No. 2 seller, bigger than cantorial, Israeli and klezmer.”

Tourists account for 40% of his sales. “They go back to France with tons of Rosenblatt, Koussevitzky. Europeans dig these old cantors, like wow, this is trippy, the chanting — like it’s world beat, which it isn’t.”

Once “a doo-wop guy” himself, Rutberg doesn’t chant anymore, except to claim that when Hatikvah was Norty’s Music Center during the 1960s, “rock and roll was born here.” Jerry Lieber of the songwriting team Lieber & Stoller — who wrote “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City, “Spanish Harlem” — worked for a buck an hour. Philip Spector went to Fairfax High up the block and hung out.

“In those days,” said Rutberg, “for 15 bucks you could cut a record. Phil Spector formed the Teddy Bears with a couple gals from the neighborhood, Carol Connors and Marsha Lieber. There was this kid who used to write songs and bring ’em to Norty because the store had a rep. His name was Herb Alpert. He had a band that played bar mitzvahs.”

And instead of a rock and roller, Rutberg ended up owner?

“Everybody worked in the Jewish store to go into rock and roll,” he said. “I wanted to get into rock and roll, and I wound up with Jewish. I fell in love with the emotion.”

His greatest musical love remains Jackie Wilson, the Detroit R & B singer of many 1960s hits. Rutberg hung out with Wilson when he was a teenager and recently co-produced a three-CD retro of him. But only from Rutberg can you learn this about Wilson, the man who was an inspiration to Michael Jackson, the Temptations and the Four Tops: “He loved Al Jolson!”

Dig it: This recording angel of Fairfax Ave, this L.A. shopkeeper who single-handedly is keeping Jewish soul music alive, has the inside goods on black soul singer Jackie Wilson. “Sure,” Rutberg said. “Jackie Wilson, who used to sing ‘Well, have you ever seen a girl for whom you’d fight for, die for [in ‘Reet Petite, The Finest Girl You Ever Want To Meet’] — he once sang, ‘My Yiddishe Mama’ at the Fontainebleau Hotel!”

Hank Rosenfeld, a comedy writer living in Santa Monica, Calif., last appeared in these pages April 17, 2002, writing about the funeral of Milton Berle. Nearly 1,300 of Rutberg’s 2,000 CDs are available online at www.hatikvahmusic .com.

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