Jewish Journal


December 22, 2005

It’s the Swan Song for Hatikvah Music


Simon Rutberg in the early days of Hatikvah Music.

Simon Rutberg in the early days of Hatikvah Music.

On a recent afternoon, boxes were scattered around the floor of Hatikvah Music International on Fairfax Avenue. Stacks of CDs, piles of mailing envelopes and piles of boxes to be mailed threatened the barely discernible order of the store. Aside from owner Simon Rutberg and his visitor, the store was empty.

You'd never know that this is the world's largest outlet for musical Judaica, because it looks like moving day. And come January, it will be moving day for real, when Rutberg is forced to give up the Fairfax Avenue store that has been a landmark for Jewish music lovers for decades.

Fairfax is changing, and to many long-time business owners and visitors, not for the better. Gentrification has been threatening the street for some time. Hatikvah isn't the only store on the block to feel the heat, but fans are already concerned about the store's demise.

"For me, that [Fairfax] strip of the Borscht Belt was always defined as much by Hatikvah as Canter's or Diamond's Bakery," broadcaster Rene Engel (KCRW-FM, KUSC-FM, KCSN-FM) told The Journal. "It was the only music store my mother ever shopped at, and that was my link to the music she grew up with. It was also the only place to go for Israeli music. I can't imagine Fairfax without Hatikvah."

Neither can KCRW general manager Ruth Seymour, who builds her annual "Philosophers, Fiddlers and Fools" radio show around what Rutberg selects for her.

"I'm from New York," she said, "the East Bronx, and I can tell you uncategorically that there's nothing like Hatikvah [even] back there."

Many viewed the store as a music archive.

"Universities came to me when they wanted rare field recordings," Rutberg says. "Record companies like Columbia tell me that if I ever close, they'll discontinue certain records because there will be no place to buy them."

Rutberg finds a rare CD and holds it up for inspection: "Shba Hoth: Iraqui Jewish Songs from the 1920s." Then there's the album of Jewish music from the southern coast of India. "You can't go anyplace else for this," he says.

Although Rutberg will vacate the shop next month -- with no current plans of how or where he will relocate -- the store's doors stand customarily open on this December afternoon, music wafting onto the sidewalk. Even louder are the persistent clacking noises from across the street: A group of boys practice skateboard maneuvers outside a store selling T-shirts that looks like a Melrose transplant -- evidence of a transforming Fairfax.

Despite the racket, the compact, well-groomed Rutberg lowers his voice when asked about why he started Hatikvah back in 1987. He says he wanted to help save Yiddish, and specifically Yiddish music -- part of a national trend that now includes institutions such as Yiddishkayt Los Angeles and the National Yiddish Book Center.

The long, narrow store -- laid out like a shotgun shack -- has a fascinating history. It opened in 1948 as Norty's, Rutberg says. Some 50 yards from Fairfax High, it went on to sell music -- both Jewish and pop -- to generations of music-hungry kids, including Phil Spector and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Jerry Leiber worked there as a teen, before he met Mike Stoller and they went on to write one of the largest and greatest catalogs of rock 'n' roll songs. When Herb Alpert played weddings and bar mitzvahs, he put his flyers there.

Steve Barri (nee Lipkin) also worked at Norty's, and the store was his springboard to a job as an A & R man for Dunhill Records in 1963. Rutberg casually touches the counter as he notes, "Steve and Phil Spector wrote 'Secret Agent Man' right here."

Rutberg discovered the place when his family moved to the area after emigrating from Poland in the 1950s. Norty's became his neighborhood music store, and Rutberg even worked in the shop in the 1960s. Eventually he moved on to other pursuits -- downtown retail clothing, a Westwood record store -- before returning in 1987.

These days, some of the store's biggest sellers are displayed near the cash register: "You Don't Have to Be Jewish & When You're in Love & The Whole World Is Jewish (Double Length)" and Mandy Patinkin's "Mamaloshen." Also on display are two CDs Rutberg released on his own Hatikvah Music label: "Leo Fuld Sings His Yiddish Hits" and Martha Schlamme's "Yiddish Songs From My Father's House."

What's this? "Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites"? A twinkle appears in Rutberg's eye as he explains, "Continues to sell, year after year."

On the wall behind the counter, a small shrine to Jackie Wilson? "Sure," he affirms. "A great singer and a good friend of mine. You ever hear his record of 'My Yiddishe Mama'?"

Just then a young blond woman walks into the store. Rutberg greets her, and they confer. While the proprietor disappears into the back of the building, she says she's in the process of converting to Judaism.

"[My temple] told me that I should come here to get some music for my seder," she says.

When Simon returns, he has found exactly what she needs.

Over the years, Rutberg has also served numerous celebrities, including Johnny Mathis, Steve Lawrence and Theodore Bikel. Folksy singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen once wanted some cantorial music. Bette Midler was looking for something by the Barry Sisters, citing Claire Barry as her prime influence.

"I picked up the phone," recalls Rutberg with a sly grin, "dialed long distance and said, 'Claire, there's someone I want you to speak to.'"

Asked what will become of Hatikvah, Rutberg shakes his head. "I don't know," he says.

In recent years, he has done much of his business online at www.hatikvahmusic.com, so possibly that will continue. But the landmark store loved by so many will be a blank storefront by next month.

Rutberg believes he did his part to save rare Jewish music. "But I couldn't save myself," he adds, ruefully.

For more information, call (323) 655-7083.

Simon Rutberg, owner of Hatikvah Music International will be interviewed on KCRW-FM's "The Politics of Culture" on Monday, Dec. 26, at 7 p.m.

Kirk Silsbee has been writing about music in Los Angeles -- mostly jazz- -- for the last 30 years.

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