Yiddisher cowboy: Im not the stereotype

The cowboy hat is not a gimmick. Neither is the Texas drawl.

Nevertheless, a Scott Gerber performance does have the horsepower to throw people for a loop.

As if it isn't surprising enough that Gerber is a real-life Jewish cowboy, there he is onstage strumming his guitar and belting out Yiddish songs that were "taught to me by my bubbe" on the ranch in Petaluma.

"I've had people who thought I was going to do a comedy thing when I've gone up on stage," Gerber said before a Dec. 25 gig at Saul's Deli in Berkeley. "I guess it is kind of funny to see. The way I dress, I guess I look like I should be doing some Hank Williams songs, and then I come out with some Jewish folk songs."

Actually, Gerber did play Hank Williams songs, but mostly as a teenager, when he was into bluegrass music and country and western.

The past few years, the 41-year-old ranch hand, who currently runs cattle in the foothills of Petaluma, has found himself drawn to Yiddish folk songs — some of which he'll be performing Saturday, Jan. 22 at a Tu B'Shevat Jewish music festival in Sebastopol.

"I've always loved it," he said of Yiddish music. As the grandson of immigrants from Ukraine, Belarus and Poland, "It's always been such a part of me and the culture I was raised in."

And what an interesting culture it was. He is a third-generation descendant of the Petaluma chicken ranchers, a community of idealistic and liberal emigre Jews who settled in Sonoma County in the early 1900s. Many lived a kibbutz-like but very secular existence

As a young man who "didn't know Jews were a religion until I got to be a teenager," Gerber set out for Big Sky Country to hone his skills as a cowboy. He spent the next decade or so living in flophouses from Montana to Nevada to the San Joaquin Valley, herding cattle on the hot, dusty plains and then heading into town with the boys on payday.

Not that he ever busted a chair over anyone's head in a barroom brawl. "I don't drink, so I rarely even went into a bar," he said of his jaunts into Big Sandy, Mont. "If I did, I'd have my guitar with me. Or sometimes I'd just go to a movie."

Gerber openly admits that his life isn't a traditional Jewish existence. "I'm not the stereotype of a doctor or lawyer," said the divorced father of a 10-year-old son. "But only my grandparents were chicken ranchers. My dad became a social worker."

Profiled 10 years ago in the book "The Jews in America," Gerber is now looking for his break in the world of music. He has certainly found a niche; after all, how many Yiddish-singing Jewish cowboys are out there?

"He's one of those very unique gifts that God has given us," said Lisa Iskin, the cantor for the past 10 years at Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati. "He could be a real treasure — a national treasure."

When he performs, Gerber tells the audience stories about the Petaluma chicken ranchers and his life as a cowboy. Talking in a drawl that he claims he picked up from hanging around so many ranch hands from Texas and Oklahoma, Gerber also explains the Yiddish lyrics.

"There is such a rich history there," Iskin said. "And he has such an amazing spirit that so very few people possess."

Gerber has yet to hit the big time, however. Most of his gigs have been in Marin and Sonoma counties: at a Hadassah gathering in Petaluma, a Ner Shalom Chanukah service in Cotati, a meeting of the Keep Yiddish Alive club in San Rafael and at a private party for major donors of the Marin Jewish Community Center.

Gerber performs Yiddish folk songs such as "Bin Ick Mir Shneideril" (I am a tailor) and Yiddish-language songs of the Holocaust such as "Zog Nit Keynmol" (Don't say never). He learned some from his grandmothers and mother; others, he has picked up along the way.

"There are songbooks, but I ain't so good at reading music," said Gerber, who admitted he can speak Yiddish "nor a bisel" (just a little bit). If he hears a new tune, he checks the lyrics with his father.

During a performance, he also throws in a little bluegrass and country (in English), and is working to put out his first CD (of Yiddish songs).

"Hopefully it'll take hold," said Gerber, who is still a ways away from being able to quit his day job — which on his tax form he identifies as "ranch hand."

His typical day might include saddling up his horse, riding out into the field with some collies and moving cattle from one pasture to another.

"If anything is sick, I'll rope it and doctor it," he said. "I'm also responsible for shoeing a string of horses. And if I get tired, I'll fix a little fence."

Gerber is also quite talented with a rope and sometimes does rope tricks when performing in front of children.

A few years ago, after saddling some horses at an auction yard in Petaluma, Gerber began practicing some of his rope tricks, thinking he was alone.

"I was just fiddling around with my lasso rope, jumping in and out of it, popping it over my head. I didn't know anybody was watching," he said. "Then some old guy says to me, 'What are you? A Mexican?' I said, 'No, I'm a Jew.' And he said, 'No way. Ain't no Jew who can handle a rope like that.'"

Oh really?

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.