Live at Sauls: klezmer with your knishes

At Saul’s every Monday night, dinner comes with a klezmer soundtrack.

“Klezmer Mondays” has been a feature at the popular Berkeley deli for well over a year. A klezmer ensemble, led by reed player Mike Perlmutter, sets up in the narrow passageway by the kitchen, playing two sets of traditional Jewish music.

“For me it’s a way to keep the music alive,” Permutter said, “to keep the spirit alive and keep it in the community.”

It’s kreplach with a side of freilach.

Klezmer musicians (from left) Mike Perlmutter, Dimitri Gaskin and Ilana Sherer liven things up at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley photo/dan pine

On a recent Monday, the band’s 17-year-old accordionist, Dimitri Gaskin, and two guest musicians, mandolin player Tony Phillips and violinist Ilana Sherer, accompanied Perlmutter, 37, who alternates between clarinet and a gleaming baritone sax.

The band performed a set of bulgars, horas and shers — all traditional klezmer styles — while customers chowed down on thick pastrami sandwiches. The tip jar (which came pre-stuffed with a 100-ruble note from Mother Russia) filled quickly.

Through the clatter of plates, forks and knives, customers applauded enthusiastically.

“The fact that it’s noisy is no different from bands playing a bar where people are drinking,” Perlmutter noted of the ambiance. “The attention is not necessarily on the entertainment, but it’s part of the milieu.”

Saul’s co-owner Peter Levitt believes hosting live Jewish music is part of his restaurant’s cultural mission.

“We serve a disparate Jewish population that is secular [and] who may never see the inside of a synagogue,” Levitt said. “The way they keep Jewish is to eat matzah balls. It always pulls on my heartstrings to hear [the music]. Mike and his crew pull out some real gems.”

Levitt admitted his wait staff, laden with trays of pickles and knishes, sometimes must dodge the occasional spontaneous dancer.

On this night, the most determined terpsichorean was 4-year-old Nina, a Monday night regular, along with her grandparents Barbara and Vince Logano. She pirouetted down the aisle as the band worked its way through the Burkovina hora.

“It’s so much fun,” said her proud grandpa. “This music is the best.”

Perlmutter wouldn’t disagree. The Massachusetts native grew up in an observant home, and though he studied saxophone as a youth, he wasn’t smitten by traditional klezmer until college.

An ecologist by trade and training, Perlmutter took up klezmer as an avocation. He moved to the Bay Area in 1998, playing with the Zoyres Eastern European Wild Ferment, Inspector Gadje and other ensembles.

Saul’s has hosted live klezmer music for years, but it was Emunah Hauser, who does marketing for the restaurant, who made it a regular Monday night fixture.

“The beauty of klezmer in a restaurant is that for many, their encounter with it is unexpected — a happy, inviting opportunity,” Hauser said. “Traditional music of all kinds so often gets short shrift in people’s modern lives, and klezmer has its own very special place in all this.”

Perlmutter leads the house band, but other groups have subbed in, some of them among the most popular in the Bay Area. Kugelplex, the Red Hot Chachkas and Gerry Tenny have played Saul’s, doing their part to keep klezmer alive and well.

“This is traditional East European Jewish music,” Permutter said. “When people immigrated to the United States, they brought that music with them, but it petered out due to immigrants wanting to become American. Klezmer music was considered too shtetl. So it really died out except for a few small pockets.”

That trend was reversed over the last 25 years thanks to the klezmer revival, much of it led by Bay Area musicians. These days Saul’s is not the only local restaurant to host klezmer bands. Amba in Piedmont,Tannourine in San Mateo and Porto Franco Art Parlor in San Francisco have gotten in on the fun, though none maintains a weekly performance like that at Saul’s. And from 7 to 9 p.m. Aug. 28, Berkeley’s Le Bateau Ivre Café will host Ellis Island Old World Folk Bank, playing klezmer and Yiddish tunes.

“This is really a community effort,” Perlmutter said. “There are musicians who do it week to week, in the restaurants, promoting it, and organizations like KlezCalifornia who put it out in their newsletters. With all these people pitching it, that’s how it has grown.”

As the sun sets, Saul’s starts to fill. Clearly, some of the diners are there to hear the band. At one point, Perlmutter and company morph what seemed like a stately klezmer dirge into “Happy Birthday,” which sounds pretty good with a Yiddish accent.

“It’s become more than a music gig,” Perlmutter said. “There’s a community thing happening. [Regulars] show up almost every Monday night. It’s now what they do.” 

Klezmer Mondays at Saul’s, 1475 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 6-8 p.m.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.