By Bert Stratton
My dad admired bankers. In my dad’s pantheon of great Cleveland families, the number one clan was the Bilsky family, who started out making bagels, then went into medicine (son #1), bowling alleys (son #2, Mayflower Lanes, Cedar Center), and ultimately started a bank (son #3, Metropolitan Savings). My grandmother used to say “The Bilskys make big bagels out of little bagels.”
Scott Bilsky, 37, called my band, Yiddishe Cup, to book us for a temple event. He said 12 Bilskys would be at the temple party.
Dr. Harold Bilsky, son #1? He died in 2007. He had grown up with my late dad on Kinsman and liked the band. Leo, #2, wouldn’t be there either. He died in 1998. I asked Scott. “What about the banker?”
“That’s my grandfather Marvin,” Scott said. “He’ll be there.” Marvin is 90.
At the temple gig, I cornered Marvin during the band breaks. He told me, “Everything I ever did began with a B — baker, banker and builder.”
I knew that.
That I didn’t know. Bilsky a brewski?
“My father bought Cleveland-Sandusky Brewing in 1955,” Marvin said. “There were very few Jews involved in the brewing business. In the 1960s, Israel came to us for brewing tips and equipment.”
Bilsky’s bottled Gold Bond beer and Olde Timers Ale. Marvin said there were only five Cleveland breweries in the 1950s: Bilsky’s, Carlings from Canada (“very nice people”); Standard Brewing, Erin Brew, Irish; Leisy’s, German; and Pilsener’s P.O.C., Czech.
“We all used to meet on Mondays. I didn’t have any trouble with anybody,” Marvin said.
National breweries killed off the locals. The last local brewery to go was Carlings in 1984.
My father didn’t school me in breweries. He rarely drank; it would have interfered with his worrying. (An old Jewish joke.) I knew about Carlings from Cleveland Indians’ broadcasts; that was it.
Bilsky’s brewery was a biz blip in the Bilsky family history. The preeminent Bilsky business was Bilsky’s Bakery, which started on Kinsman Road and moved to Cedar Center in 1948.
Who invented the Cleveland coconut bar?
That was the question I should have asked Marvin Bilsky. Something my father would have liked to know too. My dad had loved coconut bars (and halvah).
Marvin was in the phone book…
“Marvin, this is Bert Stratton from Yiddishe Cup, the klezmer band.”
“Thanks for the concert yesterday. You did as well as you could,” he said. “No, seriously, we enjoyed it. And to answer the question, I’ve always said my father invented the coconut bar, but — and I have to tell you this — I went to Sydney, Australia, and I went down into the subway there. They have a small subway system. They had coconut bars down there. They didn’t call them coconut bars. [Australians call them lamingtons, says Google.] Where did they get them? Maybe from England. Australia used to be part of England.”
“Marvin, I have a friend, my age, his grandfather was Kritzer of Kritzer’s Bakery on Kinsman. My friend says his grandfather invented the coconut bar.”
“It was my father!” Marvin said, groaning. “Who knows.”
I dialed my cousin George Becker, whose father had owned Heights Baking on Coventry. He said his father didn’t invent the coconut bar. One less competitor for Coconut Bar King.
Scott Raab, a former Clevelander and journalist, wrote in Esquire (July 2002): “Ask for coconut bars in any Jewish bakery from New Jersey to Los Angeles and you’ll get some version of this: ‘So, you’re from Cleveland… We don’t have ’em.’”
[Illustration by Ralph Solonitz]
Yiddishe Cup’s bandleader, Bert Stratton, is Klezmer Guy. He knows about the band biz and — check this out — the real estate biz too. So maybe he’s really Klez Landlord. You may not care about the real estate biz. Hey, you may not care about the band biz. His blog Klezmer Guy (http://YiddisheCup.com/blog) has a gamy twist. It features tenants with snakes and skunks, and musicians with smoked fish in their pockets. Klezmer Guy was a reporter for Sun Newspapers. He has written for Rolling Stone, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the New York Times. He won two Hopwood Awards.