Drake named his new Toronto club after his Jewish grandparents

Jewish artist Drake already has a reputation for being hip hop’s most sensitive rapper.

But that hasn’t stopped him from scoring some more points in the books of bubbes and zaydes across the country.

The Canadian-born Grammy winner announced on Instagram last week that his new nightclub – located in the Air Canada Centre, where the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs play – is named Sher Club, after his Jewish grandparents Reuben and Evelyn Sher.

“Rest in peace to my grandparents Rueben and Evelyn Sher,” Drake wrote on Instagram. “My grandmother was the first person to ever play catch with me and my grandfather was the biggest sports fan in the world. I opened this club in the memory of both of you.”

Yes, you may sigh a collective “aw.”

The club, designed by luxury architect Ferris Rafauli, is billed as the “ultimate pre- and post-game destination.”

Drake has never been shy about talking about his grandmother and his Jewish roots more generally. Tablet points out that he tweetedabout his grandmother’s death in 2012 and put an actual voicemail from her at the end of his 2011 song “Look What You’ve Done.”

This is all coming from the guy who posts annual Hanukkah celebration photos on the Internet and proclaimed his Jewishness in an SNL monologue.

So while they may not like certain four-letter words that feature prominently in his songs, Jewish grandparents everywhere would approve of Drake’s gesture.

Concerts celebrate Ash Grove’s golden legacy

Ed Pearl, 70, silver-haired and feisty, will forever be associated with the Ash Grove, the folk club he opened 50 years ago with a $5,000 investment, despite the fact that the venue’s been closed for a quarter century.

“My life,” Pearl said, “has been a series of fortuitous accidents. And,” he ruefully adds, “not-so fortuitous.”

The Ash Grove’s golden anniversary is being celebrated this weekend at UCLA with two all-star evening concerts at Royce Hall and two and a half days (Friday through Sunday) full of concerts and workshops exploring the club’s legacy in bluegrass, blues, theater, women’s culture, poetry, leftist politics, gospel music and activism.

To call the Ash Grove, which sat at 8162 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood from 1958 to 1972, a mere folk club would be to oversimplify. Culture, politics, art, activism and music all converged in this West Coast outpost for all folk-related artists: Odette, Guy Carawan, Phil Ochs, the Limeliters, Bud & Travis, the Stoneman Family, Tom Paxton, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and John Fahey, among them. It was a haven for authentic blues, where the durable duo Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry first met; where Magic Sam played his last gig; where Albert King, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, the Rev. Gary Davis, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf all played. Flat-pick master Doc Watson first encountered bluegrass progenitor Bill Monroe there. Taj Mahal, the Chambers Brothers, the Kentucky Colonels, Ry Cooder, Canned Heat, Spirit, Linda Ronstadt and Kaleidoscope all gestated at the Ash Grove.

It was also a space for Lawrence Lipton’s poetry and jazz shows; comic monologist Hugh Romney (before he became Wavy Gravy); where Dalton Turbo read; where Holly Near first sang; where Michael McKean and David L. Lander performed with the Credibility Gap; where the San Francisco Mime Troupe and El Teatro Campesino stopped in Los Angeles. It was an embarkation point for busses bound for the southern Freedom Rides. Civil rights, voting rights for 18-year-olds, women’s rights, anti-Vietnam activism, migrant worker’s concerns were all part of the Ash Grove.

Pearl’s activism was no accident. He grew up in Boyle Heights, between Boyle and Lincoln, near County General Hospital. The area had blacks, Armenians, Croatians, Italians, Mexicans and, of course, Jews.

“I’ve always been multicultural,” Pearl said.

The neighborhood’s famous Breed Street Shul — off of what is now Cesar Chavez Boulevard — was one of the largest synagogues west of the Mississippi in its time. When asked if he was raised observantly, Pearl shrugs, “My cousins went to the Breed Temple. My bar mitzvah was at the smaller Menorah Center, north of Wabash Avenue.”

His father’s family left Ukraine after the failed revolution of 1905 and fled the subsequent Russian persecution to Cairo. Pearl’s father was trained as a mechanic and became a tool and dye maker for Lockheed. His mother, of Russian-Jewish stock, was carried to America as an infant and raised in St. Louis.

Socialist and communist thinkers were seldom far from Pearl’s boyhood; this alarmed his assimilationist mother. His first brush with activism came in junior high. Gerald L.K. Smith, the infamous anti-Semite, was scheduled to speak at a nearby high school. Pearl organized a large walkout at his own school. The action worked; Smith was cancelled.

The demonstrators all faced expulsion, though, and gained reentry to school only after public apologies. Pearl was the lone holdout.

“Dan Margolis, the radical lawyer, intervened,” Pearl said. “He rescued me. I wouldn’t apologize; it drove my mother crazy. I had to sleep out in the garage. He talked with the school and they let me back in, and I eventually apologized.”

“That’s my brand of Judaism, ” he added, with a twinkle in his eye.

Pearl entered UCLA at 16. He joined a committee that tried to present blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger on campus. The administration fought it and Pearl — with some coaching from fraternity and sorority debaters — became spokesman for the group. While the effort was ultimately futile, Pearl held his own as a speaker.

“Only later did I find out why I was chosen: I was the only one who wasn’t in the Communist or Socialist Parties,” he said.

Pearl wound up booking Seeger into Santa Monica High School. In the ’60s, he also booked the Santa Monica Civic for attractions too big for the Ash Grove: Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Ravi Shankar. The club was the one mandatory folk venue west of Chicago.

“I met Dylan in New York in 1961,” Pearl recalled. “He knew all about the Ash Grove, and he said he dreamed of coming out here more than anything. So, I had him booked, and he called me up and said, ‘Ed, I’ve got a chance to make a record for John Hammond at Columbia Records. What should I do …?'”

UCLA ethnomusicology student Barry Hansen, later to become Dr. Demento, worked the sound and the lights at the club. Blues scholar/journalist/broadcaster Mary Katherine Aldin worked in the office. Guitarist Bernie Pearl — Ed’s brother — headed the club’s music school with David Cohen. Blues harmonica titan George “Harmonica” Smith taught Taj, Rod Piazza, James Harman and Louie Lista at the Ash Grove. Mick Jagger personally thanked Pearl after a night at the club.

Attorney Barry Fischer, a UCLA law student in the late ’50s, found the Ash Grove a rare showcase for the international folk music he was playing. With his Ellis Island Klezmer Orchestra, Fisher would spearhead the local Yiddishkayt concerts and festivals.

“In the repressive atmosphere of the ’50s,” Fischer said, “what is now called world music was seen as slightly subversive. I studied ethnomusicology and was playing Balkan, Slavic, Russian, Eastern European music, and there weren’t many outlets for that. I worked with Mike Janusz, an extraordinarily gifted linguist. He spoke many languages and organized great vocal ensembles. One of this weekend’s workshops will be a tribute to him.”

Legal scrapes were also part of the Ash Grove’s legacy, and Fischer’s legal acumen was utilized by Pearl.

The Married Charedi and Me

I met Oren after watching “Kol Nidrei,” a new play by Israeli playwright Yehoshua Sobol. The play is about Charedi (ultra-Orthodox)

Jews who lead double lives — as Bnei Brak yeshiva bochers by day and Tel Aviv bar-hoppers by Friday night. “Kol Nidrei” is inspired by real life, and the main characters are played by former Charedi Jews who had left their communities for the “free life” of Tel Aviv and who now study acting.

My friend Tovy and I got in the elevator with Oren, who was wearing a black kippah and a blue collared shirt. Curious, we asked him what he thought of “Kol Nidrei.”

“I’m shaking,” he said. “It really spoke to me.”

He revealed to us that he lives in an ultra-Orthodox community with his wife and child, who didn’t know where he was. By going to see the play, Oren, too, was leading a double life.

Tovy and I sat down with him, and he continued to tell us his story.

“I was always a very appeasing child, I always did what people expected of me, and I’ve always suffered,” he explained.

Now 27, he was set up with his wife when he was 18. He doesn’t love her, and they both know it. His work as a computer salesperson brought him into contact with secular Israelis, who seemed so much freer to him.

“You have a choice,” he said to us. “I want that choice.”

Internally, Oren is completely secular. He no longer believes in God. He doesn’t pray or don tefillin. Externally, however, he looks like a good yeshiva boy.

“I can’t just shave my beard and go to my family and say, ‘That’s me.’ I don’t have the courage.”

I felt sorry for him, but also happy for him that he was courageously questioning his confines. And I couldn’t help but be tempted to encourage him.

“Are you into nightclubs and bars, like the characters in the play?” I asked.

“I’m intrigued,” he admitted. Once, an 18-year-old gas station attendant took him to a pub, but he felt “out of place.”

Then I told him I was well connected with the Tel Aviv nightlife scene, but I debated whether or not to exchange phone numbers. On the one hand, he seemed like an interesting project. On the other hand, he was married.

“He’s definitely into one of us,” said Tovy, as he left.

That was obvious enough.

A few days later he called me with an “idea.” “Maybe I can join you when you go to bars or nightclubs?”

He wasn’t really experienced in asking a woman out on a date.

I deferred the date for a week; I was still hesitant. Would I be evil by escorting him to the Tel Aviv underworld, while his wife and child are at home? Am I aiding and abetting a probable adulterer?

But when he called me again, I decided to go out with the poor soul — with caution.

We sat for beer at a pub on Ben Yehuda Street on a Thursday night, Tel Aviv’s party night.

There was no small talk to bypass to get to the nitty gritty. We immediately began talking real life, and the dialogue was intense.

“Doesn’t your wife mind you’re out late?” I probed.

He looked at me with a concentrated glance I hardly receive from secular men I date.

“We both know that it’s going to end sooner or later,” he said. “We talk about it.”

His admission relieved some guilt I felt in luring this married Charedi. His marriage was a lost cause anyway. As long as I didn’t kiss him, I reasoned, we were kosher.

And I wouldn’t want to kiss him anyway. He really looked nerdy in his beard, white collared shirt, black kippah and black slacks. He totally didn’t fit in, and I could tell people were looking at us. I fantasized about shaving his beard and taking him to the mall for a makeover. He had potential — if only one could see his face.

We continued to talk Torah, philosophy, relationships, and I shared with him the process I underwent as I began to question the Modern Orthodox way of life. I realized what I really liked about him: He was a thinking creature. He thought about life, its meaning and his personal happiness.

“How does it feel to be in a Tel Aviv pub?” I asked.

“I’m on a high,” he said.

As he dropped me off at my car, we shook hands and he kissed me on the cheek. I didn’t like the feel of his beard.

“I really enjoyed myself,” he said.

But then I wondered if he was acting. Maybe he dramatized his frustrations to attract a female savior? Maybe I was insecure and liked the feeling of being appreciated and needed by a man who saw me as a tempting, exotic fruit.

Then I remembered that this was not a play. “Kol Nidrei” was over. Art imitates life, but life rarely imitates art. His drama was real. Neither of us were actors.

For now I think it best I remain a minor, friendly character in Oren’s story. Once the major conflicts are resolved — and he goes through a wardrobe change — then we’ll see if I’ll take on a bigger role.

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at arfa@netvision.net.il.