With the walls that sometimes feel like they’re closing in during this pandemic, my wife and I decided the other day to get out and take a good, long walk.

After careful deliberations, we agreed to stroll around Fells Point, one of our favorite haunts in town. Passing by the old Ding How Restaurant on Broadway, I immediately thought of Joseph W. “Jerry” Lapides, whom I once interviewed at the long-shuttered Chinese bistro.

Jerry was a member of the Baltimore Klezmer Orchestra and the brother of former state Sen. Julian L. “Jack” Lapides. He was also a self-styled Fells Point character, a longtime member of the East Bank Havurah and a damned good klezmer chromatic harmonica player, which is a rare breed. (For the uninitiated, a chromatic harmonica is a harp with a button on the side to change keys.)

Being a curious soul, I decided to ‘Google’ Jerry’s name after our walk, just to see whatever happened to him. To my shock and sadness, I saw he passed away only a few days earlier, at age 91.

Jerry was certainly one of the most entertaining and engaging individuals I’ve interviewed over the years. He was a modern-day version of the klezmorim, the itinerant Jewish musicians and troubadours who performed from village to village, bringing the joy of Yiddishkeit to listeners and keeping the heritage of Jewish music alive. He was a bit of a rogue gypsy soul and a free spirit, and he loved the spotlight.

I first met Jerry at Pikesville’s Royal Restaurant, attending the farewell lunch for the Moses Montefiore-Woodmoor Hebrew Congregation, before it merged with Anshe Emunah/Liberty Jewish Center in Greengate. The lunch was organized and emceed by the late, great Sam Stone, who served as president of the Woodmoor shul for many years, and Jerry was the entertainment. (Jerry’s great-grandfather helped found the Moses Montefiore Synagogue back on Smallwood Street.)

As you can imagine, the crowd was mainly older and the mood decidedly nostalgic. I was invited by Sam to attend as both a reporter and a former Hebrew school student/bar mitzvah boy of the shul. Jerry was there on behalf of the BKO, which was affiliated with what was then known as Baltimore Hebrew University. (During non-pandemic times, the BKO still performs locally.)

Jerry certainly looked the part of a carefree klezmer musician. A retired social worker, he had a scraggly beard and large glasses, and wore a milkman’s cap, a dark vest with an open white shirt and black corduroy slacks, like he just stepped out of Anatevka. His repertoire was mostly old Yiddish tunes I’d never heard, like the klezmer wedding dance number “A Freylakh fun der Khupe.”

Larry Adler
As a child, Jerry Lapides saw harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler perform at the Hippodrome Theatre.

Being a bit of a harmonica freak, I introduced myself during one of his breaks. (Surprisingly, no groupies were accosting him between sets.) We schmoozed for a while about such mouth organ virtuosos as Toots Thielemans and Baltimore native Larry Adler, the latter of whom Jerry saw as a kid at the Hippodrome Theatre.

“They tell me I’m one of the only klezmer chromatic harmonica players anywhere,” Jerry informed me, noting that the harp is generally not considered a traditional instrument in klezmer circles.

I gave him my card, and we agreed to catch up for lunch sometime.

Bitten by the Klezmer Bug

At our interview at Ding How, not far from Jerry’s humble Fells Point abode, he told me about growing up in a tiny house in Southwest Baltimore, the son of a neighborhood grocer. During his younger years, he said he strayed from ritualistic and cultural Judaism, preferring to hang out at local hipster spots like the No Fish Today club on Eutaw Street and Martick’s Tyson Street Tavern.

He became a beatnik of sorts, and Fells Point became his shtetl. In the ‘70s, Jerry began playing harmonica as a serious hobby, performing at blues jams at such Fells Point joints as the Full Moon Saloon, Bertha’s and the Cat’s Eye Pub.

But at some point, Jerry became smitten with the music of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations, klezmer. He happened to see an ad for the BKO looking for klezmer musicians and joined up. Jerry wanted to pay it forward and get other Jews to cherish this music of their heritage, this genre that was largely lost during the Holocaust. Not an easy sell, much like trying to get African-Americans to embrace the blues music of their forebearers.

But Jerry was a pretty cool guy who transcended age and cultural barriers. With the BKO and other configurations, he performed all over town, such as at Jewish festivals, the JCC, shuls, nursing homes, even at Artscape and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Jerry liked to mix things up a bit, always insisting he was not a klezmer purist. To hammer that point home, he gave me a CD recorded live at Baltimore’s Red Room of himself and local musician Jill Ice performing “Spoonful,” the old Howlin’ Wolf blues standard, among other tunes.

When I asked if he ever busked anywhere or played his harmonica on a street corner to make some quick pocket change, Jerry made it clear that wasn’t his scene.

“I like performing with other people,” he said. “I don’t think the sound of a harmonica alone is a very pleasant one. It sounds better with other instruments.”

Jerry was thrilled that klezmer was experiencing a resurgence at that time among young musicians, Jewish and otherwise. He loved that this once-obscure Eastern European Jewish music was thriving again.

“It’s a living heritage of the Holocaust, not just a museum of the horrors of the Holocaust.” Jerry said in a 1999 interview with The Sun’s Carl Schoettler. “It’s a creative endeavor giving life to a culture that was attempted to be destroyed.”

That Kricht

In particular, Jerry told me how he was profoundly moved and influenced by attending “KlezKamp,” the annual klezmer and Yiddish cultural festival held in New York state’s “Borscht Belt.”

“I learned a lot there,” he said. “In one workshop, a clarinet player taught us about how to sing and play with that kricht in your instrument. A kricht is like the sound of a cry or a moan, an ache in your voice or your heart, when you play. It’s very effective and evocative and emotional, particularly in klezmer playing, and not easy to do.”

Alan's gifts

Sometimes when I fiddle around with my own harmonicas at home, I try to get that guttural sound, that kricht, out of my instrument. I might make others around me cry or ache instead, but I know I can never quite get that kricht sound like Jerry Lapides, who was actually a joy to spend time with.

During these difficult days of fear and anxiety, Jerry’s memory serves as a balm and blessing to me, as I’m sure it does to all who knew and loved him.

“He was so full of life, so sweet,” says Judith Geller, an old friend of Jerry’s and a fellow East Bank Havurah member who learned how to perform the Kol Nidre liturgy and service from him years ago. “People of his generation were so, so special. It’s very emotional for me. I’m going to really miss him.”

Jerry Lapides is survived by his son, Philip Lapides; his brother, Julian L. “Jack” (Linda) Lapides; his former wife, Sarah Marshall Tall; and his niece, Tammy (John) Kienlen. Contributions in his memory may be sent to the Alzheimer’s Association of Maryland, 1850 York Rd., Suite D, Timonium, Md. 20193, or the charity of your choice.

More In News

All In News »