BROOKLINE – Come noontime on Fridays, in the hours before the start of Shabbat, it may feel as if all of Jewish Boston is at The Butcherie.
The region’s leading kosher grocery, on Harvard Street, in the heart and hub of Greater Boston’s historic Jewish neighborhood, is a beehive of activity as shoppers from all walks of life, religiously observant and secular, race in to pick up challah, kugel, even kosher sushi.
In the weeks before Passover, the tempo picks up even more. Customers navigate their overfilled carts through a maze of aisles where shelves are stacked high with boxes of matzah in every variety, jars of gefilte fish, and those hard-to-find specialty kosher items not available in regular supermarkets. Neighbors greet one another, kids nudge parents for snacks, and shoppers looking for that cut of brisket call out to the butchers.
But, wait! Is that music breaking through the buzz?
In this most unlikely venue, since mid-February, customers have been treated to live music every Friday, from 11 a.m. to closing, performed by local guitarist Nick Wickstrom, whose Jewish melodies are adding joy to the oy of The Butcherie’s Erev Shabbat shopping experience.
“Friday is one of the busiest days of the week. People are in a good mood, buying for Shabbos. We want to make it as pleasant for people as possible,” said Josh Gelerman.
He and Gili Zilberberg, his Israeli cousin, are two of the three owners of the grocery founded 48 years ago. Walter Gelerman, Josh’s father is the third owner.
The pair first heard Wickstrom play at Cafe Fixe, a popular Brookline venue. As they became friends, they learned that Wickstrom, who is not Jewish, had a deep interest in Jewish music and knew a considerable amount of Hebrew. They also learned that he had a regular gig playing Flamenco at Taberna de Haro, a Spanish tapas restaurant.
“Why not at The Butcherie?” they recalled thinking in a recent conversation with the Journal at the shop.
“It looks like people like it. Customers have been very excited. They were happy we had this idea,” Zilberberg said.
They’ve even heard people chatting about the music at local cafes. Friends of Wickstrom have come in as well. “It works both ways. People recognize him. He’s getting exposure. It’s a great relationship,” said Gelerman.
To boost his repertoire to play three hours of music, Wickstrom checked in with Jewish and Israeli musician friends and took a deep dive into the wide and diverse world of Jewish and Israeli music.
“The beautiful thing is that there are so many cultures to draw from,” said Wickstrom, who plays traditional Ashkenazi Jewish music and melodies from Ethiopia, Morocco and Spain.
His set list swings from traditional Jewish melodies to popular tunes and Sephardic music. When it’s quiet, his music is lower key and “when it’s hopping, I might play more festive songs like Hava Nagila.” And, on occasion, he’ll add some violin.
In the last few weeks, Wickstrom has continued to play, entertaining customers who may be concerned about shopping during COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing. The shop’s owners are taking required precautions to offer a safe environment, he said.
Wickstrom, who grew up in the Midwest, studied jazz at Western Michigan University and continued his studies in performance and composition at Berklee College of Music.
He was first exposed to traditional Hasidic nigunim and Jewish songs when spending Shabbat with a friend in Michigan, a violinist who is an observant Orthodox Jew – an experience that has stayed with him.
Wickstrom also was a fan of The Butcherie long before he met the owners. “I tell everybody about their challah. I get crazy, it’s that good,” he said.
For Miriam Natan, an educator and saleswoman at the nearby Israel Book Shop, the music is uplifting.
“It’s very entertaining; a great idea,” said the longtime customer.
She prefers the music on Fridays, rather than every day. One elderly customer told her she found the music too noisy.
“But I think most people do like it. It’s fun and it’s something different. A little bit of lively music is OK, it won’t hurt the soul,” said Natan. “Maybe they’ll have cheese and wine to go with it. That would be a real party.”
When David Dechter stopped in a few weeks ago, the funeral director at nearby Levine’s Chapels said he was pleasantly surprised to hear live music. While he didn’t recall the exact songs Wickstrom was playing, many were familiar tunes. On the Friday he was there, the store did offer samples of cheese.
“It was a very nice, freilache atmosphere,” he said, using the Yiddish word that means happy or merry.
Introducing live music at The Butcherie offers a rare chance for people to gather in ways that echo earlier times, when neighbors greeted each other in the center of town, observed Rabbi Shmuel Posner, program director at Chabad House of Boston and another longtime regular customer.
“Instead of being a shopping experience, it becomes an experience of Jewish life,” Posner said.
“To me, it’s really beautiful.”