P.O. Box 3913 • Urbandale, IA • 50323 explore@cultureall.org 515-273-8569

Meet the Ambassador: Abe Goldstien

Abe Goldstien

CultureALL Ambassador Abe Goldstien moved from an orthodox Jewish community in Rochester, NY to Des Moines, IA to attend Drake University in 1969. However, the real reason was to leave Jewish orthodoxy behind him, which he did with the first taste of a pork tenderloin. Thirty-five years later he rediscovered the beauty of his heritage through music and the friendship of a Chassidic rabbi. Today, Abe is the leader of The Java Jews – Iowa’s only Klezmer (Eastern European) music band – and regularly speaks to children and adults about “Yiddishkeit” and Jewish customs.

Abe’s workshop for CultureALL – Mendel and his Accordion: A Klezmer Program  focuses on the customs, traditions and music of Eastern European Jews and what happened to that culture as immigrants became assimilated into American culture. The moral to the story, which is told in words and musical performances, is this — never forget your roots, regardless of how strange they way appear to you and others around you.

Abe Goldstien is Jewish, works in the advertising world and loves PEZ Candy Dispensers.

The following is from an interview with CultureALL Ambassador Abe Goldstien, conducted by intern Clara Eugenia López Benito. Originally from Spain, Clara is student at Drake University.

Abe Goldstien: “I’m A Cultural Jewish”

Abe Goldtstien
CultureALL Ambassador Abe Goldstien
Where are you from?

“Rochester, New York. The whole other end of the state from where you are.”

And why did you move to Des Moines?

“To go to Drake – and then I stayed here.”

Where is your family from?

“My parents were from Rochester but my great-grandparent one side is from Poland and one side is from Russia.”

Have you been in Europe­?

“Amsterdam and the Republic of Georgia. One of these days I will probably get to Poland.”

Do you still have family there?


“I value the traditions because it’s what my grandparents and parents grew up doing.”

Talking about the Jewish community, what is your favourite Jewish tradition?

“Attending an Orthodox Minyan. In the orthodox religion, they say in certain prayers you need ten men who are Jewish. For example, every year on the aniversary of someone’s death in your family, there is a certain prayer that is recited, and it’s important in the orthodox community to get ten men together so they can say this prayer. That’s a tradition I grow up in.  I don’t practice it, but when they need ten men, they now they can call me and I´ll be there. So it’s just getting together with people and making it posible for those who do believe in it to maintain the tradition.”

Do you think Jewish traditions has change over the time?

“Yes. When I was growing up, everyone was orthodox and bound by very strict rules. Now they stretch the rules, so if you go to a reform Temple of Minyan, there can be women, there can be little kids, it doesn’t have to be ten, it can be eight, you know. I value the traditions because it’s what my grantparents and parents grew up doing.”

“Mendel and his Accordion…reminds me of my life.”

Your workshop at CultureALL is “Mendel and his Accordion: A Klezmer Program”. Why did you choose this workshop?

“I grew up in an orthodox Jewish community. When I was seventeen,  I wanted nothing to do with it, and I moved to Des Moines. I didn’t go to Temple, I didn’t do anything that I did when I was a kid.  I thought, ‘I´m an adult I´m going to make my own decisions’.

When I was fifty, I realized that there is a certain beauty in having ten men to pray.  There is a certain beauty in that -whether I belive it or not –  there is a certain time for men to do that. Mendel and his Accordion tells the story of someone that practiced all this customs and traditions in his home country. Then he comes to America, and after a while becomes “American” and  all of those practices are passed away.  Then his great-grandson comes to realize that there is a beauty in those practices,  and brings them back to the family. So Mendel and his Accordion is not exactly my family story, but it reminds me of my life. And I hope it lets kids know that it’s worth becoming aware of your family customs and religion – even if you don’t practice those traditions, you should still always value it and appreciate them.”

What do you like about Klezmer music?

“I remember hearing it in the radio when I was a little kid, so it’s a music I grew up with.”

“Among the language, there was this culture of happiness and sadness.”

What is your favorite song?

It would be my mothers favorite song, Glick du Bist Gekummem au Shpait. It means “Happiness you came a little too late”. And that’s a typical Jewish sentiment, that is reflected in the language and in the music: there is always happiness and sadness mixed together.  This phrase it’s a good example of that.”

What does this song represent to you?

“It represents the Jewish attitude, and their journey. When you consider everything that Jewish have been through, they have always maintained some sense of joy along the way.”

Abe Goldstien workshop
Abe shows a student the inner workings of an accordion – Photo by Eric Salmon
What does Klezmer music mean for the Jewish community?

I would say it’s keeping tradition alive. I sometimes play for people in their 80’s and 90’s,  who maybe have never heard this song since they were little children, which is great.  But hopefully – when I play it for someone who is ten years old,  maybe in twenty years they will go ‘Oh! I remember hearing Malkeinu music, that was fun, maybe I´ll play that.’  So I’m just kind of spreading the word, to help keep the music alive.

Is there anything you want to add?

What I talk about is Yiddishkeit, which is a language of eastern European Jewish.  It has nothing to do with the religious language, it’s more the cultural aspect of being a Jewish.  It was a cultural language of Russian Jewish, German Jewish, Polish Jewish, Ukranian Jewish, etc.  And among the language, there was this culture of happiness and sadness. So  I hope to keep that sense of Yiddishkeit alive.”

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