11 December 2009

Library of Congress: Yiddish radio webcast

Scholar Henry Sapoznik of the Yiddish Radio Project spoke on the Yiddish radio phenomenon at the Library of Congress.

View the webcast - "Hear, O Israel: Yiddish-American Radio 1925-1955" (recorded in October 2009) - here.

Sapoznik says Yiddish radio existed only in America. At one time, 180 stations were broadcasting (1925-1955) in mame loshen; 25 in New York. Most were in large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, but Yiddish programs were also broadcast in Memphis, Dallas, Salt Lake City and Sioux City, Iowa

While some stations reached a large geographical area, one small 50-watt station in Brooklyn broadcast from a clothing store. If they opened the window, he said, they'd reach more people!

The lecture offers a glimpse of the most memorable and powerful moments in this nearly lost world of ethnic American broadcasting.

In the 1940s, the New York radio stations provided a place for the community's diversity to show. Programs included cantorial music (and even female cantors, who couldn't then sing in synagogues but reached listeners on the radio), pop music, quiz shows (with Victor Packer), rabbinical advice programs, live Yiddish theater acts, man-on-the-street interviews to the news of the day in verse (with Zvee Scooler) and much more.

To hear 26 gems from these shows, click here.

In 1933, the first-ever broadcast court program was House of Justice, with Rabbi Rubin, who listened to problems listeners brought to him. It was a first time for public mediation.

Yiddish radio also kept Yiddish theater alive. One anecdote concerned a series, "Men Without Eyes," the story of a girl disfigured in a fire and married off to a blind man. One episode announced there would be a live wedding and invited listeners to attend. Not only did they come, but they also brought wedding gifts!

According to Sapoznik, the radio took a folk culture and adapted it to a popular culture. And there were shows that showed how people really interacted in their own language.

An announcement was made on one station that Mr. Goldberg was 111. There was a musical interlude, and the announcer returned with a correction. Goldberg was ill, not 111 years old.

Commercials were important, giving local businesses and local products an opportunity to be a patrons of the arts, to buy air time to support specific shows.

Do you remember My-T-Fine pudding? It was one show's sponsor. Usually the ad was for chocolate pudding. One day, the company announced a new flavor, nut-chocolate. Of course, it was broadcast in Yiddish. Listeners called in and asked "If it is NOT chocolate, so what flavor is it?" Accents and language were everything.

Another popular show was "The Jewish Philosopher" (Der Pilosof), the Dr. Phil of his day - even though the supposed letters from listeners were written by his brother-in-law. What was more interesting was that St. Joseph Aspirin, a national product, was the sponsor.

Manischewitz sponsored the Jewish Children's Hour. Its producer had seven shows running simultaneously. It focused on Yiddish cultural education in New York among listeners who came from various communities (Yiddish, religious, social, etc.). Sholom Segunda was its musical director, and he wrote "Bei Mir bist du schoen."

"Song Book" aired Yiddish songs and compiled a book of favorites for their audience. If a listener sent in a postcard, s/he would receive the songbook. It may have been the first audience survey and done on a very low budget. It helped the show to understand its audience size.

Some announcers, like Zvee Scooler, read the news in verse. mixing daily folk and culture life with the responsibilities of a news show. This wasn't found in mainstream media.

Read more about the Yiddish Radio Project and view the 57-minute webcast by Sapoznik.

Sapoznik is a record producer (four Grammy nominations), a radio documentarian, an author, and a performer of traditional Yiddish and American music. He received a 2002 Peabody award for his 10-week National Public Radio series on the history of Jewish broadcasting, The Yiddish Radio Project, the 2000 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Music Scholarship for his book "Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World," and an Emmy nomination for his score to the documentary film, "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg." He founded the Max and Frieda Weinstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as well as Living Traditions' annual KlezKamp: The Yiddish Folk Arts Program.

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