In their heyday, dozens of Yiddish stations like WBNX in the Bronx
operated in big cities. (Photo courtesy of Henry Sapoznik.)
Radio with a zets!: NPR revives long-lost Yiddish broadcasts
Originally published in Current, Feb. 11, 2002
By Mike Janssen
Some radio superstars are making a comeback on NPR. You probably don't know their names: C. Israel Lutsky. Nahum Stutchkoff. Charles A. Levine. Once titans of Yiddish-language radio, they return to the air on All Things Considered starting March 19, courtesy of independent producer David Isay.
Isay has spent his career telling stories of the down-and-out, including flophouse dwellers and Chicago ghetto kids. But Lutsky, Stutchkoff and others are a different breed of outsiders. They've been off the public's radar for more than 50 years, when Yiddish radio, once wildly popular among Jews living in New York and other big cities, faded from fashion.
Isay will tell their stories in the 10-part Yiddish Radio Project. Tune in and you might end up liking Yiddish radio more than you ever thought possible.
"It's magical," he says. "I'm interested in radio that brings you into magical places, and that's what this does. It sneaks you into places that you never thought you would go in your lifetime: New York in the '30s, in the tenements, and on the streets."
Isay couches the recordings in tales of the creative minds behind them, drawing from the knowledge and the unique record collection of collaborator Henry Sapoznik.
A klezmer musician and historian of Jewish culture, Sapoznik began collecting the old broadcasts in the mid-'80s when he tripped over a box in a New York storeroom. He opened the box and found an assortment of 16-inch records even more obscure than the 78s he was looking for. The labels were in Hebrew.
They were fragile acetate pressings made at Yiddish radio stations--airchecks created to follow FCC guidelines and then forgotten. But Sapoznik was obsessed. Buying from dealers was not an option. "No one even thought of selling this stuff," he says. "It was considered so valueless."
He got help from other collectors, checked in on the widows of former radio personalities and hunted through radio stations. Sometimes he was reduced to diving into Dumpsters around New York to rescue recordings, the rumble of garbage trucks not far off, he says.
In its heyday, Yiddish-language programming of all kindsnews, dramas, live performances, even rabbinical courtsaired on roughly 100 stations. Twenty-three, most in Brooklyn, operated in New York alone.
They mixed English with Yiddish, the Germanic tongue spoken by millions of Jews and brought to the United States when they immigrated here. But its prevalence faded in the years following World War II. Many Yiddish speakers died in the Holocaust, and Israel adopted Hebrew instead as its official language.
This sad history does not dim the liveliness of the recordings rediscovered by the Yiddish Radio Project. There are exuberant songs, heartfelt melodramas and swinging tunes played with an Eastern European pep by the klezmer ensembles on the old "Yiddish Melodies in Swing" program.
A singer celebrates the achievements of Charles A. Levine, a Jew who became the world's first transatlantic airline passengerthat's right, passengerjust two weeks after Charles Lindbergh's celebrated flight. "Levine, Levine, you're the hero of your race/Levine, Levine, you're the greatest Hebrew ace," he earnestly sings to an oom-pah beat.
In one of Stutchkoff's dramas, a Jewish woman, adept at hiding her ethnicity from her neighbors, is embarrassed by her Yiddish-speaking father-in-law, who moves in with his language and traditional ways of life in tow.
"Just like a synagogue in here," she says of her apartment. "When I see a neighbor from a distance I want to hide my face for shame."
The everyday lives of American Jews were Stutchkoff's specialty and main concern. "Turn the dial to commercial stations and you'd hear dramas about superheroes or cowboys, stories that allowed listeners to escape out of their problems," says Stutchkoff's son, Mischa. "On Jewish radio, we would escape into our problems."
This tendency, and the archive of rare recordings it left behind, opens a window to the past, Sapoznik says.
"Once you listen to the recordings, the presence of them convinces you that there's something mighty, something huge there," he says. "These thousand discs are not even the tip of the iceberg. They're the tip of the tip of the iceberg. It's a blink, but in that one moment we really see a whole civilization."
To Current's home page Earlier profile: David Isay specializes in eccentrics, dreamers, visionaries, believers and other outcasts. Outside link: The project's website.
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