Arts & Culture with New Documentary Series, Yiddish Radio Isn’t Just for Jews

Until the mid-1980s, hundreds of recordings of Yiddish radio’s Golden Age were languishing in the dustbin of history. Literally.

Then Henry Sapoznik got going.

Sapoznik, one of the leaders of the klezmer revival and a Yiddish enthusiast, began collecting the one-of-a-kind aluminum discs wherever he could find them — attics, rummage sales and dumpsters.

"I’m not proud of the fact that I crawled into garbage cans to get these things, but I did it. And I’d do it again," says Sapoznik, who lives in New York.

More than 15 years later, Sapoznik’s scavenging is bearing fruit.

Beginning next week, National Public Radio’s afternoon news program, "All Things Considered," will broadcast a series, "The Yiddish Radio Project," that will air each Tuesday for 10 consecutive weeks.

The series, produced by Sapoznik and longtime radio documentary producer David Isay, uses the more than 1,000 discs to tell the story of the heyday of Yiddish radio, from 1930-1955.

For the Yiddishly challenged, English translations of some of the shows highlighted will be rendered by the likes of actors Carl Reiner and Eli Wallach.

The pieces highlight the rich daily fare of dramas, music, game shows, advice columnists, talent shows, man-in-the-street interviews and commercials for Manischewitz Matzah and Barbasol shave cream. Included are:

the dramas of Nahum Stutchkoff, a now-forgotten writer who wrote for New York’s WEVD for 20 years;

a show called "Yiddish Melodies in Swing," which for 17 years featured music that mixed klezmer with American swing; and

an advice column — C. Israel Lutsky, known as "The Jewish Philosopher."

The show "is like opening up King Tut’s tomb. These discs allow us to eavesdrop on a people in the midst of a cultural renaissance," Isay says.

Complementing the radio programs will be a live touring company presenting a multimedia show in six cities with archival photos, radio excerpts, projected English translations and music by the Yiddish Radio All Star Band, whose five instrumentalists range in age from 62 to 84.

Included in the live show will be a documentary on the last of the radio segments, dating from 1947, in which a survivor of the Holocaust — before the term was even in usage — is reunited with relatives live on the air.

The radio project will also produce two CDs. The first set will feature music and commercials from the broadcasts, the second will include stories from the series and a historical account of the rise and fall of Yiddish radio.

But both Sapoznik, 48, and Isay, 36, stress that neither Yiddish radio — nor their series — views the mid-century U.S. Jewish experience through rose-colored glasses.

Yiddish radio — and the series — featured stories about the difficulties faced by immigrants in a new world, such as crime by Jewish youth or embarrassment at family members who stood out as Jews in a world where assimilationist pressure was keen.

"This is not a sanitized version of life. This is life," Isay says, not life portrayed sentimentally, "through matzah ball eyes."

Adds Sapoznik: If listeners "didn’t recognize themselves, they recognized their cousins, neighbors or their friends."

The trajectory of Yiddish radio, is of course, bittersweet in many ways. It’s impossible not to listen to the shows from before World War II without feeling pain that the culture the performers rely on is about to be destroyed by the Holocaust.

"They don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know how close they are to the precipice," Sapoznik says.

And after World War II, the pressures of assimilation and television — what Sapoznik calls the "grind of popular culture" — hastened its demise.

Before then, the on-air performers created a world that has disappeared — until now.

"We have a chance to actually experience that moment in the voices of the people themselves," Sapoznik says.

Sapoznik has long been involved in listening to history’s Jewish voices, making younger generations aware of Yiddish culture.

For Isay, working on the project has been a revelation.

While growing up in New Haven, Conn., Isay attended a Jewish day school.

After that, he admits that he strayed from his Jewishness. Most of his radio documentary work has focused on life in inner cities or prisons. But during his several years on this project, he’s developed a tie to cultural Judaism.

"It sucked me in so deeply," he says. "I listen to a ton of klezmer music now. I’m much more interested in reading Jewish books."

And having the programming on NPR — with an estimated more than 10 million listeners — gives a wider audience a chance to learn about this world.

For Americans close to the immigrant experience, the series is likely to resonate.

Isay says he recently gave an interview to a Greek reporter in Florida, who, after listening to him describe the life the programming describes, said, "This is what my family went through."

For a list of public radio stations carrying "All Things Considered," visit www.npr.org/members. Following each of the 10 radio segments, the program will be available online via Real Audio at www.npr.org. For more information about the touring show, visit www.yiddishradioproject.org.

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