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Volunteers save old Jewish recordings

Nathan Tinanoff, right, and Maxine Schackman look through records at the Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University Libraries in May 2004. (Salwa Patel)

Nathan Tinanoff, right, and Maxine Schackman look through records at the Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University Libraries in May 2004. (Salwa Patel)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., April 10 (JTA) — One by one, the Jewish sounds of yesteryear are being rescued from the dusty basements, attics and garages of today. Working on the fifth floor of Florida Atlantic University’s main library in Boca Raton, Fla., a team of mostly volunteers is meticulously cleaning, digitalizing, indexing and preserving thousands of vintage records in a unique effort to rescue the voices and music that flowed from the immigrant neighborhoods of the United States in the first half of the 20th century. The effort is a race against time. As members of the older generation die, their baby-boomer sons and daughters — raised on the sounds of the Beatles rather than the Yiddish or cantorial numbers of an earlier era — often throw out the records they stumble across as they clean out their parents’ homes. “The most important thing is to rescue the records before they are thrown in the trash,” said Nathan Tinanoff, director of the newly created Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University Libraries. Maxine Schackman, the archive’s assistant director, said she threw out her parents’ records before first becoming involved with the project as a volunteer. “The whole idea is of rescuing a portion of the past and making sure it never disappears,” she said. Hoping to prevent just that, Tinanoff, an engineer by training who retired from IBM after a 30-year career, launched the Judaica Music Rescue Project in the summer of 2002 after volunteering his technical expertise to help a retired New York cantor preserve the 750 78-rpm records that were a part of the university’s Molly Fraiberg Judaica Collection. When the cantor, Asher Herman, died, Tinanoff, who did not know anything about the music he was helping preserve, decided to continue the project. “The more you listen to the music — you can’t not love it,” Tinanoff said. “It touches your heart.” Today, the archive at Florida Atlantic has more than 3,300 unique 78s, representing nearly 6,500 different music or spoken-word pieces. In total, including duplicates, the collection has more than 15,000 78s, most of which were produced in the United States. The collection holds music recorded in many formats. It includes 2,500 LP albums, 700 cassette tapes and 300 45s. Altogether it has more than 40,000 songs, instrumentals and spoken-word pieces — comedy, poetry and theatrical recordings. The collection has more than 50 copies of the 1941 Columbia release of “Roumania, Roumania” by Aaron Lebedeff and the Sholom Secunda Orchestra. Tinanoff can play them on a donated vintage 1926 Victrola Credenza record player. Florida Atlantic is well positioned to look for donations of records because it is “geographically blessed,” Tinanoff said. Because it is in South Florida, the project can tap into the region’s huge pool of Jewish retirees, many of whom speak Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, German and other languages heard on the records. Bernard Spielman, a retired rabbi from the Boston area, spends three hours a week making sure the data in the electronic index matches the record or song the information is describing. “I’m a great lover of Jewish music,” said Spielman, who enjoys listening to the music as part of his data checking. “I thought it would be a very nice project to get involved with. It is a labor of love.” In addition to nearly three dozen local volunteers who come to the library to help clean records, enter information into the database or scan the colorful record labels, the project has a network of zamlers, Yiddish for collectors, who scour the United States, Canada and Israel for records to be donated. The rescue effort not only receives donations from the zamlers and other individuals, including Art Raymond, who had a popular Jewish music program on WEVD radio station in New York, but from major organizations as well. The National Yiddish Book Center, which led the way in saving Yiddish books from being discarded, has donated more than 6,000 78s during the past two years and has agreed to steer any future donations to the archive. With the backing of library officials at the university, the archive is now putting together a committee of experts specializing in Jewish studies and ethnomusicology, they have decided to apply for larger grants and they are working toward the establishment of an endowment to ensure that the work can continue into the future. As part of this effort to create “the Library of Congress of Jewish music,” as Schackman described it, the archive has just finalized an agreement with the Feher Jewish Music Center of the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, the Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archives at the University of Pennsylvania and the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive to establish the Alliance for the Preservation of Jewish Sound, which would create the largest indexed and publicly accessible collection of Jewish music in the world. The idea is to allow someone sitting at a listening station at any one of the institutions — or someone sitting at home, surfing the Internet — to tap into the database’s vast resources. Once the alliance is created and its structures are in place, Tinanoff hopes to include other universities that have their own substantial music collections. Beyond creating a resource for researchers, Tinanoff said the goal of the effort is to have the music available for people to use and enjoy. With funding from a small grant, work is now being done on a compilation of Hebrew holiday music that will be available on the Internet for Jewish educators. Schackman, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, recently played some of the music, including the popular “Bei Mir Bist Du Sheyn,” to a group of elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease. Although these are people who struggle with memory loss, Schackman said the music had a strong effect on them, bringing them back to happier times. “They were in heaven,” she said. “They were transported.” (To learn more about the archives, including how to donate records or become a zamler, go to www.fau.edu/jsa or call (561) 297-2207.)

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