The Yiddish Radio Dial

Yiddish was the language of the more than two million Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. As the last great wave of these arrivals landed at Ellis Island in the 1920s, radio was beginning its ascent in American culture. The recent Jewish immigrants embraced the medium, and by the early 1930s, Yiddish radio flourished nationwide. In New York alone, 23 stations broadcast dramas, variety programs, man-on-the street interviews, music, commercials, even editorials in rhyme.

The shows ran the gamut of radio genres, but they all shared one important feature: intimacy. “On Yiddish radio,” explains Yiddish radio historian Henry Sapoznik, “no one was bigger than life. Everyone was life. It was a one-to-one ratio between the listeners and the characters on the radio. Listeners didn’t want a window to look out into another world; they wanted a mirror to see their own.”

Yiddish radio obliged. There were the searing dramas of Nahum Stutchkoff, which grappled with the difficult reality of Jewish immigrant experience; the mediation program of Rabbi Samuel A. Rubin, who resolved disputes among Jews too poor or disempowered to turn to the civil courts; the advice show of C. Israel Lutsky, whom many listeners trusted more than their rabbi; and the talent shows that turned the microphone to anyone in the neighborhood courageous enough to let his or her voice be aired.

The best-remembered and most powerful of all the Yiddish radio stations was WEVD. Created in 1927 by the Socialist Party to honor its recently deceased leader, Eugene Victor Debbs, the station was taken over in 1932 by the leading Yiddish newspaper, The Forward.

The Forward created the most famous Yiddish radio program of all time — The Forward Hour, a variety show that aired every Sunday morning at 11:00. Ironically, while hours of relatively obscure programs like Madame Bertha Hart’s Talent Show have survived, only a few random moments of The Forward Hour remain. Among them is the show’s remarkable theme song, with its musical allusions to the Socialist anthem “The Internationale” and “La Marseillaise.”

Further down the dial were micro stations like WBBC, WVFW, and WARD, which fought one another tooth and nail to control frequencies and wattage hardly powerful enough to reach around the corner. Program directors for these stations sometimes had to fill as many as four hours of air-time a day by themselves. Such was the predicament of the inimitable WLTH program director Victor Packer, who probably took more chances and experimented with more genres than anyone in the history of broadcasting.

Yiddish radio reached its apex in the early 1940s and was in near free fall by the mid ’50s. Radio’s loss of prestige to television was only part of the reason. The Holocaust had forever stemmed the flow of Yiddish speakers to America, while many earlier arrivals turned away from Yiddish culture as they assimilated in the New World. Israel’s choice to make Hebrew its official language further marginalized Yiddish as the language of modern Jewish life.

Given the fate of the Yiddish language and the unstable recording materials used in the 1930s to early ’50s, it is a miracle that any remnant of the “golden age” of Yiddish radio has survived to see the present day.

Libby’s Hotel was the site of the first known Yiddish-radio broadcast, The Libby Hotel Hour, in 1926. The hotel stood at the intersection of Chrystie and Delancey streets on the Lower East Side.

The McAlpin Hotel, at the corner of 34th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, was the home of radio station WEVD from 1932-1938. The station subsequently moved to 117 West 46th Street.

Zvee Scooler directing dialogue for a WPA radio production c. 1937. In addition to working for many years on radio station WEVD, where he was known as “Der Grammeister” (The Master of Rhyme), Scooler was a longtime actor on the Yiddish stage and in films like Fiddler on the Roof and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

The cast of a Yiddish drama on WBNX, in the Bronx, c. 1933.

Avant-garde Yiddish sound poet Victor Packer, host of The Hammer’s Beverage Program, featuring the Happy Twins. As Director of Jewish Programming of Brooklyn station WLTH, Packer tried his hand at every conceivable radio genre in an attempt to fill his four-hour slot.

Nahum Stutchkoff, a forgotten genius who created some of the most intense, intimate, and emotional dramas ever broadcast on radio, c. early 1930s.


Rediscovering the Remnants of Yiddish Radio

By 1985, when musician/historian Henry Sapoznik showed up at a rummage sale thrown by New York broadcasting legend Joe Franklin, the heyday of Yiddish radio had been all but forgotten. Sapoznik, then the sound archivist at the Yiddish research institute, YIVO, had come to the sale looking for old klezmer 78s. But what Sapoznik wound up tripping over was far rarer: a few dozen aluminum discs, larger and more unusual than any he had ever seen.

On the worn-away labels Sapoznik, a native Yiddish speaker, could make out some Yiddish writing: WEVD . . . WBNX . . . Yiddish Melodies in Swing . . . Stuhmer’s Pumpernickel Program . . . Life Is Funny with Harry Hirschfield, Sponsored by Edelstein’s Tuxedo Brand Cheese. He gave Franklin the $30 in his pocket, tracked down an old transcription disc turntable, and sat down to listen to his find. He put on the first disc. A clear, strong voice announced:

“From atop the Loews State Theater Building, the B. Manischewitz Company,
world’s largest matzo bakers, happily presents
Yiddish Melodies in Swing . . .”

And the band launched into a raucous, swinging rendition of the Passover song “Dayenu.”

“It was simply unbelievable, unlike anything I’d ever heard,” Sapoznik recalls. “I felt like I was being transported back in time to this real, living moment in history. I was transfixed.” He was also hooked. Sapoznik spent the next 17 years searching for more such surviving discs.

These discs were not your ordinary LPs or 78s. They were transcriptions: single-cut, acetate-coated aluminum discs the stations were required to have on hand in case the Federal Radio Commission showed up with a complaint. The vast majority of these discs were melted down during World War II scrap metal drives or simply disappeared over the decades. The thousand-plus discs Sapoznik succeeded in rescuing were found mostly in attics, storerooms, and dumpsters.

But locating the discs was only half the challenge. Acetate-coated discs were never meant to be an archival medium. The materials were quickly disintegrating, and it was only a matter of time before they would pass the point of no return.

Musician, historian, and Yiddish Radio Project co-producer Henry Sapoznik has spent the last 17 years tracking down the last remnants from the golden age of Yiddish radio.

It was in 1986, at the eviction sale of legendary broadcaster Joe Franklin, that Henry Sapoznik discovered his first Yiddish radio disk.

Pearl Sapoznik is pictured here with her son Henry. Born in Rovne, Poland, Pearl came to the US after surviving the Holocaust. One of her first purchases in America was a white GE radio on which Henry heard his first Yiddish radio broadcasts as a child.

Sholom Rubinstein introduced Henry Sapoznik to veteran Yiddish radio artists such as Seymour Rexite and Miriam Kressyn. Over a fifty year period, Rubinstein produced, directed, and wrote scores of WEVD programs, as well as the Jewish Caravan of Stars on WMGM. From 1927-1932, Rubinstein’s father hosted the Tog Program which ran on the CBS network.

Andy Lanset, Yiddish Radio Project archivist and preservationist, was the first person to suggest that a radio documentary lurked among Henry Sapoznik’s collection of acetates Yiddish discs.


Restoring the Discs

Before digital audiotapes, before cassettes, before even reel to reel, the standard recording medium was the acetate disc. Acetate–a soft, plastic-like coating onto which sound was engraved–was applied to discs made of aluminum, glass, or paper. The sound quality could be quite good, but the medium was never meant to last.

Even under the best storage conditions, acetate discs are notorious for exuding a greasy white film, the most apparent sign of nitrocellulose acetate decomposition. Under less than optimal conditions, the acetate coating can shrink and crack like the surface of a desert floor. Sometimes, the acetate’s hold on the aluminum disc becomes so fragile that the acetate coating lifts off as it is being played.

Once Henry Sapoznik joined forces with producer Dave Isay and Sound Portraits Productions to begin work on the Yiddish Radio Project, Andy Lanset, one of New York’s premier sound preservationists, was brought on to save the discs.

In his lab, Lanset would start by examining each disc and choosing the cleaning method best suited to its condition. Some just needed to have the grit and schmutz flushed from their grooves; others had to be treated with special agents to replenish elements leached over time.

After cleaning, the right stylus was selected for playback. A stylus that is too narrow can damage a disc, and one that’s too wide won’t get all the sound.

During playback, three transfers were made: a reel-to-reel archival master, a compact disc, and a reference DAT used to produce the radio series. After transfer, each acetate disc was given a fresh acid-free sleeve and reshelved in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. (Many of the clips later used in the Yiddish Radio Project NPR series also received a subsequent digital cleanup from Gary Covino, the series’ editor and technical wizard.)

After each transfer was completed, the disc information was entered into a database modeled on the extended format used by the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute. In 2004 the audio collection, together with reams of related papers and photographs, will be transferred to the Library of Congress.

Many of the transcription discs in the Yiddish Radio Project collection looked like this when first found. The white film on the surface is not dust but a chemical exuded from the disc itself and is the most apparent sign of nitrocellulose acetate decomposition. The shiny patches at the top left of the disc are places where the recording surface has flaked off, revealing the aluminum base beneath.

After a preliminary washing with standard record-cleaning agents, Andy uses a special record-cleaning machine to flush the finer grit from the disc’s grooves. The machine pumps distilled water from a jar stored beneath the turntable (R) and sprays it out through a soft, tone-arm mounted brush. The water is then sucked off the disc by a second arm and drained into a second jar.

After cleaning, the correct stylus has to be selected for playback. An optimal match is depicted in Figure A. A stylus that is too narrow (Figure B) can damage a disc; one that is too wide (Figure C) won’t pick up the full range of recorded sound.

The disc is now ready for transferring. As the disc is played Andy records simultaneously onto reel-to-reel tape (foreground), compact disc, and DAT. CDs and DATs are ideal for production purposes, but tape is still the standard archival medium.


Jews in Mainstream Media

Overtly Jewish characters were not confined to Yiddish radio. They were also a staple of mainstream shows.

Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum was a regular on The Fred Allen Show, as were Mr. Schlepperman and Mr. Kitzel on The Jack Benny Show. Unlike the varied, dynamic Jewish personages heard on Yiddish radio, though, these characters tended to be remarkable above all for their overblown accents and love of “exotic” foods like herring.

The model for these Jewish stereotypes was a series of 78 rpm records cut between the late teens and early ’20s that featured the character of Mr. Cohen, an exaggeratedly malapropistic Jew who could barely make himself understood.

Another stereotypical Jewish character was that of the wise elder, like Papa David Solomon in Life Can Be Beautiful, who usually came off sounding like everyone’s idea of an Old Testament sage. Such characterizations were not racist per se, just stereotypical, much like the radio representations of other ethnic groups, like the Italian Luigi in Life with Luigi.

The exception was The Goldbergs, a radio program that evolved into a T.V. show, and which portrayed Jews as regular people with regular problems. Irregular problems, however — miscegenation, intergenerational strife, the grungy day-to-day struggles of immigrant life — were the exclusive domain of Yiddish radio.

This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.