Jewish-American Experience and the Yiddish Radio Project
The Jewish-American Culture in Yiddish
Oral history has become one of the most important historical movements of the last two centuries. Through oral histories in either interview or preservation of recordings that were produced in earlier times, the history of the modern era is being retold and saved. Yiddish is a dying language the last of the Yiddish speakers are being lost and a small determined group known as the Yiddish Radio Project, in collaboration with National Public Radio is trying to save the voices of this language and culture. Through a very successful attempt to save these voices old acetate recordings never, meant to be played repeatedly are being restored and recorded into a format that can be heard. (www.yiddishradioprojrct.org)
The history of the Jewish people in America and specifically the rich culture surrounding the Yiddish language are being retold through the voices of old radio programs that were aired on often very small regional radio stations between the 1930s and the 1950s. These voices are the last of a monumental culture that was destroyed through the holocaust and the ravages of World War II, the determination of the Israel State to adopt not Yiddish but Hebrew as the official state language and through the Americanization of the Jewish immigrants. (SPP 2002 (http://www.yiddishradioproject.org/exhibits/history/)
When most American's recall the history of American music they think of Jazz. If one has nay recollection of the history of Jazz he or she might also know that early Jazz creaters and performers were often poorly compensated for their effort, doing tours for very low pay with limited accomidations because they were black. One of the most beloved musical phenomena's of the twentieth century was accepted if not demanded in some of the most regal of hotels and clubs and the musicians were allowed to perform but were not allowed to eat or sleep there because of their race. When we think of this reality we often limit it to only the black population yet, the reality of history is much less simple than that. Jewish people, Yiddish speakers and performers were also given the same sort of treatment. Though their venue was radio and their programs were very popular some of the most recognizable of the legacies are completely lost. Though a combination of Jazz and Klezmer a traditional Yiddish music style may seem and unlikely pair as Claire Barry of the famous Yiddish singing Group, The Barry Sisters (formerly The Bagleman Sisters) explains it became wildly popular and one song in particular tells the sad story of the music. Be Mir Bist Du Schoen a tune written by Sholom Secunda became so popular that it was covered by hundreds possibly even thousands of recording artists including Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald and though many people worked to make the song a hit the originator received thirty dollars for the rights to the song and was never recognized monetarily again. Not an uncommon story in the early American music scene but one not usually associated with a Jewish-American.
Within the website of the Yiddish Radio Project are countless stories of people and programs who were at the heart of the Yiddish radio movement but one of the most moving is of coarse the story of the radio dramas of Nahum Stutchkoff, who poured his life and soul into the work that the originator of the project, Dave Isay refers to as a Mirror of the Jewish-American life. When radio programs were written and aired the idea of escapism that was so otherwise embraced by mainstream American Culture was simply not the impetus for the work. These Yiddish programs were meant to give American Jews a glimpse of their own lives.
The motivation possibly coming from so many years of Diaspora resulting from anti-Semitism that often left Jews clinging to hope that their culture was not being lost. They wanted to see, or in this case hear other people just like themselves moving forward in life and confronting and hopefully surviving the many sometimes overwhelming daily life events that make immigrant life so increadably difficult. Through Bei Tate-mames Tish (Round the Family Table) the dramatic interpretation of the daily life of a family living in an upscale New York neighborhood and with a wife and mother who was trying to pass as gentile or goyum in Yiddish Nahum Stutchkoff tells the universal story of assimilation into the largely anti-Semetic culture in America. In a broad sense the retelling of the incidents that occur when the woman's husband invites his father to move in with them are a story of generational conflict. Yet, there is also an underlying truth of the message of loss that many older immigrants must have been feeling when their first generation American children rejected old values and assimilated into American life. Nahum Stutchkoff seemed to be speaking to the whole culture when he raised questions about what the new world brought to those people who were trying so hard to escape the rejections of their past by coming to America in the first place. It was a sad twist of fate and Nahum Stutchkoff clearly expressed the conflict and the sadness that was rampant throughout the intertwined lives of both the older population and the younger one.
It goes without saying that so often in history the mass culture swallows the stories of those in the world who are part of any non-majority culture. The story of Charles A. Levine is one of those stories swallowed up in the history of mass culture. The story of the second successful trans Atlantic flight in history, flown by Clarence Chamberlin and manned by the first passenger Levine himself as a gimmick to promote the flight, was celebrated by Yiddish radio and Jewish people all over the world is lost. Charles A. Levine became not only an overnight hero but fame really stole his life. He became a hero but then through notoriety lost his family and then his wealth. Eventually he became destitute and died a memory. Though the culture may not have been at fault the media chased after the intrigue of the possibility that he was cheating on his wife, it is unknown if the allegations are true but his loss was already sure as his wife believed the stories felt shamed by them and divorced him, leaving with all the children who really had no knowledge of him past his name and his notoriety. Through many successive losses he even became wanted by the FBI. This is a sad story of the legacy of the American dream. Charles A. Levine had made it. He had come from nothing and created a fortune selling WWI surplus and having made it so young he sought to use his fortune to both gain fame and leave a legacy of achievement for the Jewish people.
The story of a fast moving culture and an even faster moving economy is repeated many times over through this period in America but it is usually told through the successes, that held on to their money but here we can see just how easily loss can destroy a newcomer.
One of the most lighthearted and memorable aspects of the Yiddish radio movement and also the culture of the immigrant nation is advertising. Through the local and broader markets of the radio names of bakers and butchers and delis were made famous in New York and elsewhere. The Jewish people maintain a rich heritage of specialty goods, sometimes due to the influences of their countries of origin but also because of the dietary restrictions of their faith. Special goods had to be supplied and most of the time those goods were only found through the markets of other Jews. Through the creative jingles that were recorded for and played on Yiddish radio stations many of those products and their providers became household names. The proceeds from the advertisers also supported the programming and made it possible for the culture to be renewed daily on the airwaves. Before the creativity of these advertisers really took hold the prtogram was often so full of advertising that the story was close to lost yet once the advertising became a part of the entertainment through the creativity of the Advertising King Mitchell Levitsky and others the story of life is told, "To the ethnographer, these shards provide a vivid snapshot of what ordinary people wore, ate, drank, and cleaned their houses with. For the rest of us, they're simply some of the most memorable ads ever created" (Sound Portraits Productions 2002 (http://www.yiddishradioproject.org/exhibits/commercials/)
One of the most notable voices from this radio era is C. Israel Lutsky, also known as the Jewish Philosopher who basically produced and stared in the worlds first talk radio show. He answered letters over the air and discussed the everyday lives of Jewish people through their own thoughts. In many ways he was trying to bridge the gap between the old…