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American Yiddish Radio

A group of men, women, and children stand around a microphone with some in casual cloths and others more formally dressed. One man sings into the microphone.

A live wedding broadcast on the air for station WVFW. Photo courtesy of Henry Sapoznik.

Yiddish was the common language of Jews who immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. It is a German-based language thought to have developed in the 9th century. While all aspects of Yiddish culture, including literature, theater, film, recording, and journalism, existed in robust and diverse forms wherever Ashkenazi Jews lived, it was in America that these outlets of Yiddish self-expression found their greatest and most creative realization on the radio. As musicologist Henry Sapoznik explains, “from 1925 until 1955 on some 180 stations from coast to coast, radio programs reached into the homes and workplaces of Yiddish-speaking listeners. These programs reflected and amplified the diverse social and cultural infrastructure which characterized this immigrant community during the first half of the 20th century” (from the essay for the presentation “Hear, O Israel: Yiddish-American Broadcasting 1925-1965,” 2009). While we often think of urban centers in the Eastern United States as centers for Ashkenazi culture, Yiddish radio stations existed across the country showing that there were thriving Jewish communities in the South, the West, and Midwest. This blog brings together videos of Library of Congress events related to Yiddish radio as well as print materials and links to resources on other sites.

A man speaking into a microphone with an American flag behind him.

Zvee Scooler was one of the foremost personalities in Yiddish radio. Known as “Der Grammeister” (“The Master of Rhyme”), he presented weekly news editorials written in verse. He also did straight news and acted in radio dramas. Photo courtesy of Henry Sapoznik.

Waves of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe from the 19th century to the wave that came after World War II created a need for Yiddish language newspapers, theater, music, and radio for these first generation Americans. But European Jews tended to learn English and adapt to their new homeland very quickly. Children often grew up speaking both Yiddish and English. It was the drive to preserve and enjoy Yiddish language and culture that created an enduring audience for Yiddish radio.

In the 1930s and 1940s there were many local radio stations that carried programs to reach immigrant audiences in many languages. Live radio programs were often recorded on aluminum discs in the early 20th century and then on tape as that medium became available. But few of these disc “transcription” recordings remain. During World War II drives for scrap aluminum needed for the war effort swept up disc recordings so that today a precious few recordings of  Yiddish and other ethnic and minority radio programs remain. Fortunately Henry Sapoznik has donated his collection to the Library of Congress, including 1401 Yiddish radio broadcasts on transcription discs as well as programs on audio tape; plus sheet music, manuscripts and photographs documenting Yiddish culture, theater, and music, primarily in the New York City area, but also including documentation from other parts of the United States, from the 1920s to circa 1960. As Sapoznik puts it, “The Yiddish radio collection is indicative of a largely forgotten widespread presence of ethnic and minority and foreign language radio programs.” It is hoped that his discovery of some remaining recordings of Yiddish radio may lead to other collectors realizing the importance of ethnic radio recordings among their finds.

In its day, the heart of Yiddish-language radio, the content that kept listeners dialing in regularly, was religious programming. But today Yiddish radio is best remembered for its entertainment. Many aspects of Jewish culture in America were tied to the success of Yiddish radio, such as Yiddish theater and music, as the radio stations provided a place for Yiddish culture to thrive and grow, and because the radio stations advertised and sometimes broadcast performances. In large cities, Yiddish theaters were often close to Yiddish radio stations. Artists were often featured in productions of plays and other entertainment on both radio and the stage. Theater in Yiddish was broadcast not only from the stations’ studios, but also live from the stage of the community theaters themselves.

Some performers, writers, and composers found ways of interpreting Yiddish humor and song for English speaking audiences and so were able to market themselves in multiple venues.  The thriving tradition of Yiddish music, film, and theater were to have a profound influence on mainstream American entertainment, as composers, comics, playwrights, and actors interpreted aspects of Yiddish culture for English-speaking audiences. Singer, actress, and comedienne Molly Picon, for example, performed on Yiddish radio and in Yiddish theater and film, as well as in English language productions. Zvee Scooler (pictured above) was a longtime commentator and actor on Yiddish radio, and played the inkeeper in the Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof. Both Scooler and Picon gained even greater fame in the Hollywood film version of Fiddler on the Roof, in which Scooler played the rabbi and Picon played Yente, the matchmaker. (For related Library of Congress collections online see Yiddish American Popular Sheet Music and Yiddish Language Play Scripts from the Lawrence Marwick Collection.)

A man speaking at a podium.

Henry Sapoznik speaking at the Library of Congress at the The Stations that Spoke your Language Symposium, 2012. Detail of a photo by Stephen Winick. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Henry Sapoznik is a record producer with four Grammy nominations, a radio documentarian, an author, and a performer of traditional Yiddish and American music. He received a 2002 Peabody award for his ten-week National Public Radio series on the history of Jewish broadcasting, The Yiddish Radio Project, the 2000 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Music Scholarship for his book Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World, and an Emmy nomination for his score to the documentary film, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. He founded the Max and Frieda Weinstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as well as Living Traditions’ annual KlezKamp: The Yiddish Folk Arts Program. His collection of Yiddish radio transcription discs, tape recordings and related materials are available as the Henry Sapoznik collection, in the American Folklife Center Reading Room. At the time of the acquisition of the collection, Sapoznik wrote an article about the history and importance of Yiddish Radio for Folklife Center News, Summer/Fall 2010 [PDF], which is available online. For more, see Henry Sapoznik’s web pages on Yiddish Radio.

Here is Sapoznik speaking at the Library of Congress about Yiddish language radio in 2009.

The acquisition of the Henry Sapoznik collection provided an opportunity to bring attention to Yiddish radio and its relationship to Yiddish newspapers, music, and theater, as well as the Eastern European Jewish materials in the Library of Congress more broadly. This idea lead to the symposium called The Stations that Spoke your Language, a title based on the slogan of New York radio station WEVD, “The station that speaks your language,” for its multi-lingual programming. The symposium brought together Yiddish language and culture experts with Library of Congress subject specialists to talk about a wide range of topics related to Yiddish-American history, culture, and identity. Towards the end of the first video, Sapoznik presents a history of Yiddish radio with some examples from recordings from his collection..

Below are the three videos of the symposium. Underneath each of the videos are the names of the participants and the titles of their talks in the order that they appear. Also, look for the resources section at the end of this blog to continue exploring Eastern European Jewish cultural materials at the Library of Congress, some of which are mentioned by symposium speakers. Included are several links to materials available online.

Welcome and Introductions

  • Betsy Peterson, Director, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
  • Roberta Shaffer, Associate Librarian for Library Services, Library of Congress

Panel 1
Moderator: Aaron Taub, Head, Israel and Judaica Section, Library of Congress

  • The Listening Audience: A Profile of the American Jewish Community: Jenna Weissman Joselit, Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History, and Director of the Program in Judaic Studies, George Washington University
  • Ethnic Radio and Mid-Century American Culture: Alexander Russo, Associate Professor, Department of Media Studies, The Catholic University of America
  • The Rise of Yiddish Radio: Henry Sapoznik, Director of the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Panel 2

Moderator: Laura Apelbaum, Executive Director, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington

  • Yiddish Collections & Materials at the Library of Congress: Peggy Pearlstein, Head, Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division (Collections & Services Directorate), Library of Congress
  • Missing the Punch Line: Mixing the Languages on Yiddish Radio: by Miriam Isaacs, Socio-linguist & Independent Scholar, Washington, DC
  • Cantorial Music & Yiddish Radio: David Rein, Independent Scholar & early recording expert, Brooklyn, New York
  • Yiddish Collections at the American Folklife Center: Ann Hoog, Folklife Specialist, Reference, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Panel 3 (begins at timecode 01:52:30)

Moderator: Emanuel S. Goldsmith, Queens College, City University of New York

  • Yiddish Radio in Yiddish Cinema: Alan Gevinson, Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation
  • Yiddish Radio and the Yiddish Press: Itzik Gottesman, Associate Editor, Jewish Daily Forward
  • Yiddish Culture and Mainstream Radio’s Golden Age: Matthew Barton, Curator of Recorded Sound, Library of Congress Packard Center for Audiovisual Conservation

Panel 4
Moderator: Max Ticktin, George Washington University

  • Ear Training:  Yiddish 78s and the Development of an Audience for Yiddish Radio: Sherry Mayrent, Independent Scholar & Collector, Boston
  • Can Food Sound Jewish?: Cooking, Eating, and Advertising Food on Yiddish Radio: Eve Jochnowitz, Independent Scholar & Writer
  • Yiddish Drama and the Work of Nahum Stutchkoff: Amanda Miryem-Khaye Seigel, Librarian, Dorot Jewish Division, New York Public Library
  • The Golden Door: American Jews, Holocaust Survivors, and the Radio Programs of the United Service for New Americans, 1947-1948: Roberta Newman, Independent Scholar, Writer, and Researcher

Closing Remarks: Henry Sapoznik

[End symposium]

Resources

American Folklife Center,  Library of Congress

Folklife Center News, Summer/Fall 2010 [PDF]

Search the Library of Congress catalog for collections related to Radio in the American Folklife Center archive

Search the Library of Congress catalog for collections related to Yiddish in the American Folklife Center archive

Hebraic Section, Library of Congress

Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress

Find Hebrew and Yiddish recordings in the National Jukebox

Isaacs, Miriam. “Jewish Folk Song, Ben Stonehill, and the Hotel Marseilles: Collecting Cultural Treasures in a Post-WWII New York Lobby,” lecture at the Library of Congress, 2013 (video)

“Jewish Song in America,” Songs of America, Library of Congress

Moloney, Mick. “If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews: Irish and Jewish Influences on the Music of Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley,” lecture at the Library of Congress, 2009 (video)

Sapoznik, Henry, “Hear, O Israel: Yiddish American Radio 1925-1955,” October 14, 2009.

Sapoznik, Henry, Yiddish Radio (website)

The Stations That Spoke Your Language: Radio and the Yiddish American Cultural Renaissance, symposium, Library of Congress, September 6-7, 2012

Winick, Stephen.“Homegrown and Botkin Plus: Ethel Raim and the An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble,” Folklife Today, May 13, 2019 (includes video of the concert and interview with An-Sky)

Words Like Sapphires: 100 Years of Hebraica at the Library of Congress, 1912–2012, exhibition, Library of Congress

Yiddish American Popular Sheet Music, Library of Congress

Yiddish Language Play Scripts from the Lawrence Marwick Collection, Library of Congress

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