Only the gentlest prodding gets Dave Isay and Henry Sapoznik to sputter superlatives about “The Yiddish Radio Project,” the serendipitous act of cultural reclamation they co-produced, which airs on National Public Radio starting this Tuesday.
“It’s like opening King Tut’s tomb,” says Sapoznik. “It’s like the Rosetta Stone,” says Isay.
Drawn from Sapoznik’s haphazardly assembled collection of 500 hours of fragile recordings of Yiddish radio broadcasts from the 1930s and ’40s, “The Yiddish Radio Project,” along with its live concert version and Web site, rescues lost moments of what Sapoznik calls “the Yiddish American renaissance.”
“NPR understands it’s an important cultural event,” says Isay. “People are flipping out.”
The 36-year-old producer, documentarian and regular NPR contributor should know. His instincts have earned him almost every award in broadcasting as well as the coveted MacArthur Fellowship. “This is some of the best radio ever created,” the self-described third-generation secular Jew says of his Yiddish predecessors.
In an unprecedented commitment to an obscure corner of American culture, “The Yiddish Radio Project” is one of the longest independently produced series ever to run on NPR’s flagship program “All Things Considered.” The eight- to 22-minute segments will be heard by nearly 10 million listeners across the country every Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. for 10 weeks.
“To us, this speaks so much larger than the Yiddish experience,” says Jay Kernis, senior vice president of programming at National Public Radio. “It’s about the immigrant experience. Almost any family in America can listen to ‘The Yiddish Radio Project’ and hear their own experiences of trying to make it in America and retain their old traditions.”
He’s optimistic that “The Yiddish Radio Project” will find an enthusiastic audience. The project’s Web site is already the second most visited on npr.org, he said. And Kernis says he warned Isay that local stations may ask him to produce additional one- or two-hour specials about their favorite characters.
That would be welcomed.
“We hope to make Nahum Stutchkoff a household name,” Sapoznik says of the radio dramatist whose “Bei Tate Memes Tish” ran for 20 years. His melodramas were typical for Yiddish radio (and theater and film). Why? They sprang from ordinary people’s lives, unlike most mainstream radio of the day, which was dominated by generic announcers and escapist fantasies like “The Lone Ranger.”
“I dare you not to become emotionally involved,” warns Kernis.
Each episode of “The Yiddish Radio Project” focuses on the highlights of Sapoznik’s collection. However, the series does not purport to be a historical survey. Jerry Stiller, Tovah Feldshuh, Carl Reiner, Anne Meara and other actors perform Sapoznik’s English translations, which are interwoven with the original Yiddish.
There are episodes on the madcap antics of the Yiddish dadaist poet Victor Packer, the tear-jerking weekly drama “Bei Tate Memes Tish (Around the Family Table),” Sam Medoff’s popular “Yiddish Melodies in Swing,” and the forgotten Jewish hero Charles A. Levine, the first passenger to fly across the Atlantic two weeks after Charles A. Lindberg made his more celebrated crossing.
Though seven years in the making, “The Yiddish Radio Project” is “just the tip of the iceberg,” says Mark Slobin, a Jewish music scholar at Wesleyan University. There are plenty of films, books, plays, poems, records and newspapers from the heyday of Yiddish America, but Sapoznik’s collection — to be deposited in a national research institution — is unprecedented.
“Ethnic radio is the great undiscovered continent in American studies,” says Slobin. “Henry is making available a huge body of material that is a rich source for trying to understand how our grandparents and great-grandparents lived in America.”
Slobin calls ethnic radio a “barometer” of immigrant life because it was local and attuned to needs of the communities, which in some instances was just a single square mile in Brooklyn. Yet no book has ever been published on the subject.
Sapoznik aims to write the first. And a conference and documentary film may follow.
Since his discovery in 1985 of a few hundred old 16-inch records under mounds of entertainment memorabilia in Joe Franklin’s office, Sapoznik has singlehandedly invented the field of Yiddish radio. Enamored with these lost voices, he spent years combing attics, basements and dumpsters to find the few records that had managed to escape time, neglect and World War II-era scrap metal drives.
Based in New York, he was only able to gather materials from among the area’s three dozen or so Yiddish stations of the golden age (the late 1920s to late 1940s), from low frequency mom and pop operations to the famous WEVD. Today, there are just a handful of Yiddish programs across the country. WEVD had managed to broadcast a few hours of Yiddish a week until it became ESPN Radio last year.
Sapoznik, founder of the Yiddish culture group Living Traditions, spent years researching and expanding his collection, even producing “On the Air,” a 1995 concept album by his klezmer band Kapelye that recreates Yiddish radio broadcasts. But he found little financial support to properly conserve and catalogue the fragile disks.
Then Sapoznik met Isay seven years ago when he was composing music for Isay’s radio version of Ben Katchor’s comic strip “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer” for NPR. Sapoznik put on a tape of a swinging version of “Dayenu” and Isay was hooked.
Initially planned as a 30-minute documentary, the project took on a life of its own. Isay added five people to work full time for his production company Sound Portraits. Despite major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other foundations, Isay says he has relied on his $500,000 McArthur award to help fund operations.
“The Yiddish Radio Project reveals elements of the cultural gene pool that are still with us,” says Yair Reiner, a co-producer of the series. Howard Stern and Jerry Springer are just two contemporary echoes of Yiddish radio’s early experiments with man-on-the-street interviews and advice shows.
“Once the series hit, stuff is going to come out of the woodwork,” Sapoznik predicts. He anticipates that listeners across the country, who may have heard original Yiddish broadcasts in Boston and Souix City, Iowa, will flood his mailbox with more stories, photographs, and best, tips on more recordings, which seem to keep appearing. Just recently, Sapoznik discovered legendary Folkways Records founder Moe Asch’s recordings of WEVD broadcasts, catalogued as “German radio,” at the Smithsonian.
And there’s more. Sapoznik’s discovery of Asch’s acetate recording of a BBC broadcast of the first Shabbat service in Bergen-Belsen, two days after the liberation, will be aired as a “sidebar” on “Weekend Edition Saturday” on April 20.
To help preach the gospel of Yiddish radio, Isay and Sapoznik have also organized a multimedia concert with old-time klezmer musicians.
“Yiddish Radio Project Live” premieres Sunday at the Center for Jewish History and Monday at the newly renovated Symphony Space. Next month, it travels to Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Pete Sokolow, Paul Pincus, Ray Musiker and others will perform Sokolow’s new arrangements of songs discovered on the old records, from classics like Sholem Secunda’s “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” to the jingle from an ad for the “Joe and Paul” men’s clothing store. Guests include Seymour Rexite, Julie Epstein and Claire Barry.
For the concert’s finale, and the final episode of the NPR series, Isay presents “Reunion,” a program that reunited family members torn apart by the Holocaust. Miraculously, they tracked down a man who appeared in the premiere episode. Queens resident Siegbert Freiberg will recount the day he saw his father for the first time since 1932 in the studios of WOR Radio in 1947.
It’s a remarkable moment. Hearing the first time a Holocaust survivor tells his story on the air, in a country that still had immigration quotas, contributes to our foggy understanding of the American Jewish community’s immediate response to the Holocaust.
Freiberg’s father, newly arrived from Shanghai where he spent the war, knew only four words of English: “Thank God for America.”