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For Barry Farber, There Was No Language Barrier
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For Barry Farber, There Was No Language Barrier

A Southerner in the North, a conservative in liberal land, the radio talk show host was a master linguaphile, Yiddish included.

Several years ago, this paper assigned me, on short notice, to go to Norway to cover the opening of a Holocaust memorial in Oslo, and being a student of foreign languages, I decided to teach myself Norwegian – at least as much as I could absorb in a week and a half of cassettes and grammar books.

Two days before my flight was to depart, I wanted to determine if I would be able to be able to be understood in Norge. I called Barry Farber.

A quasi-retired talk-show host then, an isolated conservative voice in New York City’s liberal-dominated media, a prominent personality with an unapologetic Jewish identity, I knew he was a linguaphile, a student of foreign languages.

I told him I’d like to test my meager Norsk on him. “Ahm very busy this week,” he told me in the North Carolina drawl that had never left him. “Ah couldn’t possibly meet you.”

“Fine,” I said. “How about lunch tomorrow?”

He said yes.

Mr. Farber, who died on May 6 of natural causes at 90, was a mensch. Since he realized how serious I was about testing my fluency in Norwegian, he agreed to share a meal with me at a kosher restaurant on the Upper West Side.

He was, I learned over lunch, fluent in Norwegian. It ranked among his best foreign tongues, among the two dozen he had mastered in a lifetime of traveling and learning. He had learned Norwegian on his own in high school, and a decade later, as a newspaper reporter in 1956 invited by the U.S. Air Force to cover the airlift of Hungarian refugees from the uprising in Hungary, so impressed a Norwegian man with knowledge of the man’s native tongue that Mr. Farber was allowed to go on one of the covert missions smuggling Hungarians into Austria.

I tried out my few words and phrases on Mr. Farber. He gave me a passing grade, assuring me that I was on the right track. He gave me confidence to go to Norway the next day.

When I returned from overseas, I called him again, and thanked him. He was glad to hear from me — which was not an automatic for someone of his stature.

Before the rise of talk radio, overwhelmingly conservative, Mr. Farber was a superstar, one inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame, once named national Talk Host of the Year, ranked the ninth greatest radio talk show host of all time. He was ubiquitous. A local talk-show host with a national following, he was a defiantly conservative, fiercely anti-communist. He lacked the hard, dogmatic, combative edge of right-wing talk-show hosts who came after him.

He held onto his Southern charm.

Think Rush Limbaugh without the snark.

A former Democrat, Mr. Farber in 1970 he ran for the House of Representatives’ seat in New York City’s 19th Congressional District as the candidate of the Republican and Liberal parties, in an unsuccessful race against Democrat Bella Abzug. In 1977 he ran for mayor as the candidate of the Conservative Party, receiving almost as many votes as the GOP candidate, but vastly fewer than winner Democrat Ed Koch.

He returned to the microphone. From his early start here, working as the producer for the Tex and Jinx interview program from Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel over WNBC-AM, Mr. Farber moved up to hosting duties on WINS, WOR-AM, Kaiser Broadcasting, WMCA, the ABC Radio Network and the Talk Radio Network. He was still doing a regular digital talk show for CRN up until last week.

As he aged, he accepted the fading of his star — and his star power — with equanimity. His celebrity status faded at the end, banishing him to satellite radio, but he accepted it with grace, showing neither rancor nor bitterness, continuing to work.

“I have no regrets,” Farber told me in an interview in 2012 when his latest book, “Cocktails with Molotov” (the title is the summary of a brief encounter he had in 1956 with Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister for whom the home-made gasoline bomb is named) came out. “I can’t complain.” Radio had been good to him. “It gave me a nice life.”

We spoke in the wood-paneled living room of his Upper West Side apartment, which doubled as his recording-and-broadcast studio. He was a pleasure to interview — or to be interviewed by — a skilled journalist whose ego did not dominate a story.

I had met Mr. Farber there nearly three decades earlier — as his interviewee, not interviewer — shortly after I had returned from Jordan. I had spent nearly a week there, traveling through the Arab country that became the second one, after Egypt, to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Mr. Farber was interested in the experiences of an Orthodox journalist who had crossed the Allenby Bridge carrying a suitcase full of tuna fish cans and other kosher fare. He unfolded a map of Jordan I had brought with me, and pointed to it while asking insightful questions, referencing the map as if people listening at home could see it.

Over the years I called him when the opportunity to speak with him presented itself. Sometimes I would seek his opinion of some political issue.

A transplanted Southerner who flourished in the cultural capital of Yankeeland, he was a lifelong student — of virtually everything, especially languages, which he enthusiastically shared with his listening audiences.

“Barry was an amazing man in many ways, and also a bit flaky at times,” said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, an author and educator in Northern New Jersey and former executive editor of The Jewish Week in the 1980s, when he was known by his English name, Shelley. The rabbi was a good interview, a frequent guest on Mr. Farber’s show. “I did over 300 shows with him over the years, often as his ‘co-host,’ even though there really was no such thing,” he said. “In private, he’d call me ‘the Big Sham,’ but on air it was always ‘Shelly.’ He’d often smile at me when he used that name because he knew I hated it.

“He had a big heart and sometimes that heart caused tears to flow from his eyes,” Rabbi Engelmayer, a columnist for the Jewish Standard, said. “And he wasn’t ashamed of it.”

“Barry was a master of languages. He’d gobble them up one after another. He could speak Cantonese and Mandarin, French, German, Spanish, about 15 languages when we were hanging out together, probably many more since,” Rabbi Engelmayer said. “He’d have audio language tapes and a small portable tape player that he’d hold up to his ear. Even when he walked in the street, he’d be practicing the language of the day. When he was campaigning for the House seat against Bella Abzug, that skill came in handy — especially in Chinatown, where he could speak to anyone. He just needed to hear someone speak first, and he knew which dialect he needed to access in his head.”

Mr. Farber’s love of foreign languages led him in 1985 to form the Language Club, a social gathering in a Manhattan restaurant where participants would converse at various tables in any number of preferred tongues; and the next year, to start a Jewish Language Club, in a kosher Japanese restaurant, where Yiddish or Ladino was usually the lingua diem. Mr. Farber would play the gracious host, flitting from table to table to keep the conversation flowing. No matter the language being spoken at each table, he undoubtedly could speak it too.

In 1991 he published a book, “How to Learn Any Language,” which detailed his method for self-study.

In his 1987 book, “Making People Talk,” he wrote about the most memorable people he had met and his lifelong love affair with foreign languages. Many of the stories had a Jewish theme.

“I love the nature of foreign languages,” the entrée it offers into other psyches and cultures, he told me. Mr. Farber divided his own facility in foreign languages into the ones he “married” (mastered the grammar and various technical requirements thereof) and those he only “dated” (taught himself to speak without delving into grammatical complexities). He had married Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Mandarin Chinese, Indonesian, Hungarian, Finnish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian and Yiddish. And he dated Cantonese Chinese, Albanian, Ukrainian, Czech, Polish, Bulgarian, Arabic, Twi, Wolof, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Japanese, Hindi, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Greek. And Hebrew.

“I even liked Hebrew school,” he said.

So why didn’t he “marry” Hebrew?

“Guilty,” he told me. He cited demographic reasons; he usually betrothed languages whose native speakers number in the scores of millions. Hebrew, not big enough. When he encountered Hebrew as an adult, he decided that “it wasn’t spoken by that many people.”

In “Cocktails with Molotov,” he wrote about his “most unlikely Hebrew teacher” — a four-legged instructor. A resident of his apartment building and a dog entered the elevator one day. “He started speaking a foreign language to the dog,” Mr. Farber recounted. He recognized the words as Hebrew. “Would you teach me some ‘dog’ Hebrew?” he asked. The stranger taught him a few words. A few weeks later Mr. Farber found himself in the elevator with the same dog and another owner, a woman. He wanted to give the canine a command, in Hebrew. “I remembered almost nothing, except the word shev, but I’d forgotten what that word meant.”

“‘Shev!,’ I commanded … the dog obediently sat. Then I remembered. ‘Shev!’ means ‘Sit!’”

“A huge majority of Jewish boys learn Hebrew from the rabbi, or an official Hebrew teacher,” Mr. Farber wrote. “Some Jewish boys — trust me — learn Hebrew from Christian clergymen who’ve studied biblical languages.

“As far as I know, however, I’m the only Jewish boy who, for the meaning of a Hebrew word, had to depend on an Israeli dog.”

By his own admission not a Torah-observant Jew, he was a dedicated one. He reported from a Moscow synagogue on the repression of Soviet Jews, and was a frequent speaker at Jewish events. “Barry would drop everything to speak for Israel causes, including UJA and [Israel] Bond appearance,” Rabbi Engelmayer said. “And he always packed ‘em in.

“Barry had this thing for putting on people with negative views about Jews, and then taking off on them, often with my help,” the rabbi remembered.

In a tweet after Mr. Farber died, Celia Ingrid, his daughter, wrote, “He told me recently that his concept of death was ‘going somewhere I’ve never been before, like Finland or Estonia.’”

The last time I interviewed Mr. Farber, he described himself as “very prayerful Jew.”

My final question to the veteran journalist, who had interviewed thousands of men and women, was “When you meet God one day, what will you ask Him?”

He didn’t hesitate.

“I pray every single day,” he said, “In heaven, I’ll ask God if my prayers over the years have any weight in me being here.”

He didn’t tell me in what language he planned to ask that question.

steve@jewishweek.org

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