Charlie Bernhaut has been instrumental in the survival and revival of traditional cantorial music. As the cofounder of Cantors’ World, now in its fifth year, he has been a part of dozens of standing-room-only concerts of contemporary cantorial music. Last year his donation of over 15,000 recordings to the American Society of Jewish Music was a massive windfall for that organization.
And later this month Bernhaut will mark the 30th anniversary of the unpaid gig that started it all, hosting his popular radio showcase for classic chazanut, “The Voice of Jewish Soul.”
He never imagined he’d still be doing the show after three decades on the air. In fact, he never expected to be hosting a radio show at all when he first hit the airwaves in October 1977.
“I began collecting old victrolas,” he explains. “I found one in Paris and that got me started. I went to the Edison museum in New Jersey and I was hooked.”
Somebody gave him a pile of old cantorial records, and that slowly spun him into collecting that music too. And when he asked a programmer at WFMU if he would announce a dinner for Simon Wiesenthal that Bernhaut was chairing, the gentleman asked him if he’d like to come to the studio and be interviewed. Somehow that turned into an invitation to host his own show highlighting the uniquely Jewish sounds of Golden Age cantorial music.
Back then the biggest challenge facing Bernhaut was a technical one. He would play the old recordings on an equally ancient victrola, holding a microphone to the horn to broadcast the sound. Today, he transfers his old recordings to CD so that the station engineer can play them on cue.
He’s also at a different location on the radio dial, WNSR (620-AM), where he is heard every Thursday night at midnight, for an hour of commercial-free music.
If you ask him for a “desert island” list of favorites, Bernhaut complies only with great reluctance.
“I can’t limit it to just five,” he protests, before complying. “Obviously Yossele Rosenblatt, then, in no particular order, Gershon Sirota, Mordecai Hershman, Moshe Koussevitsky, Shmuel Malavsky and Arele Diamond. Diamond and Malavsky are underappreciated, and Yitzhak Helfgott is one of the best of the living cantors.”
Bernhaut doesn’t receive a penny for his on-air efforts and that’s just fine with him.
“This is a labor of love,” he says. “It’s fun for me. I never wanted it to be a business.”