THE ARTS 9.7.09
THE ARTS 9.7.09

Yiddish on the radio: U.C. Davis professor turns study of Jewish programming into book

The joy of radio became apparent to Ari Kelman a decade ago.

He was working as a temp in his aunt’s windowless New York office with only a nearby radio blasting local stations to keep him company.

It was during this time that Kelman also happened to catch a TV documentary on the history of radio, which eventually led to a discussion on radio for immigrants — specifically the Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. in droves as popular radio was on the rise.

Kelman promptly went to the New York public library and found rolls of old Jewish Daily Forward articles from the 1920s to 1950s listing program after program devoted specifically to Yiddish-speaking communities.

As he was attending New York University at the time, Kelman turned his findings into his Ph.D. dissertation, and recently crafted that dissertation into a book, “Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States.” The Bay Area resident’s book came out in May.

Kelman, the son of retired Berkeley Rabbi Stuart Kelman, grew up in Los Angeles then Berkeley, moving to New York for graduate school in the late 1990s. He’s since moved back to the Bay Area, living in both Albany and El Cerrito, and is now an assistant professor of American studies in the cultural studies program at U.C. Davis.

Although Kelman learned Hebrew as a child, he knew just a handful of Yiddish words when he began work on the dissertation in 1998. Skimming through old Yiddish newspapers and listening to the vintage recordings, he realized he needed to learn the language — quickly.

He attended a summer program at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Learning and grasped enough to read full editions of Yiddish newspapers. He also read every issue  of the Jewish Daily Forward from 1920 to mid-1950 to see the program listings.

In “Station Identification” Kelman explains that while there were no specifically Yiddish radio stations, there was a wide variety of Yiddish- and Jewish-themed programs on local channels — from vaudeville comedy shows to sermons to explosive political commentary.

Kelman found during his research that there are some misconceptions about the Jewish immigrant culture during this time period.

“There is a tendency to be nostalgic and schmaltzy, but when you are actually listening to these [Yiddish radio] shows you hear that life wasn’t all great, there was a lot of critique,” Kelman said in a recent interview. “It wasn’t just the pickle-eating Lower East Side we picture.”

He explains in the book that Yiddish programming was actually closer to mainstream American radio than one might expect, with news, music and other programs that were similar to what other Americans were listening to. Jewish listeners chose the Yiddish programs because they wanted to, not because they had to.

A Talmud roundtable study session is broadcast live on New York City’s WEVD in the 1950s. photo/courtesy of the forward association

Kelman notes that people didn’t listen to Yiddish radio for breaking news (they had the mainstream media for that), but rather for the Jewish perspective on the news of the day.

While there are still Jewish-themed programs on local stations across the nation, it is no secret that radio is no longer Americans’ first form of media, which Kelman credits to the demise of Yiddish radio as well.

During radio’s “Golden Age” (the 1930s and 1940s), there were bona fide Yiddish stars of the mediums — such as recording artists the Barry Sisters and crooner Seymour Rexite.

While doing research for his book, Kelman was able to track down and interview people who hovered in the relatively small universe of Jewish radio. He found original announcers and critics through word-of-mouth help from friends and family.

With the book now in print, Kelman continues to hear from those Golden Age participants and listeners.

The woman featured on the cover of “Station Identification” was a cantor named Jean Gornish who performed on Yiddish radio in the 1940s under the name “Sheindele Di Chazente.”

During her rise to fame, Gornish had multiple fan clubs and a mainstream sponsor — Planter’s Peanuts. Just a few months ago Gornish’s sister called up Kelman to thank him for bringing new recognition to Sheindele’s work.

“I think writing about these lives is a great honor and responsibility,” Kelman said. “It is not my goal to make these people famous, but they deserve to be counted among the contributors to Yiddish cultural life.”

“Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States”
by Ari Y. Kelman (279 pages, University of California Press, $39.95)