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Cultural and Community
The Yiddish Radio Project: An Historic Series of Radio Features
Airs Monday, December 26 at 1:00 p.m.
Yiddish Radio, 1930-1955: All that remains from the golden age of Yiddish radio are 1,000 fragile aluminum discs—one-of-a-kind "air checks" rescued from attics, storerooms, even dumpsters. Since 1985, musician and historian Henry Sapoznik has been on a mission: to locate and preserve every one of these precious surviving recordings before they vanish or decompose. His efforts have unearthed some of the most intimate, emotional, and brilliant radio programs ever broadcast—a one-of-a-kind window on Jewish immigrant culture in the United States from the 1920s-1950s. This spring, Sound Portraits Productions presents the "Yiddish Radio Project," a major NPR series celebrating these recordings and the people who created them.
This documentary was produced by MacArthur Fellow David Isay and Yiddish radio rescuer Henry Sapoznik. Translations for the Yiddish language broadcasts (the original programs alternate between Yiddish and English) will be performed by a cast which includes Eli Wallach, Carl Reiner, Isaiah Sheffer, and a cavalcade of Yiddish stars.
Yiddish was the language of the two million Jewish immigrants who flooded into the United States from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. In the late 1920s, as the last great wave was arriving at Ellis Island, radio was beginning its meteoric ascendancy in American culture. Jewish immigrants embraced this new technology. By the early 1930s Yiddish radio flourished across the country. More than a dozen stations in New York alone broadcast dramas, advice shows, man-on-the-street interviews, game shows and commercials. All were required to cut single reference recordings of their programs in case theFederal Radio Commission (FRC) received a complaint. The vast majority of these discs were melted down for World War II scrap metal drives or simply disappeared. But the five hundred hours that survive—what a story they tell! Created by a group of dreamers and geniuses (even some charlatans), the programs offer us a chance to travel back to a lost world. They are incalculably precious remnants of a culture all but destroyed in the Holocaust.
"It"s like opening up King Tut"s Tomb," says producer Dave Isay. "These discs allow us to eavesdrop on a people in Renaissance. The shows are mostly in Yiddish, but the voices and spirit captured on them is universal. At a time when New York has lost so much, to be able to bring these long-lost recordings back to life is a profound privilege."