Talk about serendipity. In 1985, Henry Sapoznik, a walking-talking archive of Yiddish music, showed up a at rummage sale thrown by Joe Franklin, a New York broadcasting icon. He was searching for scratchy old 78's, but found something even better: several dozen large, aluminum discs. Faint traces of Hebrew lettering could still be seen on the worn away labels, so Sapoznik asked Franklin what he wanted for the beat-up pile of platters.
"'Whatever you have in your pocket,' he told me," said Sapoznik. "I had about $30, so he said okay, but I should keep a little so I could get a cab home."
Thus began the Yiddish Radio Project, an unprecedented look back at Jewish culture in America during the first half of the 20th century. The 26-week series, which airs on National Public Radio, is broadcasting hour after hour of rare and forgotten songs, commercials, drama, poetry and news.
Among the gems are Yiddish renditions of "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," and the classic "Levine and His Flying Machine," as well as the Barry Sisters performing "Oh Mama, I'm So In Love;" stories read by Nachum Stutchkoff; and the clarinet talents of Naftalie Brandwein and Abe Schwartz. We even get to hear original commercials for Lower East Side clothiers, Manischewitz matzoh balls and Hebrew National hot dogs and kosher meats.
In general, the quality of the recordings - while predictably tinny most of the time - is actually quite good, given the age and condition of the discs. As Sapoznik sees it, though, the significance lies in the content. Not only is such material unlikely to surface again, but what is available provides a unique window into a time and place that is largely gone.
"There really wasn't an idea to go out and find Yiddish radio stuff. I came upon all this accidentally, but I realized it was a unique opportunity to present a body of material and allow a listener to eavesdrop on an entire community as it spoke to itself, and as it was also undergoing a huge upheaval thanks to immigration, genocide and assimilation," said Sapoznik. "It was a chance to actively be a third person on a partly line."
To those who know him, such efforts are typical of Sapoznik. A Brooklyn-born son of Holocaust survivors, his earliest musical influence was his father, who was an old-world cantor. As a child of the 60's, though, Sapoznik began exploring American folklore and wound up in North Carolina, studying with Tommy Jarrell. It wasn't long, however, before he took a detour and formed a klezmer group called Kapelye. The move also inadvertently helped spawn what is now regarded as a flourishing klezmer revival.
From there, Sapoznik established musical archives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Not suprisingly, his various activities put him at the center of a burgeoning movement to recapture Yiddish culture in many different ways. This led to co-founding KlezKamp, an annual gathering to play music, sing and dance for several days. More recently, Sapoznik published a book on the history of klezmer.
In addition to the radio project, Sapoznik produced several companion CDs. Music from the Yiddish Radio Project (Shanachie) contains music and commercials from the programs. Three others were issued by Sony's Legacy imprint. One is devoted to Abe Schwartz, while the second captures the swing-influenced energy of Dave Tarras & The Musicker Brothers. The third disc is a lengthy collection of Lower East Side talents - Eddie Cantor doing "Palesteena," Al Jolson singing "Hooray for Baby and Me" and Frank Cumit's "The Sheik of Avenue B," as well as Irving Berlin, Molly Picon and Yoselle Rosenblatt doing Yiddish theater tunes, popular ballads of the time or more traditional ethnic songs.
"There's really never been any other attempt to look at the beginning of American broadcast history," said Sapoznik. "And you know what? What was originally great radio is still great radio."
- Ed Silverman
Read about the recordings in the RootsWorld reviews
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