Sta­tion Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion: A Cul­tur­al His­to­ry of Yid­dish Radio in the Unit­ed States

Ari Y. Kelman
  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
Ari Kelman’s study of Yid­dish radio in the Unit­ed States con­cen­trates on the medium’s so-called Gold­en Age and attempts to define what Yid­dish radio was able to offer an over­whelm­ing­ly bilin­gual audi­ence that had equal, if not greater access to main­stream pro­gram­ming in Eng­lish. Unlike oth­er immi­grant groups, who had the option of rely­ing on con­tent import­ed from old coun­tries” with which they often main­tained close ties,Yiddish-speaking Jews had vir­tu­al­ly no choice but to reshape their cul­ture in accor­dance with what they per­ceived as the needs and require­ments of Amer­i­can life. 

Net­work radio, how­ev­er, was no new­er to Jews than it was to the D.A.R. In empha­siz­ing that Yid­dish itself, the sim­ple oppor­tu­ni­ty of hear­ing the lan­guage in an essen­tial­ly pub­lic forum, was Yid­dish radio’s chief attrac­tion, Kel­man is at pains to point out that there were very few Yid­dish-speak­ing radio own­ers who didn’t lis­ten to main­stream Eng­lish– lan­guage radio as well. While lis­ten­ers might have tuned to Fred Allen, Lux Radio The­ater or one of Roosevelt’s Fire­side Chats for enter­tain­ment or infor­ma­tion, they turned to Yid­dish sta­tions and pro­grams for a sense of com­mu­ni­ty. They were seek­ing — and appar­ent­ly get­ting — a sense of par­tic­i­pa­tion, of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, even of com­mu­nion. Though a bit top-heavy with infor­ma­tion on gov­ern­ment broad­cast reg­u­la­tion (the book is based on Kelman’s doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion), Sta­tion Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is a sen­si­tive account of how and why Amer­i­can Yid­dish radio once flour­ished. Kel­man is a 2010 final­ist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture

I Just Can’t Live With­out My Radio

By Ari Y. Kelman

I redis­cov­ered radio one sum­mer while work­ing in my aunt’s law firm. My job was to sort doc­u­ments for a mas­sive case, and to keep myself enter­tained, all I had was a radio (this was the days before ipods). So I lis­tened (to WFUV, most­ly), and I found that radio played a pret­ty excep­tion­al selec­tion of music all day. For free. That same sum­mer, I was prepar­ing to teach a course at a local col­lege on Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music, and I learned of radio’s role in cre­at­ing audi­ences for rock and roll out­side of urban areas. My redis­cov­ery of radio was only half the sto­ry. 

As far as Yid­dish went, I knew almost noth­ing. In fact, when I decid­ed to write about Yid­dish radio, I dis­cov­ered that the only Yid­dish I knew con­sist­ed of syn­onyms for wild lit­tle boy.” But, at the sug­ges­tion of a friend, I went to the New York Pub­lic Library, request­ed a roll of the Eng­lish lan­guage Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward on micro­film, and found what I was look­ing for. The news­pa­per brimmed with infor­ma­tion about radio, includ­ing dai­ly list­ings, columns, and adver­tise­ments. I found some­thing, but I did not know exact­ly what. 

What imme­di­ate­ly spoke to me — even before I learned to under­stand what I was hear­ing — was the pos­si­bil­i­ty that radio could take on a host of new mean­ings if we placed an eth­nic minor­i­ty at the cen­ter of a dis­cus­sion of a mass medi­um. To do so would mean that the oft-romani­cized Gold­en Age of Radio” spoke Yid­dish, too. It would mean learn­ing to lis­ten to the mul­ti­ple lan­guages of Amer­i­can media his­to­ry. And, it meant re-assess­ing the process­es of Amer­i­can­iza­tion. 

The rise of Yid­dish radio in the U. S. coin­cid­ed with the end of Jew­ish immi­gra­tion, and Yid­dish radio pro­vid­ed a rather strange sound­track for Amer­i­can­iza­tion, com­plete with rab­bis ser­mo­niz­ing, can­tors singing, ama­teurs per­form­ing, actors melo­dra­ma­tiz­ing, and adver­tis­ers adver­tis­ing. Inso­far as Yid­dish radio did par­tic­i­pate in a con­ver­sa­tion about Amer­i­can­iza­tion, it did so with­in an intense­ly Jew­ish con­text. This meant that Amer­i­can­iza­tion did not just hap­pen to Jew­ish immi­grants; it was some­thing that they will­ing­ly under­took and active­ly shaped. To talk in Yid­dish about what it meant to be an Amer­i­can dra­mat­i­cal­ly changed the tone and tenor of the con­ver­sa­tion, and to do so on radio meant chang­ing the def­i­n­i­tions of audi­ence and com­mu­ni­ty, as well. 

In this con­text, Amer­i­can­iza­tion appeared to be a pow­er­ful­ly gen­er­a­tive process for Amer­i­can Jews and even for Yid­dish cul­ture. This pro­vi­sion­al find­ing seemed counter-intu­itive to me. But it also seemed too curi­ous to ignore. 

So, I learned Yid­dish one sum­mer at YIVO, and spent the next few years read­ing old Yid­dish news­pa­pers, look­ing through archives, lis­ten­ing to what­ev­er record­ings I could get my hands on, and trav­el­ing around the coun­try try­ing to track down traces of this phe­nom­e­non. I spoke with whomev­er would speak with me, shar­ing sto­ries in kitchens and over glass­es of scotch. I scoured adver­tise­ments, hand­bills, pho­tographs, scrap­books, and scripts look­ing for echoes of this vibrant aur­al cul­ture. 

Find­ing it was one thing, mak­ing sense of it was anoth­er. What did all these pro­grams and adver­tise­ments mean? How could sta­tion own­ers both encour­age the Amer­i­can­iza­tion of their audi­ence and do so in Yid­dish? Why did ama­teur­show per­form­ers choose Yid­dish songs to sing, even when they did not speak Yid­dish? Who were the lady can­tors,” and how did peo­ple react to them? Why weren’t there Yid­dish west­erns, mys­ter­ies, and sci­ence fic­tion pro­grams? Why did immi­grant Jews tune in to Yid­dish pro­grams, if they could lis­ten to Eng­lish pro­grams instead? 

Answer­ing these ques­tions meant learn­ing to lis­ten to the ten­sions that they framed. Born of the infor­ma­tion I had col­lect­ed, the ques­tions did not lend them­selves to sim­ple answers. Instead, they asked about process­es, dynam­ics, sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ships, and cul­tur­al choic­es that were not eas­i­ly rec­on­ciled. In oth­er words, to write this book meant that I could not offer some broad, syn­thet­ic inter­pre­tive ges­ture that would explain the entire phe­nom­e­non as if it were a metaphor or a paint­ing. To write this book, I was going to have to learn to lis­ten to the cul­ture of radio bet­ter than I ever had before.


By Michael Wex

Ari Y. Kel­man, author of Sta­tion Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, was a final­ist for the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture. He is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Stud­ies at UC Davis.

Michael Wex: Clever title, Sta­tion Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. How’d you come up with it and what’s it intend­ed to con­vey? 
Ari Kel­man: The title was sug­gest­ed by my ex-wife, who was still my wife at the time. Sta­tion Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion” cap­tures an impor­tant reg­is­ter of the book’s cen­tral con­ver­sa­tion, which focus­es on the rela­tion­ship between Yid­dish radio broad­cast­ing and nego­ti­a­tions over Jew­ish col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty. And, as an old radio catch­phrase,” it seemed to cap­ture two dimen­sions of the book: First, sta­tion iden­ti­fi­ca­tion” is what the sta­tions had to do to iden­ti­fy them­selves to audi­ences and reg­u­la­tors. Sec­ond, it echoes with over­tones of the ways in which audi­ences iden­ti­fied with the sta­tions to which they listened.

MWWhat came first for you, an inter­est in Yid­dish or in Yid­dish radio? What is it about Yid­dish radio that so cap­ti­vat­ed you? 
It was an inter­est in radio. I was prepar­ing to teach a class about rock and roll, and I got inter­est­ed in radio’s role in bring­ing rhythm and blues to white sub­ur­ban and rur­al audi­ences. I began read­ing about radio in gen­er­al, and won­dered if there was any radio for immi­grants. So, I went to the New York Pub­lic Library, and pulled a reel of the For­ward on micro­film. I didn’t even speak Yid­dish at the time, but I spoke Hebrew and a lit­tle Ger­man, so I could read enough to rec­og­nize that the For­ward  was print­ing dai­ly radio list­ings, and had a week­ly col­umn about radio, too. Three things cap­ti­vat­ed me right from the begin­ning. First, that the sto­ry of Yid­dish radio (or that of any for­eign lan­guage radio”) is entire­ly absent from Amer­i­can radio his­to­ry. Lis­ten­ing to Yid­dish radio pro­vid­ed a way to crack open those his­to­ries and ask: How does the pres­ence of a minor­i­ty pop­u­la­tion change our under­stand­ing of mass media? Sec­ond, so much writ­ing about Yid­dish cul­ture focused on lit­er­a­ture and the­ater, and the absence of radio (as an almost entire­ly Amer­i­can phe­nom­e­non) seemed like a big omis­sion, inso­far as its growth coin­cid­ed with declines in news­pa­per read­er­ship and the­ater atten­dance. Third, and per­haps most impor­tant­ly, I was intrigued by the notion that the same appli­ance (the radio) brought mass, pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment into the homes of Jew­ish immi­grants in both Eng­lish and Yid­dish. How does this cap­ture a dif­fer­ent aur­al his­to­ry of Amer­i­can Jews than those we already have?

MW: How’d you get to the stuff, i.e., gain access to the shows them­selves? Were you able to under­stand every­thing that you had to lis­ten to? 
AKThe major­i­ty of my sources were print— news­pa­pers, scripts, lis­ten­er let­ters, sta­tion notes, con­tracts, sheet music, and so on. For a vari­ety of rea­sons, there are not many sur­viv­ing record­ings. I lis­tened to every­thing I could — a few hun­dred hours of record­ings at YIVO, the NYPL, The Library of Con­gress (Smith­son­ian Folk­ways) and a hand­ful of record­ings I obtained through pri­vate col­lec­tors— and there were some that I could not under­stand. Some were ham­pered by poor record­ings, some peo­ple just spoke too quick­ly for me to understand.

MW: What do you think the out­look is for con­tin­ued Yid­dish — as dis­tinct from more gen­er­al­ly Jew­ish — influ­ence on Amer­i­can cul­ture?
AKGiv­en the rise in schol­ar­ship on and in Yid­dish, it is almost impos­si­ble to imag­ine any­one work­ing on Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry or Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture to neglect or avoid Yid­dish and its influ­ences. I’ll nev­er for­get my first vis­it to the Nation­al Yid­dish Book Cen­ter, which real­ly impressed upon me (this, while I was learn­ing Yid­dish at YIVO) the vol­ume, breadth, and diver­si­ty of Yid­dish lit­er­ary expres­sion of all kinds. Each time I return to the sources, there is so much still to be explored, under­stood, writ­ten about. It bog­gles my mind that there’s still no good book about the For­ward or about the Yid­dish press generally.

MW: What are you work­ing on now? What’s next?
AKI’m work­ing on a few dif­fer­ent projects. I’m writ­ing a book on evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian wor­ship music, which is more con­tem­po­rary than his­tor­i­cal, and a book about music com­pi­la­tions. I know that to the untrained ear this sounds like a real depar­ture from Sta­tion Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, but I see it as an exten­sion of the themes of sound, com­mu­ni­ty, and audi­ence that began to sur­face for me while lis­ten­ing to Yid­dish radio. I’m also work­ing on an essay about Fid­dler on the Roof,” which has let me go back and read Sholom Ale­ichem in Yid­dish, which is a real treat.

Author of Born to Kvetch, Just Say Nu, and How To Be A Mentsh, Michael Wex grew up in Alber­ta, where Yid­dish radio was an unheard of lux­u­ry. He has taught at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, and was once a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the For­ward Hour. His nov­el, The Frumkiss Fam­i­ly Busi­ness, will be pub­lished by Knopf Cana­da in September.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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