Audiobook: The Yiddish Radio Project

It's been a little while since NPR produced The Yiddish Radio Project -- 14 years precisely, as the show debuted in 2002. In that time, we've lost a few of the voices from the show. Clara Bagelman, better known as one of the Barry Sisters, passed away in 2014. Actor  Eli Wallach, who provided the English-language versions of some of the Yiddish excerpts, died the same year. Herta Freiberg, one of the interview subjects for the show, died in 2007. So I feel like I'm coming to the project a little late, although, thankfully, the program still has its website up. 

It was a project that seemed designed to produce satellite projects. I could listen to an entire show about Rabbi Rubin's Court of the Air, which sounds like a primitive version of Judge Judy with a slightly more reasonable judge (Rabbi Shmuel Aaron Rubin) and a considerably more emotional litigants. Instead of being a succession of court cases about unpaid cell phone bills, the disputes were rooted in the experience of being a collection of poor, recent residents of a new world, and the conflicts that develop with neighbors, friends, and especially family. The Yiddish Radio Project played an excerpt, and it was a decidedly farklemt fellow explaining that he wasn't supporting his mother financial because the woman was in a dispute with his wife. He had a thick New York accent and a strained quality, as though the whole experience had just left him frazzled, and Rabbi Rubin, chastising him in Yiddish, insisted he pay his mother, but also advised her to be nicer to her daughter-in-law.

A lot of the shows sound like they were dramas of the everyday experience, amped up to somewhat hysterical levels, which is an experience many Jews will know all too well from their own domestic experiences growing up, where little nothings could quickly turn into screaming matches. There were the soap operas of Nahum Stutchkoff, which traded in shame, betrayal, and often seemed to end with people screaming and sobbing. There was C. Israel Lutsky, the Jewish Philosopher, who, at least in temperament, also calls to mind Judge Judy, as we would often respond to letters by angrily shouting at the letter-writer.

I mean, I'd listen to more of this, if it had been made available. I suppose one day, when my Yiddish is better, I will have to camp out at the YIVO archives, or wherever there are stacks of transcription records from Yiddish radio, and just listen.

What's available is a lot of fun, though, even if it is necessarily brief. The show is as obsessed with the novelty song "Joe and Paul" as I am, and offers a detailed breakdown of its origin, as well as translating the song's machine-gun Yinglish. They spend some time with the still-popular Barry Sisters, nee Bagelman, who were the longest-lasting and perhaps only legacy of the popularity of "Bei Mir Bistu Shein" when it was recorded as a swing version by the Andrews Sisters. The Barrys demonstrated just how easily traditional Yiddish music could be revised as tight-harmony popular jazz, and vice versa, and I imagine there were plenty of Barry Sister knockoffs, but have not found any. Here, too, I want more, and more is not forthcoming. 

The closest we have is Seymour Rexite, who performed rather stripped-down, pleasingly crooned versions of popular standards, translated into Yiddish, and there were apparently thousands of his songs recorded -- in his house, and he'd play them for you if you went by. Rexrite also died, in 2002, and what happened to those recordings? He even released albums, but they have not, as far as I can tell, been digitized. You can hear some snippets of him singing on the Yiddish Radio Project's website, but, as far as I can tell, that's it, but for some things on YouTube. Here's his version of Misirlou, and it's just marvelous.

I know where this is leading, but I'm not ready to go down that path yet. I can't expect others to do the work for me. If I want to listen to Yiddish-inflected jazz, I am going to have to start to scour record stores and eBay for records, and they I am going to have to digitize them myself. Whatever my curiosity about Yiddish, if I continue down this path, it's going to turn me into an archivist and documentarian, because if not me, who?

But I've been at this three months. I can barely string a sentence together in Yiddish. It's a little early to ask me to commit my life to rounding up party records by Jewish comics, novelty records by Yiddish bands, and swing albums by Yiddish singers.

But the demand is there. It isn't overt, but it's there nonetheless. It's implicit, and it is implicitly saying: You like this? Go find some more of it.

All right, all right, stop bullying. I give. Sheesh.