December 14, 2006
KCRW’s annual Chanukah show lets the light go out
Ruth Seymour, general manager since 1978 of KCRW-FM 89.9, is best known to many listeners for her annual Chanukah program, "Philosophers, Fiddlers & Fools," which will have its final airing on Dec. 15. But Seymour is not stepping down.
"I'm not retiring," she says over the phone in her classic New York accent. "I'm retiring the show."
The Chanukah show has been a staple in Los Angeles, which, before its first airing in 1978, had been missing this classic blend of Yiddishkeit: folk music, readings of Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories, memorials to Holocaust victims, Second Avenue "hit parade" songs.
Much has been made of the humble beginnings of KCRW, a station created after World War II to train veterans for careers in radio, which as late as 1978 was located in a middle school in Santa Monica and famously had the oldest transmitter in the West. Seymour has transformed the station into an institution by creating erudite programs like "Bookworm," an essential half-hour for any literary Los Angeleno; issues-oriented shows like "Which Way, L.A.?" and political debates, such as "Left, Right & Center."
Her emphasis on literature and politics is fitting, since Seymour grew up in a home of left-wing Jewish intellectuals in the Bronx. She relates a story in which her mother, upon seeing her tending to the plants outside, asked, "Why are you gardening? You could be reading 'War & Peace.'"
By now, "Philosophers" fans know the story of how Seymour's college professor, Max Weinreich, told her that "Yiddish is magic. It will outlive history."
What many may not know is that some years ago, she received a letter in her mailbox with those words written on the outside of the envelope as a teaser. She opened it and found it was from YIVO, the Yiddish institute that focuses on the study of Jewish culture and literature. Apparently, one of YIVO's employees had lived in Los Angeles and heard Seymour tell the Weinreich story on the air.
Seymour has always contended that the show should be "ephemeral," out of deference to the Holocaust victims.
"There wasn't any way to bring them back," she says, which is why she has never recorded any of her Chanukah programs.
She has often cited the words of Andre Schwarz-Bart, French author of "The Last of the Just," who wrote that the Holocaust victims disappeared "like the smoke from the chimneys of Auschwitz."
Although Holocaust survivors have always wanted to preserve the apparatus of and artwork related to the Holocaust, so as to document the severity of the genocide, Seymour sees radio as being inherently "transitory."
"There just comes a moment in your life when it's over. The sources dry up. Do I want to psychoanalyze it?" she asked, "No."
She adds, "It had a prolonged life, a life of its own." She said she is astonished that it "touched so many people."
One person who touched her was Schwarz-Bart, who recently died at 78. He spent time in the concentration camps during the war and wrote "The Last of the Just," which won France's highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt, in the late 1950s.
He "literally seems to have survived to write it," she says, pointing out that he began writing right after the war, when he was in his twenties, and spent years working on it in a Paris library, since his home did not have heat.
Not surprisingly, Seymour, who has always paid homage to Schwarz-Bart on her Chanukah show, will do so again in her final segment.
Another author whom she intends to acknowledge in her last show is the late Singer, the only Nobel Prize laureate who wrote primarily in Yiddish. She met Singer many times when she was living in New York.
Seymour's then-husband, poet Jack Hirschman, who wooed her with a letter from Ernest Hemingway, introduced her to Singer. They would get together in a vegetarian restaurant and discuss astronomy and the kabbalah with Singer and his latest girlfriend, never his wife. Singer fancied concentration camp survivors for dates; interestingly, Seymour says that these young women had "dreams [that] would always be amazingly similar to his stories."
Seymour says she was never a devotee of radio when she was young, even though she is a contemporary of Woody Allen and was raised in the "Radio Days" era of the late 1930s and 1940s. "I landed totally by accident."
The accident occurred in 1961, when Hirschman was teaching at UCLA, and KPFK-FM 90.7 came calling, asking for tapes of his work. Seymour provided the Pacifica radio station with the tapes and shortly thereafter, was offered the job of heading up the station's drama department.
More than a decade later, she joined KCRW.
Although she will stop broadcasting her marquee program, she says she will continue to host programs like "Politics of Culture," and we will still hear her over the air during fundraising drives. As for "Philosophers," she says, "It was never something that was conceived to go on for 28 years."
"Philosophers, Fiddlers & Fools" will air for the final time on Friday, Dec. 15, from noon to 3 p.m. on KCRW, 89.9 FM.