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NPR to air 10-part "Yiddish Radio Project" series.

by Tom Tugend

March 14, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Jewish (and other) radio listeners will be able to time travel back to the world of their immigrant ancestors when "The Yiddish Radio Project" debuts March 19 on stations coast-to-coast.

The 10-part National Public Radio (NPR) series will resurrect the golden age of the Yiddish radio, roughly from 1930-1955, with its rich daily fare of dramas, music, game shows, advice columnists, talent shows, man-on-the-street interviews and commercials for Manischewitz matzah and Barbasol shaving cream.

Among the highlights will be the amazing story of "Levine and His Flying Machine," Yiddish melodies in swing, sage advice by "The Jewish Philosopher" C. Israel Lutsky, the gripping dramas of Nahum Stutchkoff and Rabbi Rubin's "Court of the Air." Showcased will be Seymour Rexite (the Frank Sinatra of Yiddish radio) singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" in the mamaloshen.

For the linguistically challenged, English translations will be rendered by the likes of Carl Reiner and Eli Wallach.

The 10 segments will air on consecutive Tuesday afternoons, March 19-May 21, during NPR's "All Things Considered" program.

Complementing the radio programs will be a live touring company presenting a multimedia show with archival photos, radio excerpts, projected English translations and music by the Yiddish Radio All-Star Band, whose five instrumentalists range in age from 62 to 84.

Included will be a documentary on the last of the radio segments, dating from 1947, in which a Holocaust survivor -- before the term was even in use -- is reunited with relatives live on the air.

In Los Angeles, the show's one-night stand will be on April 15 at the Skirball Cultural Center, sponsored jointly by KCRW and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Responsible for the radio series are historian-musician Henry Sapoznik and producer David Isay, founder of Sound Portraits Productions, who will also host the live show.

Historically, Yiddish was the language of some 2 million Jewish immigrants who came to America from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. As the last great wave arrived at Ellis Island in the 1920s, radio was beginning to make its mark on American society.

The Jewish immigrants embraced the new medium and, by the early 1930s, Yiddish radio flourished across the country, with more than a dozen such stations in New York alone.

In 1985, Sapoznik came across a large reference recording of one of the Yiddish radio programs. These recordings were required by the Federal Radio Commission so it could investigate any complaints about the content.

The recordings were mainly on large acetate discs with aluminum base, most of which were melted down during World War II scrap metal drives.

For the next 15 years, Sapoznik searched through attics, storerooms and even trash cans and rescued more than 1,000 of the fragile discs for his archives.

The radio project will also spawn two CDs. The first set will feature music and commercials from the broadcasts. The second set, not available until the fall, will include stories from the series and a historical account of the rise and fall of Yiddish radio.

The series will air on KCRW (89.9 FM) in Santa Monica at 5:30 p.m. and on KPCC (89.3 FM) in Pasadena at 3:30 p.m. Following each of the 10 radio segments, the program will be available online via Real Audio at www.npr.org. To order the broadcasts on CD, visit www.yiddishradioproject.org. For tickets to the live broadcast at the Skirball, call (323) 655-8587.

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