November 28, 2002
In the days when National Public Radio flagship KCRW-FM was an obscure Santa Monica College station, general manager Ruth Seymour decided to create a live Chanukah show as an alternative to Christmas programming.
It was actually a Yiddish show -- feting a culture Seymour imbibed during her 1940s Bronx childhood -- but during its 1978 debut, the phones went dead and stayed there.
"Honestly, I thought we'd gone off the air," she told The Journal. "Then the show ended, and the switchboard exploded for three hours. People absolutely went berserk."
Since then, Seymour's annual Chanukah time show, "Fiddlers, Philosophers and Fools," has become a holiday institution. Jews and non-Jews tune in to hear her play folk music, 1940s pop tunes and Yiddish prose translated into English, among other fare.
There's also a Holocaust memorial segment, which is one reason Seymour refuses to record the show. "People are angry about that," said KCRW's visionary leader, whose parents were intellectual, immigrant leftists. "But I always wanted the program to be ephemeral. This is really a show about a culture and a way of life that was lost."
"Fiddler" helped keep the mamaloshen (mother tongue) alive in Los Angeles, according to Yiddishkayt L.A. founder Aaron Paley. Years before, the klezmer revival helped fuel a Yiddish renaissance in the late 1980s, "the only visible evidence of Yiddish for the general public here was Ruth's show," he said.
Seymour -- who attended the rigorous Sholom Aleichem "folk schools" -- takes the responsibility seriously. Every year, she trudges to Hatikvah music on Fairfax Avenue to pick up and peruse scores of albums. She said keeping "Fiddlers" fresh is easier because the Yiddish revival spurred diverse CDs by young artists.
Just don't ask her to make any other changes to the show. "It's the most personal thing I do on the air, because it's so redolent of my childhood and my beliefs," she said. "So either take it as it is or turn the dial." n