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Long after its heydey, Yiddish radio returns to the airwaves

By Katherine Roth, The Associated Press
Saturday March 16, 2002

NEW YORK — Ask Seymour Rexite to sing your favorite song and the 91-year-old will gladly oblige, in Yiddish. 

“Yiddish radio was very big,” Rexite says, and so was he for 40 years on the air. “Name just about any song and we’d sing it in Yiddish.” 

Then he breaks into a heartfelt Yiddish rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” followed by a bilingual plug for the shaving cream “Bar-ba-soooool!” 

After a half-century on the shelf, recordings of Rexite in his prime and other gems of Yiddish radio history are returning to the airwaves — this time on National Public Radio, in a 10-part series starting Tuesday. 

The longest series ever to air on NPR, “The Yiddish Radio Project” is the product of 17 years of digging through archives for the fragile aluminum discs recorded during Yiddish radio’s heydey, from the 1930s to the 1950s. 

Ranging from funny to heartbreaking, the broadcasts bring listeners into the everyday lives of an immigrant community at its peak, before its members — Jews from Central and Eastern Europe — assimilated more fully into mainstream American culture. More than 100 stations nationwide had Yiddish programming, and nearly 5,000 records were produced for the nation’s 2 million Yiddish speakers. 

“This is really the story of every ethnic group in America that has ever tried to retain its cultural identity,” said Henry Sapoznik, who produced the series with David Isay and Yair Reiser. 

“It doesn’t matter that this is Yiddish or that it took place in the Lower East Side of New York. This is the story of Spanish-speaking communities, of Greek-speaking communities, of every community that’s had to find a way to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable. There’s a history waiting to be uncovered of these tiny, low-powered stations attempting to reach their own communities in their own language.” 

Rexite performed with his wife, the late Miriam Kressyn. His silken voice and delicious translations earned him the title “the Yiddish Perry Como,” and won him four Goldies, the Oscars of the Yiddish theater. 

The short bespectacled statuettes still line the mantle in his Greenwich Village apartment. On the walls hang pictures of Frank Sinatra, Fiorello LaGuardia and Albert Einstein — all fans, he says, of Yiddish performance. 

Unlike mainstream American radio of the time, “there was no Yiddish Lone Ranger, there was no Yiddish Flash Gordon,” Sapoznik said.  

The NPR series, to run on Tuesday afternoons, explores Yiddish dramas, news programs, advice and game shows, and includes some early man-on-the-street interviews. 

By the end of the 1950s, the golden age of Yiddish radio came to a close. Television overtook radio. Yiddish culture in Europe nearly vanished because of the Holocaust. In America, “The melting pot was bubbling and no one wanted to encourage people to stay within their culture,” Sapoznik said. 

“These people who did the Yiddish radio shows were swimming against the current.” 


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