The Arty Semite

More Than Just 'Radio Shmadio'

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

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Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Over the years, I’ve attended lots of symposia but never one that began with the ringing of chimes and concluded with a most hearty and prolonged round of applause. These two sounds, along with the sight of presenters swaying to the beat of “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” or singing the praises of the “Cohen on the Radio” vaudeville sketches with their catch-all phrase, “Radio, Shmadio,” were in full throttle at last week’s Library of Congress salute to Henry Sapoznik and the donation of his collection of Yiddish radio memorabilia.

Now a part of the American Folklife Center where, one hopes, it will receive a new lease on life, this treasure trove of auditory materials underscores the vibrancy of American Jewish life at the grass roots. Whether poking fun at “Sam the man who made the pants too long,” or rendering the familiar Campbell Soup jingle auf yidish, as in “Campbell Soup iz – um um – immer gut,” or introducing the very latest Hebrew folksongs, Yiddish radio informed, entertained and sustained audiences of the interwar years.

Fifty years later, Yiddish radio had the same effect on the nearly 200 people in attendance at this symposium. It held us in its static-y embrace. At many a conference, it’s customary to find more participants holding impromptu conversations in the hallway than paying attention to the proceedings.

But here, audience members sat for hours on end and listened, actually listened, to the fragments of Yiddish radio programming that have somehow survived. Nothing if not appreciative and engaged, they laughed at the funny bits, scratched their heads at other moments and consistently plied the presenters with all manner of questions.

It’s a measure of the symposium’s success — and of the enduring cultural value of Yiddish radio — that at its conclusion, people were reluctant to sign off.


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