A young Israeli grad student named Mishy holds up a cardboard sign that says “anywhere” as he hitchhikes out of Cambridge, England. He catches a ride with a Gypsy family bound for the ferry to France. In the vessel’s cafeteria Mishy meets a truck driver name Vladimir who agrees to take him to Spain. Only, when they start driving Vladimir neglects to make the turn into Belgium and informs Mishy, “No Spain, Ukraine.” At the Slovenian-Ukrainian border the two are arrested for smuggling counterfeit Barbie dolls. Sounds like it could be a story on the wildly popular public radio show “This American Life,” doesn’t it?
It’s not. But it may end up being told — and broadcast — on “Israel Story,” a new program on Israel’s Army Radio. The similarity to “This American Life” (TAL) is no accident. Mishy Harman, the guy bound for “anywhere,” is the driving force behind the new show. And he makes no secret of the fact that he’s a huge fan of Ira Glass and company.
Harman was hipped to TAL by another Israeli, Ro’ee Gilron, who attended Brandeis University. After graduate school, Harman completed a teaching stint at Harvard and commenced a 13,000-mile road trip around the United States with his dog Neomi. He and the pooch (a Hungarian hunting dog known as a Vizsla) took along 200 episodes of TAL that Gilron downloaded for them. Harman was blown away by the TAL collection.
“It became totally clear to me that this was going to be our next project,” he told The Arty Semite.
Those of you who are up on your 1960s counter-culture know that the Yippies were formed, for the most part, by a group of Jewish troublemakers from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Some of those mischievous Yidden are no longer with us: Abbie Hoffman committed suicide in 1989, Jerry Rubin got hit by a car in 1994 and Stew Albert died of cancer in 2006. But Bob Fass is alive and well and living on Staten Island. Nearly a half-century after starting his late night radio program on WBAI-FM, Fass is still on the air keeping the movement alive.
“Radio Unnameable” is the name of Fass’ free-wheeling live radio show and it’s also the title of a new feature length video documentary that tells its story. The night after Rosh Hashanah those who still have a bit of a freak flag flying will want to head over to Film Forum in Manhattan, where the doc begins a two-week run. On October 4 the film will open the Voices in Action: Human Rights on Film festival in Portland, Oregon (the Rose City screening is sponsored by KBOO, Portland’s version of WBAI). And just before Labor Day, Kino Lorber, Inc. announced that it had acquired North American distribution rights to the documentary, so the story of Fass and his free-form radio show will be screened in St. Louis, St. Paul and other cities in the coming months.
Full disclosure: this reporter began his radio career after being mesmerized by Fass on “Radio Unnameable” in the early 1970s. The tall Brooklyn-born broadcaster once attended a Seder at the Kalish loft where he screened a lengthy video of Abbie Hoffman making gefilte fish from scratch and TV footage of Bob Dylan performing at the Vatican. In Fass’s mind, this was totally appropriate Passover fare.
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.
Ira Glass is no Howard Stern — yet. By that we mean he isn’t the King of All Media (Stern’s self-anointed title), but at the very least he’s the crown prince and heir apparent.
Glass, of course, is the host of Chicago Public Radio’s popular program This American Life. More recently, he’s taken on the duties of screenwriter and producer of “Sleepwalk With Me,” a film that opens in New York August 24, Los Angeles the following week and rolls out nationally in September.
“Sleepwalk With Me” is based on the life of standup comedian Mike Birbiglia, a successful performer who, as a result of pressure from his girlfriend (about marriage) and parents (about his career), developed a sleepwalking disorder. One night he even jumped out of a closed window on the second story of a motel. Birbiglia turned the experience into a successful routine, an off-Broadway play and a book. Glass heard portions of the play, did a version of it on his radio show and has now produced it as a film. Glass spoke to The Arty Semite about his Jewish background, his radio show and the film:
Curt Schleier: For people unfamiliar with the show, what is the elevator pitch for This American Life?
Larry Josephson’s first foray into the world of performance is titled “An Inconvenient Jew: My Life In Radio.” And the public radio legend promises that tonight’s monologue at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village won’t be his last stab at public performance.
When he was dubbed “the original bad boy of morning radio” in the New York Daily News, Josephson grumbled that “Howard Stern stole my act.” In the press release for this evening’s performance the 72-year-old curmudgeon notes that when he started doing his live morning show, “In The Beginning,” on WBAI-FM in the late 1960s, Stern “was crawling around Levittown in leather diapers.” Stern, being Stern, is loathe to admit that any of the broadcast personalities on the counter culture outlet had any influence on him, but it’s hard not to assume otherwise.
The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone On the Media
By Brooke Gladstone, Illustrated by Josh Neufeld
W. W. Norton & Company, 158 pages, $26.00
An icon of many a household’s Sunday listening, Brooke Gladstone and her show “On the Media,” with Bob Garfield as co-host, has for my (pledge) money the liveliest program on National Public Radio.
This book is, at any rate, the first effort to explore Gladstone’s subject in one of the most creative printed ways: comic art. It bears the stamp of comic artist Josh Neufeld, an erstwhile collaborator of the late Harvey Pekar, who has also produced a much-praised graphic novel treatment of Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans. In “The Influencing Machine,” Neufeld’s work is tinted bluish, giving it a slightly ghostly effect, offset by the directness of the caricatures. It’s a great fit.
In the advance publicity, Gladstone calls “The Influencing Machine” a “manifesto masquerading as a history.” This thought dominates the pages in more than one way. Not only does she offer her own philosophy of communication from the Stone Age onward, she also seeks to demystify the subject and to loosen the grip of conspiracy from the public’s understanding of media.
A new radio drama titled “The Witches of Lublin” is being offered to public radio stations as a Passover special. Written by Ellen Kushner, Elizabeth Schwartz and Yale Strom, the hour-long production features original klezmer music by Strom and the handiwork of Long Island-based audio drama producer Sue Zizza. The cast includes the prolific audiobook narrator Barbara Rosenblat, author Neil Gaiman and Tovah Feldshuh as the protagonist Rivka, a 18th-century klezmer musician who is a single mom, a weaver of lace and a Talmudic scholar to boot.
“We definitely approached the story from a feminist point of view,” said Schwartz, who also sings in the radio drama. She has collaborated with her klezmer musician husband Strom on films, books and musical projects since the mid-1990s.
As the story unfolds, listeners learn that Rivka and her two daughters, Leah and Sorele, have a reputation as some of the best klezmer musicians in Poland. Enter the anti-Semitic Count, who commands the women to perform at a celebration in honor of his son. It’s an untenable choice because women performing in public would be scandalous in the world of 18th-century observant Jews. But declining to perform might trigger a pogrom against the entire Jewish community of Lublin.
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