A Visit With Nachum Segal, Avatar of Modern Orthodox Sincerity
‘I reach more Jews every day than the prime minister of Israel,’ says the popular radio host
Nachum Segal is a big, bearded bear of a man; sitting behind his broadcast console with large fluffy earphones over his kippah, a ready chuckle, and a surprisingly sweet voice, he seems like the kind of gentle Disney character children would love. But his agenda is no child’s game. Segal heads up what he calls his “Jewish Radio Empire”: Since 1983, he has hosted a live music and talk radio show every weekday morning from 6:00 to 9:00 on WFMU at 91.1FM in the New York area, now web streamed as well and archived at jmintheam.org. He plays songs, conducts interviews with guests, broadcasts the news from Israel, and keeps his audience informed about community events. The music runs from Carlebach to Hasidic rock, Israeli modern to klezmer; the political stance is unapologetic Zionist-nationalist; the religious orientation is Modern Orthodox leaning a tad right of center. Segal’s views are passionately held. We spoke during and after a show in January at the Jersey City, N.J., studios of WFMU.
You come from a distinguished Orthodox rabbinical family: How did you end up as a disc jockey?
I didn’t plan this career in any calculated way. It began as a college hobby; I joined the student radio station at YU in 1981 as a social activity and because I liked music. Then two years later the dean of students received a call looking for a YU student who could take on a “Jewish Hour” slot at the Upsala College (East Orange) radio station, because it would otherwise be canceled. So, I said why not, it should be fun—and it gradually developed from a hobby to a part-time job to a full-time career. I later moved from Orange, N.J., to New York—we now live on the Lower East Side—then Upsala closed and WFMU moved to Jersey City and here we are.
I knew your father, HaRav Zev Segal, o”h, and he was a very smart, learned, and tough man. What was his reaction?
He was a tough man, certainly not the koochie-koo type of father. I was not a very good student, but he never expressed disappointment about grades. I guess it was clear that I wasn’t headed for a scholarly career. When I really got into building the radio program, he was curious about how it worked and, when he understood the Jewish outreach dimension, became very interested. He didn’t tell me he was proud of me, but lots of other people would report that he had boasted about the impact I was having. My mother, on the other hand, was happy because I was happy.
The irony is that Rabbi Segal’s congregation at its height had 500 families and the day school he established had another few hundred families, but his son the disc jockey reaches tens of thousands every day, and the message is the same as his: Orthodox Judaism, Jewish community, Israel—but with music?
I am doing what I enjoy and what I am good at. But, sure, I’m reaching out to Jews in new ways for new generations. And my father’s experiences—he lived in Israel as a child and his family was driven out of Hevron in 1929, for example—undoubtedly helped shape my outlook.
Who is your audience?
We have not done a proper recent survey, but I estimate that we have at least 55,000 listeners, all ages from 12 to 90, more than half are women (they listen while getting the kids ready for school, the men listen in their cars driving to work, the retirees listen together). The Jewish spectrum ranges from Hasidic through Orthodox and Modern Orthodox to some Conservatives. Brooklyn, because of the sheer number, is the center of gravity geographically, but our live listeners are all over the New York metropolitan area and really all over the world—Israel, Europe—on the web. While much of the radio industry is moving to the web, our population is slower to do so—there are religious concerns about the web, for example—and our audience is pretty steady. They are like family: I hear from them all the time. Radio is personality driven: They have to identify with you. If you are them, then you have a loyal relationship.
Who pays for the salaries and materials? You call it “listener-sponsored radio”—is that the only source of money? Do you get paid for playing someone’s songs or announcing their dinners?
We run on-the-air fund-raising marathons every year with additional occasional appeals. I get much-appreciated support from Jewish organizations. I lend my name and presence to trips and events, and you would be surprised at the range of our supporters: My biggest donor is non-Orthodox. Organizations support me so I can’t turn them down when they ask me to promote events—actually I can’t think of a Jewish organization I’ve turned down. As to the musicians, they send me CDs and I listen to them: I won’t play anything if I don’t like it. I read books and invite authors for interviews if I think my audience will be interested. I should say that I couldn’t do any of this without the support of my wife Staci: Never in 25 years of marriage has she even mentioned that I am out of the house very early every morning and she has had to dress and feed our six kids and get them off to school by herself. And I have a wonderful network of close friends, some since college, who work with me on projects, sub when I’m away, and are as involved here as in their own full-time jobs.
Let’s get to the heart of what you do: To me, that’s about music, religion, and politics, not necessarily in order of priority. The music all expresses a religious theme, which leaves out a lot of Jewish music, and a lot of potential listeners. And how about the “kol isha” issue, the prohibition against men hearing women sing?
Yes, I would like to search for more common ground on the music, to expand what we play, but it’s a delicate balance to maintain between what the listeners want and are accustomed to and anything new. And I hear from them loud and clear, so it’s a matter of interdependence. “Kol isha” is an example: Any informed rabbinical authority can tell you that listening to a woman’s voice on the radio is a nonissue; the fuss about that is misguided and incorrect. In the late 1990s, however, people on the right started to call about it, and frankly they wore me down, so we play some women singers but not as many as we should. But we have a good range of interviews and book reviews, we broadcast the news from Israel (in Hebrew) and the weather, we have guest sermons before Shabbat and holidays, we follow Yeshiva League sports—one of our most popular features, so there’s something for everyone. I am very proud of the range of our content; nobody else does as full a spectrum of outreach.
You mean a full spectrum as long as it’s Orthodox. Where’s the line between you and Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, culture? I never hear you speak Yiddish on the radio.
I have to confess that I don’t speak Yiddish. As you know, the Modern Orthodox perspective is to live in the modern world, not to replicate the shtetl. Certainly we should remember the past, but we participate fully in the present, and we look to the future. And I reject those Jews who reject the State of Israel.
How about your politics? Do you welcome a spectrum there?
I make no secret that my political position on Israel is nationalist, Zionist, pro-settlement; call it right wing if you want, but my bottom line is the survival and the flourishing of the Jewish state and the Jewish people. Should I be providing equal time to critics of Israel? I consider myself to be equal time to the huge left-wing Jewish media out there. I can’t tell you how often someone will say to me, “I love your show, but I hate your politics.” But you know, both the show and the politics come from the heart, that’s who I am.
Music, religion, politics: Which drives the others, which is the core mission?
I am reaching out to Jews. I reach more Jews every day than the prime minister of Israel. Thousands of people are inspired or informed by an interview, a moving song, connections to Jewish events. Religion, the Jewish community, tradition, Israel, are all part of the message, and I love music and music is great at conveying a message.
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