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Radio Days

How Jews adapted to the technological quandaries posed by a new medium—a century before the dawn of Zoom bar mitzvahs

Jenna Weissman Joselit
January 25, 2021

When Zoom first entered our lives nearly a year ago, it had many of us in a tizzy. Figuring out how to use the digital platform and accommodate it to both our daily routine and holiday rituals set our nerves on edge. Perhaps had we been familiar with the ways in which earlier generations of America had successfully adjusted to technological change, we could have gone more easily from grin-and-bear-it to a firm embrace.

When radio was first introduced to American consumers in the early 1920s, it had many of them in a tizzy, too. Hearing a voice mysteriously emerge from out of the blue instead of a person was downright mystifying, even a tad scary. More worrisome still was that few people at the grassroots actually understood how radio worked, what “super-heterodyne circuitry” meant, or the do’s and don’ts of fiddling with antennas and dials. Those more prescient still fretted over radio’s impact on the church and the classroom, the stage and the family hearth, worried lest it weaken and perhaps even undermine the vitality of these institutions.

Newspapers and magazines leapt into the breach, soothing collective anxieties and encouraging the public to give radio a try. They featured detailed articles on the differences between a crystal tube and a vacuum tube and helpfully explained how to tune in and tune out. Advertisements for Radiolas and Zeniths flooded their pages, reassuring consumers that turning on the radio was as “easy as turning on an electric light.”

The language of reassurance went beyond the instructional, singing the praises of radio’s multiple capacity to comfort the solitary (“There’s no loneliness where there’s a Radiola”), lift one’s spirits (The radio is an “investment in happiness”), and be at home in the modern world. (“Radio is the most modern thing in this modern world. To be without it is to shut one’s door to one of the greatest gifts of 20th century science.”)

Religious authorities, especially those associated with the nation’s Protestant denominations, were quick to capitalize on the medium’s newfound potential by holding divine services on the air. Much can be accomplished by the “sensitive ether that carries the human voice,” lyrically observed the Rt. Rev. James Freeman, Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C., in 1927, affirming radio’s capacity to give matters of faith a “fresh impulse.”

At first, Protestant clerics like Freeman directed their on-air efforts to those unable to attend church: the “shut-ins, the invalids, the convalescents, the aged, the hard-of-hearing.” Little by little, though, the ranks of the “radio congregation” expanded beyond those in need to include people who “dare[d] not brave the traffic-maddened rush of city streets,” rendering the phenomenon increasingly respectable, even normative.

Not every member of the clergy believed in radio’s beneficence. Some were concerned lest the “church on the air” supplant the real deal, all too mindful of how much easier, and more congenial, it was to listen to a Sunday morning service while clad in pajamas and reclining in a comfy chair than to get dressed up, out of the house, and into a packed wooden pew. Others were concerned that religious ritual might lose its luster once the ineluctable mysteries of faith were reduced to technological wizardry.

Still other preachers rued radio’s impact on their oratorical abilities. They found it difficult to speak into a disc instead of to an audience and felt constrained by having to keep their words to a minimum, sounding the death knell for “long-winded sermons.” And some worried lest they be replaced altogether, rendered obsolescent. In modern-day America of the 1920s, “sermons as well as weather prognostications” could just as easily be broadcast as declaimed from a pulpit, predicted a jittery clergy.

Their fears didn’t pan out. On the contrary. The medium gave a real bounce to religion, enlarging rather than diminishing its reach. “Radio sermons and devotional services have reestablished the family altar, once the religious bulwark of America, have strengthened the spirit of religious democracy and increased church attendance,” observed a reporter for The Washington Post in 1931, inventorying its benefits. A Protestant clergyman put it even more buoyantly: Radio, he told the Los Angeles Times, was the “greatest opportunity that the world had seen since the days of Jesus for the spreading of his teachings.”

I suspect that particular endorsement did little to persuade America’s rabbis to give on-air broadcasting the green light. All the same, it didn’t take long before they put aside their own concerns about the medium’s impact on modern Jewish life and tentatively sought it out. In 1922, Rabbi David Philipson of Cincinnati, Ohio, delivered a sermon on a local radio station. When the walls of his congregation didn’t come crashing down, his initial caution and that of his rabbinic colleagues gave way to enthusiasm, prompting more and more of them to pronounce radio a “great boon.”

More outer-directed than inner-directed, at least at first, they espied in radio a great opportunity to demystify Judaism and its adherents. Like their Christian counterparts, Jewish clergy were mindful, and appreciative, of the medium’s benefits for those physically unable to attend divine services, telling the American Israelite that the radio was a “real God-send,” and a “source of pleasure and inspiration that has a sanguine effect upon [the] physical condition.” What most fully engaged them, though, was its potential to combat ignorance and defeat anti-Semitism. “For the first time in the history of civilization, the Jew has a fair chance to present his case to the public at large,” enthused Rabbi Samuel Gup of Providence’s Temple Beth-El, who, in 1925, broadcast Sabbath services on the first Friday night of each month. An “evident blessing,” the radio “brought home to non-Jewish citizens” the history, outlook, and ideals of the Jewish people, helping to demystify them.

The realization that radio might also be used for “mudslinging” and “besmirching of the Jewish character,” as I.H. Mendelssohn, an aggrieved American Jew from Des Moines, Iowa, put it in a 1928 letter to the editor of the American Israelite, would come later. He couldn’t believe his ears when he heard a dramatic rendition of the story of Jacob and Esau that made The Merchant of Venice sound like “child’s play” and wondered what might be done about it. Mendelssohn was advised to contact the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

Meanwhile, Jewish institutions such as the United Synagogue of America, the congregational arm of the Conservative movement, took their cue from individual rabbis and embraced the new technology. After “quietly studying the question of radio broadcasting” from both a technical as well as religious perspective, and experimenting with a one-time pre-Shavuot broadcast in May 1922 in which the choir of New York’s Anshe Chesed performed the holiday’s “characteristic songs,” while the congregation’s rabbi, Jacob Kohn, delivered an address, the synagogue body decided to “go further.”

Come the 1923 High Holiday season, the United Synagogue made arrangements with the New York Telegraph and Telephone Company to broadcast Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services that consisted of the “complete musical ritual” as well as sermons and the “recital of an appropriate Jewish legend or folktale from the Talmud.”

What had prompted the study—and given the movement pause—was the traditional religious interdiction against using electricity on Shabbos and yontef, which meant that live broadcasts like those produced by Christian clergy was not an option. After considerable to-ing and fro-ing, the United Synagogue’s leaders came up with a near-Solomonic decision: to broadcast High Holiday programs several days in advance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That way, no listeners would have to compromise their religious scruples.

A few months later, the Women’s League of the United Synagogue added its voice to the chorus by launching a weekly program on Mondays between 5 and 5:30 p.m. that addressed the many “problems that the woman faces today …problems in the home, the relation of parents and children, the psychology of children, etc.” The women’s group promised its potential pool of listeners that the advice they would receive would be based on the “soundest authorities available,” and “non-technical,” too.

With the debut, in 1926, of Yiddish radio, an even fuller, more varied menu of listening opportunities awaited Jewish audiences, from “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” to Stuhmer’s “Pumpernickel Program,” a series of Friday afternoon cantorial performances, and from “Shtimes fun der Gas,” a constellation of “man on the street” interviews where the “street” in question was located in Brooklyn, to “Feter Sholom un zayn Klaynvarg” (Uncle Sholom and his Little Guys), a children’s talent show. Giving Yiddish a voice, an acoustic presence, in modern America, these and other ventures accounted for a whopping 137 hours and 51 minutes a week of programming by 1941.

Nowadays, thanks to the farsighted and heroic efforts of cultural historian Henry Sapoznik, you can listen to, not just read about, these Yiddish radio broadcasts. Where others saw trash, the detritus of yesteryear, he saw heritage, a source of renewable cultural energy. Rescuing aluminum transcription disks from dumpsters, preserving and restoring their contents, introducing the material to a new generation of audio fans through an award-winning NPR show called the “Yiddish Radio Project” and donating the entire kit and kaboodle to the Library of Congress, Sapoznik gave sound, the most fleeting of phenomena, a second chance, even an afterlife.

When radio was brand new, readers of the Jewish Daily Forward debated the medium’s merits, arguing over whether it or the phonograph should take pride of place at home. Round and round the argument went, as these things do, with younger family members rooting for the latest device, while their elders saluted its predecessor. Which one won the day? The radio, of course, but not on account of its superior sound quality or its novelty. Radio, the newspaper concluded, was destined to take hold among America’s Jews because it was the “most Jewish of all instruments. It does a great deal of talking.”

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

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