Vait, vait Live Yiddish radio show revives old culture for new crowd

Don’t touch that dial, bubbeleh.

Long before people were downloading the latest TED talk on a podcast, folks sat around the old Philco together and listened to the radio.

Musicians (from left) Rob Reich, Richard Saunders, Sheldon Brown, Aaron Kierbel and Jeanette Lewicki will perform at the live show.

If they were Jews on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1930s, they listened to any one of 30 Yiddish language radio stations in the city. Those stations had it all: variety shows, advice columns, news, music, the whole megillah.

Now the Contemporary Jewish Museum, in conjunction with KlezCalifornia and the Forward, will capture the spirit of those bygone days with its first live Yiddish radio show.

Or as CJM public program manager Gravity Goldberg nicknamed it, a “Shtetl Home Companion.”

The live show, starting at 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2, will feature musicians, comedians, singers and actors re-creating old-time Yiddish radio, but with a modern spin.

One need not understand the Mamaloshen to pick up on the shtick. Most of the show is in English, but Yiddish dialogue will be accompanied by English supertitles above the stage.

“For sure there’s a nostalgic element,” Goldberg says. “Those memories are still in modern Jewish life. We want people to feel that connection to the past, but at the same time, Yiddish has a tradition of being very avant-garde. It’s something we can still use to create new art.”

The two-hour block will star local favorites from the Jewish music and theater worlds, including Traveling Jewish Theatre veteran Corey Fischer, opera singer and Yiddish music specialist Anthony Russell, and Yiddishists Harvey Varga and Jeanette Lewicki.

Varga is known in the Bay Area for his books and articles about Yiddish, as well as his quirky Yiddish language workshops. Russell, an African American opera singer, fell in love with Yiddish music and has now devoted his career to performing it.

Varga and Goldberg will co-host the show. Lewicki, who will play accordion, co-wrote much of the material, including an original radio play. Set in the Yiddish underworld in Oakland, it’s about an exotic dancer named Cockeyed Jenny and her boyfriend, a notorious marijuana matzah smuggler.

“It’s my first time writing in Yiddish,” says Lewicki, a San Jose native and Yiddish speaker with a background in klezmer and Jewish theater. “It’s such a rich, salty, flavorful language. You can say things in Yiddish you just can’t say in other language.”

Lewicki and her colleagues will create sound effects on stage using old-fashioned noisemakers, such as balloons filled with water (to mimic the sounds of the bay) and a xylophone to produce radio chimes.

Even though Yiddish radio essentially died out decades ago, researchers have at their disposal rare recordings of some original broadcasts from the Golden Age of radio. Lewicki and the others behind the CJM show drew on those to re-create the proper vibe.

For example, at one point a New York Yiddish station featured a rabbinic court, which settled disputes live on the air like a kind of Yiddish “Judge Judy.”

The upcoming show will feature a twist on “A Bintel Brief,” for decades a regular advice column in the Forward that helped recently arrived greenhorns navigate this strange new land of America.

This time, members of the audience will read contemporary “Bintel Brief” letters, with answers improvised on the spot by local comedian Nato Green and others.

The idea for the radio show evolved over the last year, thanks in part to Goldberg tapping the expertise of Ari Y. Kelman, the Jim Joseph chair of education and Jewish studies at Stanford University, who has researched Yiddish radio extensively. Kelman shared some long-fallow scripts, and soon the notion of creating a modern radio show took shape.

“I wanted to appeal to a [young] crowd,” Goldberg says. “Yiddish is the language of an older generation, though there are plenty of young people interested in Yiddish as well. This combination of old and new has created a great tension.”

This being a radio show, it only made sense that the CJM would somehow get it on the air. With no Yiddish radio stations in the Bay Area, organizers chose the next best thing: a podcast. The program will be available a few weeks after the show through the CJM’s channel,

And if all goes well, there may be more live Yiddish radio shows in the future.

“The museum would like to do it regularly,” Lewicki says. “There’s enough Yiddish talent in the Bay Area to keep it going.”


“Live Yiddish Radio Show,” 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2 at Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. $10-$20.


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at