Magnes to spin some Jewish history at 78 rpm

Howard Freedman never met his grandfather, who died many decades ago. But Freedman got to know him better by listening to his grandfather’s collection of 78-rpm records, most of it Jewish music from a bygone era.

That scratchy, tuneful link to early 20th-century Jewish culture stuck with Freedman, who became a collector of 78s.

Vintage records from the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley photos/the magnes collection

Freedman will share his knowledge at a short presentation next week at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley. From noon until 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 9, as part of the museum’s weekly “PopUp Exhibition” series, he will play selections from the Magnes’ impressive collection of discs — from cantorial solos to up-tempo klezmer originals to showstoppers from the Yiddish Theater.

“When most of this music came out, the majority of American Jews were immigrants or growing up in immigrant households,” said Freedman, director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco and author of the monthly “Off the Shelf” book column in J. “The Magnes collection is significant because it’s a great resource for researchers.”

Freedman noted that most of the recordings are not klezmer instrumentals, as might be expected, but rather Yiddish vocal music and liturgy sung by famed cantors of the day.

Some of it shows how Jewish immigrants found ways to co-opt American popular culture. For example, Freedman will play a version of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” recorded in 1925 by Polish-born American singer-comedian Pesach Burstein and sung in Yiddish.

Why was so much Jewish music recorded in those days? Freedman said early record companies such as Columbia, Edison and RCA Victor made phonograph players, too, and needed to sell music for niche markets, such as Yiddish speakers, if they were to make a profit.

As a librarian, Freedman understands the value of books as a vehicle for learning, but he feels music does not get its due. Many collections of 78s, which are vinyl records that spin on a turntable at 78 rotations per minute, have not been digitized (including the Magnes’ stacks) and are not easily accessible

He hopes that may change someday.

“There’s a huge amount we learn from music, and old records specifically,” he said. “If we’re not devoting resources to preserving the materials to make them accessible, then we’re saying it’s OK to lose this part of our culture.”

“78-rpm Records and the Sound of American Jewish Experience”
with Howard Freedman, noon Wednesday, Nov. 9, at the Magnes, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Free.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.