Academic journal article Shofar

The Acoustic Culture of Yiddish

Academic journal article Shofar

The Acoustic Culture of Yiddish

Article excerpt

This essay examines the acoustics of Yiddish and the ways in which Yiddish signifies beyond the boundaries of formal Yiddish speech and language. Pursuing the extra-linguistic ways in which Yiddish circulates opens up new opportunities for engagement in Jewish culture. To be sure, listeners need speakers, but redirecting the focus of Yiddish culture from speakers and writers to listeners validates the importance of listening within a Jewish context and begins to explore the terrain of listening as a distinct and important cultural practice.

For me, at least, [Al] Jolson was first and foremost the sound of Jolson. . . . Jolson resembled our family's rabbi, and his distinctively metallic vocal timbre was the seat of his charisma.

- Joel Rosenberg1

I am a native listener of Yiddish.

- Jeffrey Shandler2

On Friday, January 14, 1938, Yiddish theater great Molly Picon approached the microphone in the studio of New York radio station WMCA to begin her program. As the clock struck 7:30, Picon leaned toward the microphone and delivered the following greeting to her audience:

Hello everybody. Good Shabos. This is Molly Picon speaking. As I stand here before the microphone, I can see you all seated around your Shabos tables. Some of you are smiling and some of you are leaning closer to your radios. May I at this time introduce you to the Happy Maxwell family who, in a pinch, may be good entertainment. Here is Max.

After acknowledging her sponsor, and singing a version of "Yidishe Mame," Picon continued:

And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, it's Sabbath eve, the time for peaceful meditation. I imagine the flickering of candles in each Jewish home, swaying back and forth in their own light, and therefore I permit myself to greet you with the traditional . . .3

Whereupon Picon sang a version of "Gut Shabbes, Gut Yohr" to inaugurate I Give You My Life, a new serial that presented dramatized scenes from her own life.

Picon made a career of speaking English and performing in Yiddish primarily for an audience of immigrant Jews, who were eager both to participate in Yiddish culture and to become members of the broader American society. What set America apart, for many, was the broad and seemingly endless opportunity to participate in the social, economic, and political life that had been foreclosed to them and their parents in Europe. America, the "Goldene Medine" and the "land of opportunity, did not always live up to its reputation, but it at least presented the appearance and, to some, the reality of unbounded freedom and limitless possibility. So why turn to Yiddish when abundant English opportunities existed? Why go to Yiddish theaters when English theaters abounded, and why seek out Yiddish films when the Lower East Side was inundated with nickelodeons playing English-language movies? What did listeners find in Yiddish that they couldn't find in English?

Picon's radio program-performed in English with Yiddish music-capitalized on her audience's bilingualism, as she invited herself into their homes in preparation for a Sabbath that they may or may not have observed. Speaking English but singing in Yiddish, Picon performed a tension that her audience understood well even if they could not articulate it, providing an opportunity to listen to Yiddish music without the burden of having to understand it completely. To be sure, the majority of Picon's fan base and audience understood Yiddish quite well, but the fact that they understood both the song and the dialogue makes Picon's English presentation even more puzzling: why speak English to an audience that speaks and understands Yiddish?

This question reveals a deeper issue at the heart of Yiddish radio, and begins to interrogate the kinds of considerations that informed broadcast decisions for Yiddish language broadcasters. Namely: what did they hope their audience heard in these programs? The sound of Picon speaking English-her actual mameloshn-on a Jewish program featuring Yiddish music for an audience that consisted primarily of Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrants captures a moment of Jewish bilingualism in which the two languages-English and Yiddish-are not separated like divergent streams but layered one on top of the other. …

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