Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Local radio show keeps Yiddish alive

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Noach Witman would be proud.

More than a decade after the local celebrity and impresario's death in 2000, the Winnipeg Yiddish radio program that he hosted on CKJS for almost 50 years continues to entertain and engage listeners every Sunday afternoon.

The Jewish Radio Hour was founded back in the 1940s by Yiddish school teacher Moshe Cantor and Yiddish newspaper publisher Feivel Simkin. Witman took over the show in 1954.

During most of Witman's tenure, the show was supported by the H. Leivick Lodge of Bnai Brith Winnipeg, whose mandate was to maintain Yiddish language and culture in the prairie city.

When Witman passed away at the age of 96, the lodge approached community activist Sid Halpern and asked him to take over the program, the only Yiddish radio show in Canada.

Halpern gladly assumed the executive producer role and assembled a group of community members to co-host the program with him. In order to make the show more accessible to a larger audience, he changed the format, making the first half hour of the program a combination of English talk and news with Hebrew and Yiddish music. "Although I could speak Yiddish, I felt it necessary to reach those who could not speak it but should be inspired to learn about it," he explains.

The second half of the program remained exclusively devoted to Yiddish language and music. For the last five years, that part of the program has been hosted by Rochelle Zucker.

Zucker was raised in Winnipeg in a Yiddish-speaking home. She was a student at the I.L. Peretz Folk School -- the Yiddish school founded in the North End in 1914 -- and eventually became involved in the local Group for Yiddish Heritage. This group now produces the Yiddish portion of the radio program.

"I guess it was probably in the 1990s that all the talk about Yiddish being a dying language began to sink in," she says.

"I started to realize that for many reasons, Yiddish is something that we as Ashkenazi Jews shouldn't let die. It is a vital part of our history, culture and heritage. My personal interest in Yiddish was renewed and I become more involved in Yiddish activities."

This involvement included signing on as the host of the Yiddish half hour, even though she had no radio experience.

During her weekly time on air, Zucker plays a wide range of Yiddish music. She devotes many of her shows to a particular musician, composer or theme, and sometimes features music related to a specific holiday or event.

"Most of the songs I play are cultural -- Yiddish folk songs, well known songs from the Yiddish theatre and the prewar period as well as new Yiddish music," she says.

"I routinely feature Canadian artists," she adds, and "several times a year I make sure I do a 100 per cent Cancon program showcasing the many fine Yiddish and Klezmer artists here in Canada. "

Zucker learns about many of these artists from the Yiddish cyber community. When she first assumed hosting duties, she listed her show on the Jewish music website Klezmershack and joined the Jewish music mailing list. Once she put the word out that she was on the lookout for Yiddish music and material, she was contacted by Yiddish entertainers from around the world eager to have their music played from a Winnipeg studio.

Winnipeg's history after all is steeped in Yiddish music, language and culture.

During much of the 20th century, the city boasted competing Yiddish day schools, the first Yiddish kindergarten in North America, a Jewish public library, a Yiddish language weekly newspaper, and a Yiddish-speaking Bnai Brith Lodge.

While all of these vehicles for Yiddish cultural expression disappeared long ago, Zucker and Halpern, with their co-hosts and supporters, are still keeping Yiddish alive through the Jewish Radio Hour.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2012 J13

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