Jan 2012

Radio Magic

Charlie is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class XVIII and the Director of Digital Engagement and Learning for The Jewish Theological Seminary.  Charlie can be reached at chschwartz@jtsa.edu. 

A rather intriguing puzzle sits on my desk in the form of a sleek, black, five hundred gigabit external hard drive.  Encoded in the ones and zeros of this rather marvelous piece of hardware are nearly three decades of The Eternal Light radio programs produced by The Jewish Theological Seminary and NBC.  The puzzle I’m trying to solve is what to do with these recordings.

To begin solving this puzzle, I have been slowly working my way through the programs, listening to the recordings with the warm pop and fuzz flourishes in the background of the 45s’s from which they were transferred.  The programs themselves range from radio dramas like “Portland, USA,” about a Jewish immigrant who mistakenly arrives in Portland, Maine instead of Portland, Oregon and “The Rabbi and Mr. Lincoln,” which details a southern rabbi’s struggle to preach the evils of slavery in his congregation, to a ten part extended conversation on love between author Maurice Samuel and Professor Mark Van Doren, an intellectual influence of the Beat Generation. What is unique about these recordings is that they were nationally syndicated, meaning they were written for both a Jewish and non-Jewish audience, for a farmer in rural Appalachia as much as the first generation American-Jew in Queens.

In listening to these recordings I have been struck by the role America and more importantly Americanism plays in the subject matter.  Most, if not all, of The Eternal Light’s radio programming was a clear assertion of Jews and Judaism in the American landscape.  Through embellished narratives of historical figures, The Eternal Light crafted a Jewish connection to such disparate topics as the purchase of the Alaska territory from Tsarist Russia, and the poetry of Walt Whitman while also crafting an American link to a multitude of Jewish issues ranging from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to the Lower East Side tenements to the emerging State of Israel.

Even more striking than the underlying message of these recordings is the overt message that emerges from their dramas, comedies and lectures and is made even more explicit in the speeches and sermons that end each program.  The Eternal Light teaches that whether due to our religious imperative, or as part of national identity, we are called to love our neighbor, fight injustice, and work together to create a better country and a better world.  And maybe this is the beginning of the answer to my puzzle. That in spite of their age and dated format (when was the last time you listened to a radio drama?), the questions these recordings of The Eternal Light raise about Jewish and North American identity and the clear message that call us to create justice in the world remains as relevant today when heard from the ones and zeros of my hard dive as when they were first heard over the waves of AM radio.