My late father’s voice opens a window to a vanished Jewish life

Fifty episodes of the iconic You Don't Have To Be Jewish are now on BBC Sounds

May 24, 2021 10:09

Plenty of Jews well up when they see Fiddler on the Roof. It’s only natural. But I might be in a very small minority of people who need only hear the opening few bars of the score to feel their eyes pricking. That’s not because of a deep love for the musical – though I do have that — but rather because of the tune’s association with a long-running radio programme, You Don’t Have to be Jewish, which ran for nearly 25 years and was produced and presented by my late father, Michael Freedland.

There will be JC readers who remember it well too, for whom my father’s voice was one of the sounds of Sunday morning. At 9.30am each week throughout the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s, he would serve up a half-hour of Jewish conversation: interviews, music, debate, the odd bit of breaking news. But for my sisters and me that programme, even that signature tune, was the soundtrack of our childhood.

On countless occasions, no more than eight or nine years old, I trailed along with my father to the Marylebone studios of BBC Radio London, mesmerised by the bulky microphones, the mysterious buttons and flickering dials, watching as he recorded, then edited by hand — complete with razor blade and sticky tape — that week’s show. I can still hear it, even now.

And, as of today, so can you. Sunday will be 50 years to the day since YDHTBJ made its debut and, to mark the occasion, BBC Sounds is making 50 programmes available from the archive. Just Google “BBC You Don’t Have to be Jewish”, or type the title into the search bar of the BBC Sounds app, and there they all are — waiting to be heard for the first time in decades.

It’s been quite a journey to reach this point. After my father died in 2018, and as it fell to us to sort through all his things, we kept finding box after box packed with old, quarter-inch tapes — as big as a vinyl album and five times as thick. He had stashed them everywhere. They had driven my late mother to distraction, and she had begged him to throw at least some of them out. Reluctantly, he had complied, holding on only to those editions that were too special to be binned — a category that kept growing. These he hid away wherever he could. In the airing cupboard, behind some towels. Or under the bed, in a box with the Pesach crockery.

I’m glad he did. They were left in mint condition too, so that my 19-year-old son Jacob could go through them, digitising them one by one, creating files that have now been carefully and methodically organised by the extraordinary team at BBC Archives.

Listening to them once more has been an education in how much our community, and the wider Jewish world, has changed over half a century. Some issues have melted away. A major preoccupation of the programme for nearly two decades was the plight of Soviet Jewry, with updates on Anatoly Scharansky, as he was then, and his fellow Prisoners of Zion and refuseniks, as well as interviews with their celebrity champions, including Hollywood legend Ingrid Bergman. It was the dominant campaign of its age, though no one under 50 would remember it now.

There are subtler shifts. Yes, the programme interviewed Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and a young “woman rabbi” by the name of Julia Neuberger, but women tended to feature most in their presumed role as housewives, keepers of the purse and purchasers of kosher meat.

A more obvious change relates to Israel. When the programme was launched, it could assume that its listeners — Jewish and non-Jewish — were broadly sympathetic to Israel, a country that just a few years earlier was seen as the besieged David surrounded by Goliaths.

That’s why not just Harold Wilson but Tony Benn could come on, speaking fondly of the time they had spent in the country or the glories of the kibbutz.

Over the course of the years, you can hear things shift. By the 1980s, and in the shadow of the Lebanon war, most of the Jewish guests are still as defensive of Israel as ever, but you can tell that they suspect the wider audience might not feel the same way — a change that carries extra resonance right now.

What is perhaps most striking is something YDHTBJ took for granted: the presence of Holocaust survivors. They were on the programme all the time: fit and strong and in the prime of their life. Sometimes they came on to talk about other things, Hugo Gryn reflecting on the meaning of Yom Kippur or Ben Helfgott debating whether Britain should boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It was natural because the Holocaust was so recent, just three or four decades in the past. It did not yet feel like a memory about to slip out of reach.

And yet, in all this, one voice sounds unexpectedly current: my father’s. He talks the way many Jews do now, unabashed, confident, out and proud. It’s hardly a surprise: he was loudly presenting a Jewish programme on the BBC when others were still whispering their identity. In a way, he was ahead of his time.

Now, 50 years on, the rest of us can catch up.

You can access the YDHTBJ archive at

May 24, 2021 10:09

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive