Life & Culture

Remembering radio: You didn't always have to be Jewish

Michael Freedland remembers his radio heyday


The sound coming from the radio was distinctive - the opening bars of the theme from Fiddler on the Roof. And then a voice: "You don't have to be listen for the next 20 minutes or so."

The voice was mine. The month was May and the year was 1971. Forty five years ago.

It was a milestone in my life, and for the Jewish community, it was almost a revolution. After years of badgering, the BBC accepted the idea of a radio programme aimed specifically at Jews. Twenty minutes, once a fortnight, turned into half an hour twice a week - and then a weekly hour.

More than 1,500 programmes, made it the longest-running regional programme in the country. Regional, because for most of the time it was broadcast on BBC Radio London and then on LBC.

But its reach was, I now realise, phenomenal.

We had scoops, like being the first programme in Britain to break the news of the Entebbe rescue; the first to go into the Leningrad (as it then was) homes of Russian refuseniks; and the only station to air a tribute to Egypt's slain President Anwar Sadat from Moshe Dayan, whose own obituary we broadcast the very next week.

We had interviews with every British Prime Minister from Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher and every Israeli Premier from Golda Meir to Benjamin Netanayahu.

We broadcast a tribute from Harold Wilson to Golda on the day she died. He spoke about the time he suffered protests from every Arab embassy in London. "I gave her a kiss and the Arabs went crazy. I replied: 'I'll kiss whoever I like and if they want to know why, just say it was sex.'"

The Israeli President, Chaim Hertzog, acted as our Jerusalem correspondent before his elevation. I told him I expected that being President meant giving up his job with me. "No", he said, "I won't be living in an ivory tower."

The opening line on that very first programme said it all. I had the idea from an American poster campaign showing a Chinese gentleman munching a slice of bread: "You Don't Have To Be Jewish to enjoy Levy's Rye" it declared.

One man for whose support I shall always be grateful was the eminent solicitor Victor (later Lord) Mishcon, then Chairman of the Board of Deputies' Radio and TV committee, who led the negotiations with the BBC that resulted in the programme being set up in the first place. It wasn't the Board's idea, but Radio London had just been established and believed it needed to cover a full spectrum of life in the capital - and the Board backed it to the hilt.

It was, I suppose, the best demonstration yet of just how important this representative body was in letting people who either did or didn't have to be Jewish know what was going on the Jewish world.

Every now and again, people asked why anyone bothered with having a radio programme. What, after all, was the JC for?

Ah! That indeed was the question - and the answer is as relevant today as it was then.

I think the Chief Rabbi of the day, the remarkable Lord Jakobovits gave the answer on that very first programme. "I think it is essential that there should be competition."

I never claimed that we had all the answers. But I tried. It helped perhaps that the JC, for which I have always had the greatest respect, affection and admiration, felt the same way. "I don't believe we are in competition," declared the then editor William Frankel, backed up soon afterwards by his brilliant successor Geoffrey Paul, who declared we could do things that the JC couldn't do, like extensive interviews with politicians.

More than that, radio allowed people to hear communal figures who before had just been - and not always even that - names on a page.

We could also make people laugh - and cry. Comedians sometimes seemed to be our stock in trade, telling Jewish jokes that others hadn't heard before (sometimes a difficult task).

Like Jackie Mason talking about a difficult car journey: "When a Jew has a flat [tyre] it's a calamity; when a gentile has one, it's as if he's going to a barmitzvah."

Words like barmitzvah suddenly became so much a part of every day language on what we got to call YDHTBJ that we stopped saying what they meant.

More seriously, when the Yom Kippur War broke out we broadcast a discussion the following morning on the war itself: a mother talking about having a son in the Israeli army, a rabbi discussing the ethics of fighting a war on the holiest day of the year and a taxi driver offering to ferry, free of charge, anyone wanting to go to a place where they could give blood. The tears rolled down the cheeks of listeners, who never needed again to ask what the words Yom Kippur meant.

That was certainly true of a woman called Mrs Bellringer. I shall never forget that name. She said she hadn't realised that her Dutch-born grandmother had been Jewish. Now, as a State Registered Nurse, she wanted to go to Israel to help with the wounded. How could she do it? I replied that because her grandmother was Jewish, that also applied to her mother and, indeed, to herself and her two daughters.

She wrote back that she was so grateful to have discovered her roots. "I have read your letter over and over again," she told me.

It seems she did have to be Jewish.

So did the woman sitting in a poorly decorated Leningrad flat who dreamed of going to Israel.

"I want to be more than a line in my passport," she told me. "I want to join my people, to be surrounded by them. We are told that Jews are not good soldiers. Now we know that they are the best soldiers in the world."

She repeated that line to me a year later, in her new home in Jerusalem.

I would like to think that two sisters were also reunited in that country. We broadcast from our studio in Marylebone the searing conversation they had - in English - about their difficulties. One was living in London, the other trapped in Moscow. Between sobs, the word one kept using was "impossible...impossible." The Soviet authorities decided their chat was impossible, too. Half way through, the conversation was jammed.

Only on radio could the emotions of that moment be brought home - literally, home - to our listeners.

Only through radio were we able to play Jewish music. Liturgical pieces, sometimes very traditional, sometimes brand new interpretations and the latest Israeli pop songs. Everything was at our disposal.

I had managed - don't ask me how - to get hold of a live broadcast in which Barbra Streisand sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.

I remember once being very proud of a programme I had just done live and sat back, waiting for the congratulatory phone calls . Sure enough, the phone rang a few minutes later. At the other end was a listener with a plea: "How can I get hold of the record you played a couple of weeks ago?"

I was put firmly in my place.

That was what radio could do. Only radio has the ability to put people's views forward as they think of them, sometimes at a moment's notice.

We became experts at managing phone-ins, all of which were over subscribed, even though before all of them we were afraid that nobody would bother to call.

The programme died in 1994, after being 'privatised' by LBC. It couldn't last. The station was now owned by Lady Porter, who had had a few ups and downs herself and submitted a manifesto to be allowed to retain her licence.

YDHTBJ was there, included in the list of "musts" that her organisation would maintain . The powers who decide such things ruled that the licence was going elsewhere, and we faded along with her other dreams.

But people still remember us. Every so often, while speaking on ships thousands of miles away, someone, somewhere asks what happened to us. They say how important we were in their own and, quite often, their parents' and grandparents' lives.

There was, for instance ,the stunningly beautiful woman who caught me off my guard by saying: "I took you into my bath every week."

Some tell a white lie or two, just to make me happy. "I still listen to you,"every Sunday morning," they say.

In a way, I still do, too. That's radio for you.

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