Radio classic You Don’t Have To Be Jewish makes a comeback

EXCLUSIVE: Iconic show returns to our airwaves


Britain’s most iconic Jewish radio show is getting airtime once again, the JC can reveal.

Fifty years ago, the journalist and broadcaster Michael Freedland launched a groundbreaking series of programmes on BBC Radio London called You Don’t Have To Be Jewish, featuring the brightest and best of the Jewish world, from film star Ingrid Bergman to Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits.

Thanks to his son, JC and Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, the cream of those programmes can be heard from today on BBC Sounds, reopening a window onto a world of communal causes, campaigns, fierce fights and political benevolence.

Michael Freedland, who died in 2018, began the programmes in 1971. The series ran for an unprecedented 24 years, the last four years of which were on LBC, with Michael casting his net wide for guests, interviewing the great and the good — and sometimes the not-so-great.

Jonathan Freedland features in one of the programmes picked out for the BBC Sounds package. Aged 18, he interviews the writer Amos Oz for a feature on fathers and sons. Freedland says that the BBC has been “fantastic” in helping bring this heritage feature to the airwaves again.

“Originally I had approached the BBC to ask permission to use the programmes on a small website we were going to set up,,” he said. “But there were so many legal and data protection hurdles that someone from BBC Archives said, why don’t we just put the programmes out on BBC Sounds?”

Jacob Freedland, Jonathan’s elder son, a student at Cambridge, spent much of his gap year working through his grandfather’s quarter-inch tapes and converting them into digital files so that they would be broadcast-ready.

The labour of love involved him buying a reel-to-reel tape recorder from eBay and playing the programmes through from beginning to end.

And what a treasure trove the family has uncovered. In the 50 programmes, which amount to a snapshot of Anglo and world Jewry from 1971 onwards, there are features about Soviet Jews — a big issue at the time; about interfaith, with an early set-piece between the Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits and the then-Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan; about the massacre of Israel athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich; and conversations with film stars such as Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.

Jonathan Freedland notes that Bergman was on the programme to talk about her support for Soviet Jews, rather than her Hollywood career.

There are contributions from prime ministers such as Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, and Yitzhak Rabin, and in 1975 a special programme was devoted to the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen, featuring survivor Gena Turgel and her husband Norman, one of the liberating British soldiers whom she met at the camp.

There were, of course, rabbis aplenty, with the late Holocaust survivor and leading Reform rabbi Hugo Gryn among Michael Freedland’s favourites, and thus a frequent guest.

“My father really loved Hugo,” said Jonathan. One of the programmes featured an unfortunate clash between Rabbi Gryn and the future chief rabbi of South Africa, the fiery-tempered Glaswegian Cyril Harris.

“This is the conversation which is said to have cost Cyril Harris his chance of being Chief Rabbi in the UK,” said Jonathan, referring to an exchange which “turned nasty” when Harris told Gryn that there were “Reform coverts who don’t know the difference between an alef (the Hebrew letter) and a swastika”.

Not the kind of thing you want to say to a Holocaust survivor.

One of Jonathan Freedland’s favourite programmes dates from 1977, when his father broadcast live an address by Prime Minister James Callaghan to the Board of Deputies to mark the 60th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.

And inevitably, there is the one that got away — Michael Freedland’s seminal programme on the Entebbe rescue of July 1976 is sadly nowhere to be found.

Maybe, hopes the family, someone out there might have a copy of the original broadcast.

Unravelling Israeli politics from Jerusalem was the future Israeli president, Belfast-born Chaim Herzog, whose son, Isaac, will appear on a celebratory panel on Sunday May 23 at JW3, together with historian Simon Schama and Holocaust Trust CEO Karen Pollock.

Jonathan Freedland currently co-presents a podcast with Yonit Levi of Channel 12 in Israel.

He says, by a happy coincidence, it is recorded at exactly the same time that his father used to record YDHTBJ – lunchtime on Thursdays.

“I’d like to think that if he were around today, he’d be doing a podcast, too,” he adds.

Fifty of the best of YDHTBJ programmes are available from today on BBC Sounds.

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