The Jewish Hour: The Golden Age of a Toronto Yiddish Radio Show and Newspaper
By Michael Mandel
Now and Then Books
One Sunday morning, when I was in grade school in Toronto, I came into the kitchen and found my mother wiping her eyes and laughing. She was listening to a musical sketch on the Jewish Hour that had a father walking home from shul with his little boy, who had a complaint. The boy was jealous of some of his friends, who got to go up to the front and say Kaddish. He wanted to say Kaddish too, and the father kept trying to shut him up.
I was a child myself, and in my family we didn’t go to shul, and I didn’t get it. It took a while. But I always got the importance of the Jewish Hour. In those days I had a peculiar view of the universe. I thought all the Jews in the world lived in an area of about 30 city blocks centred on the intersection of Spadina Avenue and College Street, near Kensington Market. All the Jews were poor. Outside this area lived the English, who were rich.
In my Jewish Toronto, the storefront signs were as likely to be in Yiddish as in English. Grownups spoke Yiddish (we called it Jewish) or heavily accented English. The kids spoke English. The adults who spoke English without an accent were the schoolteachers and the policemen.
Into this world the radio, which was the only broadcast medium, brought news, music, sports, and comedy, in English. We knew that Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny were Jewish, but they performed in English.
And there was the Jewish Hour, that brought a Yiddish vort – Yiddish songs, Yiddish theatre sketches, Yiddish advertising – over the airwaves into Jewish homes. Actually there were a number of Jewish Hours that ran at different times, on different radio stations, usually on Sunday, often in sharp competition, often, for reasons of cost, on stations not in Toronto, like Hamilton and St. Catharines. There were Jewish performers and presenters, who used Yiddish. One of them was Max Mandel – the father of author Michael Mandel, who was born in 1948, when the out-migration of Jews to the northern, and better-off, parts of Toronto, was beginning.
Max was born in Apt, in the Kielce-Radom district of Poland, in 1908 and came to Toronto in 1927. The largest number of Toronto Jews came from that part of Poland. Max struggled to make a living in the clothing business and was drawn to theatrical work. He became one of the stars of the Jewish Hours, and of the Jewish stage. Michael tells touchingly, near the end of this book, how his father died suddenly at home, apparently of a stroke, in 1953, when Michael was four.
Michael grew up to become a law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and wrote a number of books. Sadly, Michael also died too early, in 2013, at 65. The Jewish Hour: The Golden Age of a Toronto Yiddish Radio Show and Newspaper, which he had to rush to finish, was his final book.
Michael tells us that he while he made his living teaching law, music was his first love – he sang with Yiddishland Café and the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir. Growing up, he was told that his father had been a big star, but all he had were a couple of photographs and a few old records. The Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, knowing his background, commissioned Michael to research the history of Jewish radio in Toronto. That took him to the Ontario Jewish Archives, where the archivist brought him an old binder of issues of Kanader Nayes, a Toronto Yiddish newspaper published from 1935 until 1954, for four years as a biweekly and then as a weekly.
In the paper, Michael found his father’s wedding photograph and a front page story about the “first Jewish radio hour,” which mentioned “the sweet singer of folksongs Max Mandel.” Michael went “hopping around the room barely able to control myself.” He had found his father, and the beginning of his book.
Kanader Nayes was produced by the Dworkin family, which had an office on Dundas Street and a number of business enterprises, one of which was selling New York’s Yiddish newspapers in Toronto. Kanader Nayes, with Toronto and Canadian news and advertising, was inserted as a supplement in the New York papers. Today newspapers try to protect advertising revenue by adding Internet service to their subscriptions. In those days radio was the new technological rival, so newspapers sponsored radio stations, or radio programs. The result was the Jewish Hour.
The book’s story is told largely through photographs, news items, and announcements, copied from the Yiddish original of Kanader Nayes, with translations by the author. The Dworkin family and Kanader Nayes had political positions – socialist and anti-communist at home, Labour Zionist abroad. The time frame is from the depth of the Depression in the 1930s, through the Second World War, the Holocaust, the arrival of refugees in Canada, and the creation of the State of Israel.
So the story is more than just the story of a radio show. As Michael Mandel writes, The Jewish Hour is about “a unique time in Jewish history, as seen through the very eyes of the Yiddish-speaking immigrant struggling to find a way in a new and unfamiliar place.”
A lifetime later, I now wonder if it was Max Mandel performing the father-son sketch I heard on that Sunday morning Jewish Hour when I was in grade school.