Turning back time

Israel Radio celebrates the 70th anniversary of its first Hebrew broadcast.

old fashioned radio 88 (photo credit: )
old fashioned radio 88
(photo credit: )
The Israel Broadcasting Authority marked the 70th anniversary of the first radio broadcast in Hebrew last Thursday at the once magnificent Palace Hotel in Jerusalem's Mamilla neighborhood - the site of the first broadcast in 1936. Since 1948, the Palace Hotel has been a warren of cubby-hole offices serving the needs of the Ministry for Trade and Industry, and for several years prior to the establishment of the state served as the transmission center for the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS) of British Mandate Palestine. Built at the initiative of the Supreme Muslim Council, during the term of the British-appointed mayor of Jerusalem Raghib Nashashibi, the impressive building was transformed in the early 1930s when it became the administrative and military office of the Mandate government. As such, it was a logical venue for the launch of PBS. Staff members from the original Hebrew radio station were on hand to recall the effort to establish the station, including details like the debate over what to name it. Eventually, the Palestine Broadcasting Service became "The Voice of Jerusalem," and after statehood was declared "The Voice of Israel"- better known today as "Kol Israel". Guests attending the commemorative event were not permitted beyond the hotel lobby, though some managed to climb a few steps of the magnificent staircase with its beautifully designed wrought iron balustrades. Inside the hotel, popular English and Hebrew songs, circa 1936, wafted from a speaker system. Rows of chairs had been set out in the lobby for Israel Radio veterans as well as VIPs who included President Moshe Katsav, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Mayor Uri Lupolianski, IBA acting director-general Yair Aloni and Israel radio chief Yoni Ben Menachem. The 1930s atmosphere was enhanced by those in attendance dressed in the fashions of the time. A string ensemble of musicians sported cream colored tuxedo jackets, white shirts, black bowties and black trousers. A group of musicians playing Arabic music wore dark three-piece suits once favored by the Turks, not to mention ruby red fezs. Women glided by in dresses that were formal by today's standards, and complimented their outfits with elbow-length gloves and veiled pillbox hats. Some of the men were dressed for the evening replete with black tails and top hat, and the senior representatives of the British government came in full plumage. Katsav recalled how in his youth he loved to listen to Moshe Hovev, one of the radio's most professional announcers whose enunciation of guttural consonants and vowels such as het, ayin and resh could not be emulated by anyone else. Katsav also noted the significant role played by the radio in reporting the history of the nascent nation as it was being established. Livni dwelt on the era in which Israel Radio had virtually no competition, and symbolized to nearly everyone in the country what the campfire is to the tribe. Lupolianski, who referred to the radio as "the heart of the nation," was particularly proud of the fact it emanated from Jerusalem. There were reminiscences among those present of the days when a large console radio occupied a place of pride in the family living room. When PBS was founded, there were only 400,000 Jews in Palestine, and 10,000 radios in the whole country. None of the original announcers are around any more, though retired foreign correspondent and former Maariv journalist Yuval Elitzur, who used to participate in the children's programs, recalled broadcasting from the Palace Hotel in January, 1937. Although it is generally presumed that the first Hebrew word on PBS was uttered by Hemda Faigenbaum-Zinder, who was the station's first Hebrew announcer, there is a dispute as to whether that honor actually belongs to Leah Weitz-Cohen. Though neither woman is alive, Yoav Ginai and Izzy Mann, who put together the reenacted broadcast, decided to honor the memories of both women. The text of the first Hebrew broadcast was read by Yael Ben Yehuda, a long-time Israel Radio broadcaster who retired five years ago. Ginai and Mann created a live museum of sorts, whereby a recording from the past was briefly played, after which the text or a song was taken up by someone else. This blending of the past with present was both moving and effective. Mordechai Priman, who used to be in charge of Jewish heritage programming on Israel Radio, took over the role of the late Cantor Vittorio Weinberg, whose voice was heard daily on PBS. Ortal Agmon Hirsh continued a recital by the queen of Habima Hanna Rovina, and by way of diversity, Margalit Tsanani took over from fellow Yemenite singer Bracha Tsfira. In the audience, people's faces registered both awe and nostalgia; particularly moved was Yoel Rekem, who had been in charge of the 50th anniversary celebrations. Regular listeners to Israel Radio are aware that several of the station's retirees continue to broadcast once or twice a week. The oldest is Shmuel Rosen, 80, who for many years was Israel Radio's major quiz-master and coiner of words and phrases. Rosen and Elitzur were not the only members of their generation in attendance. Among the others was Michal Smoira Cohn, the former musical director of Israel Radio, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday. The broadcast from the Palace Hotel was the springboard for a series of special broadcasts that will take listeners down memory lane for the year ahead.