Sound waves

How radio launched my Zionist dream.

An old transistor radio used by the writer to listen to Israel Radio’s English News (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
An old transistor radio used by the writer to listen to Israel Radio’s English News
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
I’VE ALWAYS been a gadget person. From the time I was 13 years of age, I was obsessed with new technology, something I may have inherited from my Dad. He was hooked on radios and at one stage I remember counting about 12 radios in our house.
Growing up in Johannesburg was a dreary business for a kid. There was no television and the only form of visual or audial entertainment was either going to the movies or listening to the radio. After Heder (Hebrew school) I would stand in front of the electronics store in our local neighborhood and drool over the display of radios, especially eyeing the new transistor ones that were coming into fashion. The sales assistant, Mrs. Krantz, who knew my parents, bumped into my dad one day.
“Why don’t you buy your boy a radio, Joe,” she told him. “He comes into the shop almost every other day and asks to see the radios. Then he stands there trying to work out how much pocket money he would need to save up to buy one of the cheaper models.”
And so it was that I came home one day to find a surprise package on my bed. I tore away the wrappings to find that Dad had bought me the most amazing little Sanyo Medium and Shortwave transistor radio in its own handsome dark brown leather case complete with earphones, telescopic aerial and an external shortwave antenna cable. I was in early teenage heaven. One of my favorite pursuits was tuning into foreign radio stations. South Africa was very isolated and inward looking in those days. My greatest joy was picking up the BBC World Service, the Voice of America and then, of course, my favorite station – Kol Zion.
Kol Zion La Golah was started in March 1950. Its main purpose was to spread contemporary news about Israel to the Jewish Diaspora and the world. Like many South African Jewish youngsters of my generation, I was raised in a Zionist household. My parents brought me up to acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate the founding of the Jewish state. My father introduced me to Kol Zion, the precursor of Kol Yisrael, the Voice of Israel. I vividly recall lying in bed at night eagerly waiting for the dramatic drum roll followed by the clarion call of a trumpet playing the first few bars of Hatikva over and over again until 6 shrill pips heralded the solemn voice of the newscaster announcing: “This is Israel calling. You are tuned to Kol Zion, the overseas program of the Israel broadcasting service, broadcasting from Jerusalem.
Shalom Aleichem. Good evening.”
The program was often hosted by broadcasters such as Sara Manobla or Larry Elion. Despite the atmospherics, I began to connect with the Jewish homeland, absorbing every word of news and every nostalgic piece of Israeli music that moulded my Zionist yearnings. It is still possible to access these sounds via Youtube.
I was barely 13 years of age. About a year later, I began to indulge in a new obsession.
Reel to reel tape recorders had arrived in South Africa. The ultimate recording machine was a two-speed, four-track recorder.
Once more I began to nag my parents and once more my dad succumbed. This time he brought home a second-hand, gray Philips reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was in excellent condition and came with a used tape that was still in situ when we opened up the machine. Dad had acquired it from one of his clients. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to listen to its contents, which turned out to be the protracted minutes of an Annual General Meeting read out by a woman with a rather banal South African voice. I barely understood a word and switched the machine off after about five minutes. Luckily the four-track tape could be taped over and I decided to redeploy it for my own use.
I soon mastered the art of how to operate the machine, including how to achieve the best quality sound reproduction and how to connect the device to a radio or a gramophone.
Thus began my epic journey into sound archiving! I recorded everything and everyone including a shortwave broadcast of Winston Churchill’s funeral. In May 1964, my mom accompanied her parents on an overseas trip to New York, where my grandfather was reunited with his older brother whom he had not seen for 57 years! On the way there, they stopped in Athens, Tel Aviv and Rome, and on the way back, they visited London and sailed back to Cape Town by ship. I was 14 years old at the time and was completely captivated by the prospect of overseas travel. I recorded every aspect of their trip. I got my Mom and grandparents to record messages before their departure and upon their dramatic return on the 18th of June in the middle of the South African winter when it snowed in Johannesburg for the first time in decades.
Their flights to Johannesburg were delayed and they got stuck in Cape Town. I recorded the trunk calls and still have the voices of my parents anxiously trying to figure out how my Mom and grandparents were going to get back. When they finally did get home, I sat with my Grandma and got her to recount the details of the entire adventure including how she and my grandfather had met great Uncle Philip and his wife Celia in New York City after 57 years! The result is an incredibly moving piece of social and family history with Grandma (prompted by me in my squeaky pre-pubescent voice) describing her experiences of visiting all these exciting destinations. I was particularly enthralled by her accounts of her visiting Israel, where she and my Grandpa stayed in Tel Aviv and toured the country from the Negev to the Galil and Jerusalem. All of this was recorded on the original used tape that came with the tape recorder. Before my wife and I made aliya in 2014, I found the Sony tape still in its original box.
I sent it off to be digitalized thinking that the 50-year-old soundtrack would have disappeared. I was wrong. The unedited recordings were as fresh and clear as the day they were made. And so I have been left with this wonderful four-hour sound archives of my parents, sister, grandparents, cousins, childhood friends, African staff, schoolmates, and even my dog Patchy. The clips include interviews, bar mitzva speeches, live piano interludes, pop music from the radio and an amusing piece of me and my Heder teacher rehearsing a passage of Hebrew poetry for the annual Zimriya in Johannesburg! Even large snippets of the boring AGM meeting still remain! Towards the end of 1964, I discovered World Tape Pals with its headquarters in Dallas, Texas. While other friends were writing to pen pals, I was registering with WTP in the US. Three weeks later I received an impressive listing of members from around the world. New members were required to list their ages, hobbies and interests, and other personal details, including the specifications of their tape recorders.
The idea was to initially correspond with selected prospective candidates in the hope that they would agree to exchange voice recordings on a regular basis. These would be sent on small reel-to-reel tapes, mailed in envelopes and sent by surface mail across the globe. I ended up with Tape Pals in Reno, Nevada, Blackpool, England, the Australian outback and Hadera Israel! My Israeli tape pals were the Neeman family; Noah and Fanny Neeman with their daughter Miri and son Beni. As Miri was my chosen Tape Pal, I addressed my first tape to her only to discover that she knew very little English and so Noah, her father, became my tape pal. Fortunately for me, Noah was a high school teacher. He and his wife were Holocaust survivors from the Alsace region of France. In December 1965, I accompanied my uncle and aunt and their two children on an overseas trip to Europe and Israel to celebrate my cousin Renee’s bat mitzva. We arrived at Lydda airport in January 1966 and were met in the arrivals hall by the entire Neeman family. The following day Noah picked me up at the Samuel Hotel in Tel Aviv and took me on an amazing tour of the surrounding areas, Zichron Yaakov, Kibbutz Maayan Zvi, Caesarea and Hadera.
A few days later I joined him and the rest of the family on a picnic in the national park in Ashkelon, followed by a typical Israeli supper at their home in Hadera. It was the first time that I had ever eaten humus! Sadly, I lost touch with the Neeman family, but I was smitten with the Zionist bug and a passionate desire to come and live in Israel.
Not long after my return to South Africa, a cousin of mine persuaded me to accompany him to a Bnei Akiva youth movement meeting one Sunday afternoon in the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg. By then I was 16 years old. The shaliach, Asher Alduby, was from Kibbutz Lavi. Asher gave a rousing speech about making aliya. He was collecting names of those wishing to join the recently established South African garin (seed organization). I signed up on the spot even though I was not yet a member of the movement or an observant Jew! It took me another 48 years to turn the dream into a reality with a few false starts along the way, including a spell of living in Gush Etzion and Jerusalem in the early ’70s.
Every now and again I stop to ponder how fortunate I was to have collected those unique sounds that bring to life a cavalcade of personal history, including my childhood hopes and aspirations. At 68 years old, I attribute much of my life’s rich experience to the expanding horizons that were opened up to me by those precious sound waves, which are now digitalized, duplicated and carefully stored away to inspire my heirs and future generations.