A Story for Yom Ha'atzmaut: The Jewish Record Industry Goes to War

Written by Larry Shor on . Posted in Arts & Entertainment

It was 1945. World War II had ended and the heart and soul of world Jewry, European Jewry, lay desolate and destroyed. The story of the mobilization of every corner of the Jewish world that led to the creation of the State of Israel during those chaotic years has, for the most part, been well-documented. There is one story left to be told: how the Jewish record industry went to war to help the cause. Many recordings were issued to drive the struggle into the public consciousness in those turbulent years; several were in Yiddish, a language that the early Zionists rejected in favor of Hebrew. But no matter, the creation of the State of Israel was a titanic struggle, and many such songs were released, in Yiddish, and in English as well.

Songs that spoke about returning home bore titles that reflected the times. One was called “Eretz Yisroel Iz Unzer Land” (“The Land of Israel is Ours”). But the 1945 translation on the label of the Columbia 78 was “Palestine Is Our Home.” Things have certainly changed!

The most unforgettable recording of that period was first released on the Stinson label in 1946 and sung by Yiddish star Menasha Oppenheim (1905-1973). It was called “Vi Ahin Zoll Ich Gehn” (“Where Can I Go”). The lyrics are heart-breaking and document the hopelessness that pervaded the Jewish world in those years. The English translation of the famous lyrics follows:

“Tell me, where can I go? Who can answer me? Where to go, where to go. Every door is closed for me. To the left, to the right, it’s the same in every land. There is nowhere to go, won’t you please understand?”

And there were others. Mary Small sang “My Home, My Home” in English; and in 1947, legendary Yiddish theater star Jennie Goldstein recorded a heart-wrenching monologue in Yiddish called “Palestina, Unzer Heim” (“Palestine, Our Home”), in which the souls of those murdered in the Holocaust go before G-d and beg him to let the Jews go home. These recordings sold in the tens of thousands.

And then it happened: Israel was born, and a now-forgotten song by Al Jolson brought the joy and the struggle to American audiences.

Jolson, long one of the all-time greats in show business, whose father, Rabbi Moshe Yoelson, was chief Orthodox Rabbi of Washington for nearly 40 years, was in the midst of a sensational comeback. This was triggered by the release of the movie about his life, “The Jolson Story.”

When the State of Israel was founded, he recorded the national anthem, “Hatikvah.” A song for the flip side of the recording was needed as well, so Jolson and songwriter Benny Russell came up with a lovely patriotic song called “Israel.” The tune was the old wedding song “Chusen Kalah Mazel Tov” (“Congratulations to the Groom and Bride”), but with a slower tempo. The strange part was that at the time the recording was made, all the orchestras were on strike, and the recording is completely a cappella, with just Jolson and a choir.

The lyrics put a lump in your throat, even today:

“O Sing a song of victory, Israel. O sing it out forever Israel. O sing of all our glories of the past. And that we’ve won our promised land at last. O ring the bells, and tell the world we’re free. And tell them all we fought for liberty. What people ever paid a price so high? To see the Star of David in the sky! Rejoice, lift your voice! This dream was not in vain…”

Jolson donated all the money from the recording to the United Jewish Appeal, and sang the song on “The Kraft Music Hall” broadcast on NBC, bringing the pride and the hope to a coast-to-coast American radio audience.

The songs and recordings that accompanied and celebrated Israel’s birth, rare collector’s items today, are a part of the story that should always be remembered.

NEXT TIME: Yiddish Movies on the Wall

 By Larry Shor