KCRW’s annual Chanukah show lets the light go out


Ruth Seymour, general manager since 1978 of KCRW-FM 89.9, is best known to many listeners for her annual Chanukah program, “Philosophers, Fiddlers & Fools,” which will have its final airing on Dec. 15. But Seymour is not stepping down.

“I’m not retiring,” she says over the phone in her classic New York accent. “I’m retiring the show.”

The Chanukah show has been a staple in Los Angeles, which, before its first airing in 1978, had been missing this classic blend of Yiddishkeit: folk music, readings of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories, memorials to Holocaust victims, Second Avenue “hit parade” songs.

Much has been made of the humble beginnings of KCRW, a station created after World War II to train veterans for careers in radio, which as late as 1978 was located in a middle school in Santa Monica and famously had the oldest transmitter in the West. Seymour has transformed the station into an institution by creating erudite programs like “Bookworm,” an essential half-hour for any literary Los Angeleno; issues-oriented shows like “Which Way, L.A.?” and political debates, such as “Left, Right & Center.”

Her emphasis on literature and politics is fitting, since Seymour grew up in a home of left-wing Jewish intellectuals in the Bronx. She relates a story in which her mother, upon seeing her tending to the plants outside, asked, “Why are you gardening? You could be reading ‘War & Peace.'”

By now, “Philosophers” fans know the story of how Seymour’s college professor, Max Weinreich, told her that “Yiddish is magic. It will outlive history.”

What many may not know is that some years ago, she received a letter in her mailbox with those words written on the outside of the envelope as a teaser. She opened it and found it was from YIVO, the Yiddish institute that focuses on the study of Jewish culture and literature. Apparently, one of YIVO’s employees had lived in Los Angeles and heard Seymour tell the Weinreich story on the air.

Seymour has always contended that the show should be “ephemeral,” out of deference to the Holocaust victims.

“There wasn’t any way to bring them back,” she says, which is why she has never recorded any of her Chanukah programs.

She has often cited the words of Andre Schwarz-Bart, French author of “The Last of the Just,” who wrote that the Holocaust victims disappeared “like the smoke from the chimneys of Auschwitz.”

Although Holocaust survivors have always wanted to preserve the apparatus of and artwork related to the Holocaust, so as to document the severity of the genocide, Seymour sees radio as being inherently “transitory.”

“There just comes a moment in your life when it’s over. The sources dry up. Do I want to psychoanalyze it?” she asked, “No.”

She adds, “It had a prolonged life, a life of its own.” She said she is astonished that it “touched so many people.”

One person who touched her was Schwarz-Bart, who recently died at 78. He spent time in the concentration camps during the war and wrote “The Last of the Just,” which won France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt, in the late 1950s.

He “literally seems to have survived to write it,” she says, pointing out that he began writing right after the war, when he was in his twenties, and spent
years working on it in a Paris library, since his home did not have heat.

Not surprisingly, Seymour, who has always paid homage to Schwarz-Bart on her Chanukah show, will do so again in her final segment.

Another author whom she intends to acknowledge in her last show is the late Singer, the only Nobel Prize laureate who wrote primarily in Yiddish. She met Singer many times when she was living in New York.

Seymour’s then-husband, poet Jack Hirschman, who wooed her with a letter from Ernest Hemingway, introduced her to Singer. They would get together in a vegetarian restaurant and discuss astronomy and the kabbalah with Singer and his latest girlfriend, never his wife. Singer fancied concentration camp survivors for dates; interestingly, Seymour says that these young women had “dreams [that] would always be amazingly similar to his stories.”

Seymour says she was never a devotee of radio when she was young, even though she is a contemporary of Woody Allen and was raised in the “Radio Days” era of the late 1930s and 1940s. “I landed totally by accident.”

The accident occurred in 1961, when Hirschman was teaching at UCLA, and KPFK-FM 90.7 came calling, asking for tapes of his work. Seymour provided the Pacifica radio station with the tapes and shortly thereafter, was offered the job of heading up the station’s drama department.

More than a decade later, she joined KCRW.

Although she will stop broadcasting her marquee program, she says she will continue to host programs like “Politics of Culture,” and we will still hear her over the air during fundraising drives. As for “Philosophers,” she says, “It was never something that was conceived to go on for 28 years.”

“Philosophers, Fiddlers & Fools” will air for the final time on Friday, Dec. 15, from noon to 3 p.m. on KCRW, 89.9 FM.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday
22

Polka gets dotty at the Getty this evening with the last installment of the center’s Summer Sessions series. “21st Century Roots” offers “roots music for the new millennium,” in the form of three groups: Brave Combo, a polka ensemble that mixes music from Mexico, Germany and Japan; Golem, an edgy klezmer rock band; and moira smiley & VOCO, a band that mixes the dance songs of Eastern Europe with Appalachian tunes. International folk dance lessons are also offered.

5:45 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. (dance lessons). 6:30 p.m. (first music set). Free. Getty Center South Courtyard, Courtyard Stage and Garden Terrace, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.

Sunday
23

Can’t get enough of the man in tights? Head to the Museum of Television and Radio to see Superman as he appeared — in his many forms — on the small screen. For one final week the museum presents a selection of TV shows, including the 1950s “Adventures of Superman”; the steamier 1990s Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher affair, “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”; today’s Superman for the teen and tween set, “Smallville”; the animated 1970s classic “Superfriends” and the newer “Justice League”; as well as the unaired 1961 pilot of “The Adventures of Superboy.”

Through July 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). $5-$10 donations suggested. 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 786-1025.

Monday
24

Beat the summer heat with a refreshingly star-free film festival. Dances With Films enters its ninth year with a host of talent-filled films, sans celebs. Why no familiar faces? Festival co-founder Leslee Scallon explains, “The other festivals are busy programming mostly celebrity oriented films. It’s not that we’re dissing celebrities, we’re just giving films a chance to be seen that are getting squeezed out of the circuit.” Offer your support July 21-27.
$10 (per ticket), $125 (festival pass). Laemmle Fairfax Theatre, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2929.

Tuesday
25

Young Artists International alights on Los Angeles for its ninth annual International Laureates Festival. The week of classical music concerts features iPalpiti, their orchestral ensemble of 26 musical masters ages 19-30, representing 26 countries. Tonight, a smaller affair at the Ford Theatre features Bassiona Amorosa, a virtuosi sextet of double-bassists from Munich.
July 23-30. Prices and locations vary. (310) 205-0511.


Wednesday
26

Love a Gershwin tune? Karen Benjamin and Alan Chapman explore George’s music in tonight’s installment of the Parlor Performances @ Steinway Hall Presents… “Songwriters and Their Songs” series. Hear some of his best-loved pieces, as well as the stories behind them.
8 p.m. $25. Steinway Hall, 12121 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 471-3979.

Thursday 27

Judi Lee Brandwein can’t get no satisfaction, but discusses it this one last night, for your amusement. “Fornicationally Challenged” is the 40-something divorc’e’s one-woman mature-audiences-only comic show. It returns tonight only for a local send-off before its opening at the New York International Fringe Festival.
8 p.m. $20. Santa Monica Playhouse Main Stage, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 394-9779, ext. 1.

Friday
28

Ponder the art of Bonita Helmer in George Billis Gallery’s exhibition of her latest works. The moody, thought-provoking abstract acrylics focus on the interplays of fundamental elements, forcing the viewer to reconsider basic notions such as space and time.
Through Sept. 2. 2716 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 838-3685.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday

Find yourself laughing tonight as Debbie Kasper and Sheila Kay perform their two-woman show, “Venus Attacks!” Their parody of New Age gurus and seminars and self-help Mars/Venus philosophizing had critics raving when they performed the show in 2001. Don’t miss it this time.Runs through Nov. 7. 8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.), 2p.m. (Sun.) $15-$20. Hudson Avenue Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 960-5521.

Sunday

Unabashed Bush bashing begins today with the inaugural lecture in the Workmen’s Circle’s series “The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy: Unmasking, Understanding and Defeating It.” Renown author, lecturer and journalist John Powers discusses “George Bush’s America and the Rest of Us.”2 p.m. $6-$10. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 552-2007.

Monday

And the hits just keep on coming in “The Future Dictionary of America,” newly released by McSweeney’s. With suggested new words by nearly 200 writers and artists including Michael Chabon, Art Spiegelman and Jonathan Safran Foer, the book is also accompanied by a CD featuring songs by musicians including REM, Tom Waits and David Byrne. Proceeds benefit organizations that oppose the current presidential administration.$28. store.mcsweeneys.net.

Tuesday

Philosophy and art converge with today’s opening reception of “Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough” at The Jewish Federation’s Bell Gallery. The exhibit highlights 23 works by Jewish Californian artists whose work is influenced by their faith, and who have taken part in the Jewish Artists Initiative and dialogued for the past nine months on what it means to be a Jewish artist.6-8 p.m. Free. 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 761-8352.

Wednesday

Sabra pianist Daniel Gortler comes to the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts stage. Gortler has collaborated with the likes of Zubin Mehta, Valery Gergiev and Pinchas Zukerman, and performs solo works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn tonight only.7:30 p.m. $10-$20. 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (800) 300-434

Thursday

Tune that radio dial to K-Mozart tonight at 10 p.m. for the first in the 13-part series, “American Jewish Music from the Milken Archive with Leonard Nimoy.” This episode offers a series overview, featuring conversations on the question of whether there is such a thing as a distinctly Jewish kind of music, as well as highlights from the various musical themes to be explored later on – including biblical epics set to music by Kurt Weill and other musicians, Jewish legends in tone poems, film scores, operas and klezmer music.105.1 KMZT FM. www.milkenarchive.com.

Friday

Opening tonight is Michel Deville’s, “Almost Peaceful.” Set in 1946 Paris, the film tells the story of Holocaust survivors working in a ladies’ garment workshop. They struggle to live with survivor’s guilt and the trauma of all they have endured, while at the same time they fervently try to embrace life.Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-5581.

My Culture War


Freedom of the press is, strictly speaking, the freedom to own a press. Within wonderfully broad limits, The New York Times can say anything it wants, but you can’t say anything you want in The New York Times.

Radio entertainer Howard Stern, as successful and wealthy as he is, doesn’t own the stations or networks that broadcast his show. So when one of those networks, Clear Channel Communications, dumped him last week from six of its stations on extremely suspicious indecency charges, all he could hope for was that outraged citizens or loyal listeners would speak out.

Howard, here I am.

I discovered Stern’s morning show driving to work 11 years ago, and I’ve been listening since. Day in and out, it has guaranteed me at least one good smile before work begins. To the working commuter that is a gift. When it’s good, which is often, Stern’s show offers a kind of ongoing, un-PC satire of political, pop and celebrity culture that — at least until Jon Stewart’s "The Daily Show" appeared — had all but vanished from TV and radio. I turn it on after I drop the kids off at school. When it bores or offends me, I switch stations for a while.

Now people want to take my show away. After Clear Channel dropped his program, Stern said that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is moving to bring fines for indecency against the show, which will eventually force Infinity Broadcasting to drop it as well.

Make no mistake: the FCC, composed of five presidential appointees, levies fines, grants licenses and approves station expansion. It holds all the best cards here.

I understand that by many peoples’ standards, Stern is indecent, but he has been so for a long, long time. The incident that prompted Clear Channel to dump him, and for which the FCC may levy fines, has been so commonplace on his program that it could have been mistaken for a promo spot.

Ever since Janet Jackson exposed herself during the Super Bowl’s halftime show, the FCC and some members of Congress have been pushing for tougher decency standards and higher fines. Conservative religious-oriented citizens groups, like Focus on the Family, have urged them along with coordinated e-mail campaigns.

The media have picked up on this latest battlefront in the Culture War because the media loves a good Culture War. The issues are easier to understand than arguments over health care or the tax code, and they usually involve sex (Howard Stern, gay marriage) and violence (Mel Gibson, gun control).

Stern is saying that what has put the FCC on his trail this time is not dirty words, but his sudden and outspoken opposition to the re-election of President Bush. Stern supported Bush following Sept. 11 and throughout the second Gulf War, praising him as a tough leader. But he began speaking out against Bush over issues at the heart of the Culture War — stem-cell research, gay rights — and began urging his listeners to vote for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, a centrist Republican, has credited Stern’s on-air support with making the difference that got her elected. Clear Channel, a corporation with a long history of support for Bush, might not have pulled Stern from such swing-state markets in Florida and Pennsylvania for political reasons, but doing so certainly won’t hurt Bush there.

I’ve never really understood where the Culture War ends in this country and the Political War begins. My sense is that each needs and uses the other, and an election year kicks them both into high gear. Each side wants you to believe that it is on the brink of losing the war, but the evidence is murky.

Sure, Stern may get canceled, but books by leftists like Michael Moore and Al Franken are at the top of national bestseller lists. Yes, many in the media trashed "The Passion of the Christ," but that didn’t stop it from earning close to $200 million so far. There may be vast conspiracies of the left- or right-wing, but Americans themselves vacillate.

It isn’t surprising that Stern is caught up in the kind of cultural and political battle in which Jewish comedians and commentators like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce once found themselves.

He is heir to the Jewish tradition of the badchen, or shtetl entertainer. "They were scandalous, filled with gossip," comedian and frequent Stern guest Richard Belzer has said. "Their essence was to expose and make fun of things in their society. The badchen’s society was the shtetl. We expand it to include the whole society."

"Stern’s is an unleashed id unrepressed by socially approved feelings," writes Lawrence Epstein in his seminal study of Jewish comedy, "The Haunted Smile." "He is an attack on society’s right to censor the honest feels of the individual. He is a safety valve, a release." In as free and democratic medium that exists, 18 million Americans vote for Stern each morning.

The badchen is what Thomas Cahill might call a "Gift of the Jews," an outsider who exposes society’s foibles, pokes fun at its hypocrisies, makes people laugh and makes people think. The FCC has no right to look this gift horse in the mouth.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Today’s unorthodox Rosh Hashanah suggestion: Do themorning services, then tune into KCET. PBS’s newsmagazine “Religion and EthicsNewsweekly” features a “Belief and Practice” segment on Jewish High Holidaysthis afternoon. Hear Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Shalomdiscuss “the spiritual transformation that occurs during this time of reflectionand repentance.” TV in the spirit of the holiday — embrace the irony. 1:30 p.m.KCET. www.kcet.com .

Sunday

Sept. 11 on Sept. 28? We don’t get it either, but we are intrigued. Today, LACMA hosts the world premiere of “Sara’s Diary, 9/11: A Dramatic Composition in Five Parts.” Touched by the stories of mothers-to-be who lost partners or husbands on Sept. 11, Leroy Aarons, was moved to write the piece that imagines one woman’s emotional journey. Soprano Shana Blake Hill lends vocals to the music written by Aarons and Glenn Paxton.6 p.m. Free. Bing Theatre, LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 473-8525.

Monday

Enjoy this end-of-September eve with some Jewish tunes.The first five CDs in the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music have just beenreleased. Highlights from Kurt Weill’s “The Eternal Road” offers somethingtheatrical; the Old Country meets the New World in “Great Songs of the AmericanYiddish Stage”; old schoolers and clarinet enthusiasts make out with”Klezmer-Inspired Concertos and Concerts”; more religious themes come packagedas “Sabbath Eve Service and Cantata” by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco; and theindecisive find their niche in the archive’s “Sampler Disc.” Milken CDs: www.naxos.com .

Tuesday

When a girl is 5-foot-10 3/8 at the age of 13, humor seems a necessary coping mechanism. Jennifer Rosen might not have grown an inch since then, but she spent a good portion of her adolescence fearing she would. Between worrying she’d wind up a “Guinness Book of World Records” entry and dealing with a loving but neurotic Jewish mother who didn’t exactly help quell those fears, it’s no surprise she’s got enough material for a whole show. Her funny one-woman piece, “Tall Girl,” plays tonight at the National Comedy Theatre — a workshop performance in preparation for a premiere at the Groundling Theatre next spring.8 p.m. (Tuesdays, through Oct. 26). $12. 733 N. Seward St., Hollywood. (323) 960-5621.

Wednesday

Two important documentaries from Moriah Films recentlyhit stores. “The Long Way Home” recounts the postwar struggles of Holocaustsurvivors and the creation of Israel. It won the Academy Award for BestDocumentary Feature in 1997. “In Search of Peace, Part One: 1948-1967″chronicles the first two decades of Israel’s existence from a globalperspective. Both DVDs feature archival images and production stills. $24.98. www.amazon.com

.

Thursday

Today we promote “Hooters,” and thank American ORT and Camp Max Straus Foundation for giving us this unique opportunity. But cool those hot wings. This isn’t an endorsement of the sports bar known for girls in orange short-shorts. This is “Hooters,” a romantic comedy play by Ted Tally. Taking place over the course of a weekend in Cape Cod, the two-act follows the antics of a couple of teenage guys who try to pick up two young women. Tonight’s performance is a gala benefit for the aforementioned Jewish organizations.Oct. 2 and 3, 6:30 p.m. (reception), 8 p.m. (performance). Oct. 4, 8 p.m. (performance, reception follows). $10-$20. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., second floor, Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 481-9929.

Friday

KCRW’s Warren Olney chats with former Secretary of State Madeline Albright this evening. Subjects of discussion will include her years in the Clinton White House, the road that led her there and, likely, her new book, “Madame Secretary: A Memoir.” Will the subject of her parents’ Jewish ancestry come up? Only one way to find out.7:30 p.m. $20. Scottish Rite Building, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 335-0917.

Dr. Laura Loses Her Religion


Controversial syndicated radio-show host and public advocate of Orthodox Judaism Laura Schlessinger — "Dr. Laura," as she is known to her 12 million daily listeners — confessed on air this month that she will no longer practice Judaism.

Although Schlessinger — who very publicly converted to Judaism five years ago — said she still "considers" herself Jewish, "My identifying with this entity and my fulfilling the rituals, etc., of the entity — that has ended," she said on "The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Program" on Aug. 5.

Syndicated nationally since 1994, Schlessinger has won over listeners with her hard-edged advice and razor-sharp tongue. Yet her brash style, not to mention her espousal of a strict "moral health" code — including controversial condemnations of homosexuality as "a biological error" — put her at odds with wide swaths of the Jewish community. Many found her moralist, black-and-white, you’re-with-me-or-against-me stance to be more representative of evangelical Christians than of Jews, who were often among her most outspoken critics.

Schlessinger’s office said she was unavailable for comment.

In her 25 years on radio, Schlessinger said she was moved "time and time again" by listeners who wrote and described that they had "’joined a church, felt loved by God’ and that was my anchor."

Schlessinger even hinted at a possible turn to Christianity — a move that, radio insiders say, would elevate her career far beyond the 300 stations that currently syndicate her show.

"I have envied all my Christian friends who really, universally, deeply feel loved by God," she said. "They use the name Jesus when they refer to God … that was a mystery, being connected to God."

Of her conversion to Judaism, Schlessinger said, "I felt that I was putting out a tremendous amount toward that mission, that end, and not feeling return, not feeling connected, not feeling that inspired. Trust me, I’ve talked to rabbis, I’ve read, I’ve prayed, I’ve agonized and I came to this place anyway — which is not exactly back to the beginning, but more in that direction than not."

Born to a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother, Schlessinger was raised in Brooklyn in a home that was without religion. Approximately 10 years ago, prompted by a question from her son during a viewing of a Holocaust documentary, Schlessinger, 56, began exploring her Jewish roots.

She underwent a Conservative conversion in 1997, and later decided to undergo an Orthodox conversion instead.

"I still see myself as a Jew," Schlessinger said on the air. "But the spiritual journey and that direction, as hard core as I was at it, just didn’t fulfill something in me that I needed."

Even Schlessinger’s detractors were shocked by the news. "I can’t tell you how significant this is," said fellow Jewish media star and "Kosher Sex" author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has sparred with Schlessinger over her comments on homosexuality.

"Dr. Laura always equated her morals and ethics with Jewish morals and ethics," he said. "That placed the American Jewish community in a real fix; on the one hand, she made Judaism very popular, on the other, she made it vilified and hated by many people."

"It seems incredible that an ethicist and moralist of her standing would invoke such shallow arguments," added Boteach, who was en route to an appearance on the syndicated television show "Blind Date." "I never got great applause for my work from the Jewish community — but my people are my people, whether they love or hate me."