Yiddish Hour founder Jack Falk steps back
By DEBORAH MOON
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Perhaps the thing that most surprises people about Jack “Yankl” Falk is that he does NOT make a living in Jewish music, or music at all for that matter.
The founder and co-host of Portland’s Yiddish Hour on KBOO radio for 30 years, Falk is well known as a klezmer musician who performs locally and across Europe, and as a traveling cantor.
Yet the 60-year-old has a “day job” as a technical writer and is about to begin graduate school in library sciences to launch yet another career.
As summer wound down and Falk handed the reins of the Yiddish Hour to a new group of co-hosts (see story at right), he spent an hour reflecting on the show, his music and how busy life has become.
Falk said Portland in the late 1970s was an ethnic crazy quilt with an ethnic fest on the waterfront every year and shows from virtually every world culture on KBOO. Falk said the Jewish host of one show played every kind of eastern European music except Jewish music. Active in Yiddish cultural events in Portland, Falk said he approached the host and asked why he didn’t play any Yiddish music. Falk said the host told him to bring some records down and play them himself.
The Yiddish Hour ironically began during Purim 1979, when the hosts doing a Persian Hour on KBOO decided to return to Iran to join the Revolution against the Shah.
“The Persians left and the first (Yiddish Hour) show filled the Persian slot,” said Falk, adding that when a new group of hosts began a new Persian show years later, he formed a warm relationship with them.
The key element of the Yiddish Hour has always been Jewish music, Falk once wrote in a brief history of the show. In addition to musical programming the show regularly features interviews with authors and performing artists, previews of upcoming Jewish holidays and recipes.
Falk said he has intentionally focused on culture rather than politics.
Throughout the Yiddish Hour’s 30 years on radio, the Falk and his wife Reva have hosted the show with occasional help from co-hosts. The last regular co-hosts were Jeff Olenick and Amy Shapiro from 1983-2003; but for the past five years, one or the other of the Falks have spent 45-50 Sunday mornings in the broadcast booth at KBOO.
“I’m a 60-year-old grandpa,” he said. “I’m about to start library school, … I leave Wednesday (Sept. 16) to serve as high holiday cantor near Chicago. The day after Yom Kippur, I’ll be leaving to go to Budapest for concerts with Di Naye Kapelye and to sing with a Ukrainian gypsy band … I have a pretty full platter.”
Falk said his family, which includes wife Reva and their three children, have always been close, but that is harder to maintain across the miles. One son lives in Massachusetts and one lives in Chicago. He describes himself and Reva as “actively involved grandparents from a distance.”
“I’m not looking at retirement—If I was I wouldn’t be starting grad school at this point in life,” he said.
But something had to give, he said.
So in February 2008, the Falks hosted a house concert and invited all his musician colleagues.
“When they got there, I handed them a paper: ‘Do you like the Yiddish Hour and would you like to see it continue?’ Ed (Kraus), Barry (Lavine) and Liz (Schwartz) said, ‘Yes.’ ”
“It’s not trivial to go through the KBOO training, but I’m sure glad they did it,” said Falk of his new co-hosts. “I feel lucky to be able to pass the baton.”
Asked if he’d imagined the show lasting so long, Falk said, “It started when I was 29 and there’s no way you envision you will do something for 30 years when you are that age.”