Image: A Zenith console radio, much like the one my parents had when I was small. (photo via Collectors Weekly)
Radio is magic. Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved playing with the radio. I was born a night owl; when the family was all asleep, I’d creep into the den at home, where the big console radio stood, and I’d turn it on and watch the glow of the vacuum tubes. (Yes, I’m that old.) I’d turn the volume down and start at the bottom of the AM dial. I’d watch a little dial that showed signal strength, and when it twitched upwards, I’d turn the volume up ever so slowly until I could hear. Then I’d listen for the station identification, and if it was one I hadn’t heard before, I’d write it in a little notebook. I sat on a hilltop in rural Tennessee, but I could hear Cincinnati, Memphis, New York, Atlanta, and occasionally even Havana.
It was years before I learned the science behind “skip” – the property of radio waves and the atmosphere that made faraway stations come through late at night – but for a little girl who longed for the big wide world, it was glorious. New York stations brought me Nichols and May. WLOK in Memphis was my first exposure to African American music and culture. “Radio Rebelde, Cuba” was unmistakable, as was the voice of Castro giving speeches – I couldn’t understand the language, but I had seen enough clips of Castro on “Huntley-Brinkley” (NBC evening news) to recognize his voice. I felt very wicked, listening to Communist radio in the 1960’s!
All these voices floated in from the dark, and I listened to them in the ghostly glow of the radio tubes. I mourned when my parents got rid of that old radio, replacing it with a modern pink plastic clock-radio in the kitchen. It was useless for magical travel, and worse yet, it didn’t glow.
When my own children were in grammar school, I bought a shortwave radio so that we could listen to stations all over the world. We strung an antenna along the roofline facing towards the Pacific, and the magic began to flow out of the radio again. The boys and I listened to the end of the Cold War, to cricket games announced in Pidgin from the Solomon Islands, to the drama in Tiananmen Square, and all sorts of other stuff. For a while, I wrote reception reports for Radio Deutsche Welle. the German shortwave network.
When I began to prepare for rabbinical school, and got very serious about Hebrew, I had to give up most other hobbies to make the time. I sold the big radio and most of the rest of my equipment in 2001. I figured I’d never have the time again, and that was true until life settled down a bit after school.
I finally got an Amateur Radio license in 2010. I had internalized a lot of “little girls don’t” lessons as a child, and always assumed that “ham radio” was for boys, not for me. I decided to ditch that thinking and get my license, which was easier to do than I had feared. It was gratifying to knock down my internal barrier, but for a long time, I didn’t do much with the ticket.
Recently my son Aaron got his license, and we’ve begun playing with the radio as a family again. I find that thinking about the physics of radio is another gateway to Rabbi Heschel’s radical amazement. Aaron and I are training to join the team of amateur radio volunteers who swing into action in a big emergency, assisting with communications when the phones are down. It combines wonder and service in equal parts: what a wonderful way to live Torah!
Ruth Adar, K6RAV
9 thoughts on “The Rabbi’s Hobby”
What fun! And a great inter generational project.
Greetings from KR4ZAN in Texas. I got my Tech license in 2011 and soon after I became an Amateur Extra and Volunteer Examiner. I am a teacher and also teach amateur radio classes after school. We installed a repeater (KR4ZAN) on top of the school and the students have fun communicating with each other once they get their licenses. I always read your posts and comment on the ones that I can relate to. Keep up the good work and 73.
Thanks, Richard! What a wonderful thing you are doing – I wish I’d had a teacher like you!
Rabbi, that is so cool! Radio is indeed magic. One book I really enjoyed is “Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio,” https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1457505606. He talks about his boyhood fascination with radio, and in his career, setting up a the first public radio station in I believe Alaska, laying the wires, and eventually gets into wireless networking.
Something I think about a lot is, people spend much more time today listening to their own curated or chosen music, like their iPods. Part of what I love about listening to the radio is hearing things I’d never otherwise hear. Alice Cooper, of all people, turns out is a fabulous D.J. with a late night program that kept me company on a return drive from NYC on lonely roads. I was so grateful. Bucknell Univ has a wonderful student-run radio station with great music. Finding creative radio stations is always such a bright spots. Thanks for sharing your passion!
Thank you for the book recommendation! It sounds like a lot of fun.
I love the unexpected aspect of radio, too. Podcasts and playlists have their place, but there’s nothing quite like discovering a new idea or a new song on the radio.
What a great post! The first photo of the Zenith radio reminds me of the Stromberg-Carlson console radio that was a fixture in my grandparents’ apartment and now sits in my living room — a beloved piece of my family’s history. It’s so old that it doesn’t have an FM dial — and I’m not even sure it or the phonograph player it includes works, but when they did, the phonograph played the Enrico Caruso albums that still are in the storage portion of the console!
Yes! No FM dial on our console radio. Just the AM, and a SW band that didn’t seem to work. How nice that you have kept the old radio!
what a great thing to be doing, kol hakavod, Rabbi
Shalom, Rabbi Adar
Long time ham, first time caller, secretary-treasurer of TBI Radio Club in Eugene, Oregon.
I have been a ham since I was 15. Now 54 and President of my synagogue’s brotherhood, and never went through any periods of inactivity on the air.
When I was living in suburban DC, I belonged to Chaverim of Greater Washington.
Anyway, nice to see your article. We will be operating on March 5th from the parking lot as a demonstration station from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. Pacific so we can catch the Sunday school crowd. Maybe we can have a sked for then if you’re free and if the rain doesn’t shut us down.
73 (is there a Hebrew ham radio version of this?)