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