On This Day in 1944: A Travelogue Introduces Americans to Tel Aviv

Well, it seems that the power lines are beginning to rot. The electric lights went out just after the sun had set, a sun, mind you, that had been hidden for days behind a wind-blown, tattered curtain of clouds. I was rather relieved to find my none-too-successful experimentations in podcasting cut short by this momentary outage, lit a large candle, and began to read a few pages of Mervyn Peake’s epic Gormenghast. In doing so, I was readying myself for a dramatization of this dreadful story—a study in dread—that I am going to attend tomorrow evening.

My reading aloud soon sent my audience (of one) to sleep, just as I have often dozed off listening to recordings of old-time radio programs—a sonically induced somnolence largely responsible for the delay in the completion of my doctoral study. In the image empire of the west, closing one’s eyes is generally associated with rest, rather than heightened attention.

Most of us are too visually trained, weaned on and preoccupied by the ocular, to become fully audile—that is, capable of learning through hearing. It was a challenge that radio producers had to meet when education—or indoctrination—by radio became an essential aspect of mobilizing the masses during the Second World War.

There are a number of radiodramatic techniques that assist listeners in taking in whatever needs to be conveyed; but rather than sharing information—factual specifics or intricate data—radio drama was most successful at creating impressions, stirring sensations, and instilling beliefs. One such belief, slow to take root, was that Americans were not fighting by themselves or for themselves alone, that it was not simply a war against an identifiable enemy, but a struggle for democratic ideals and their realization elsewhere.

In 1943, journalist, poet, and radio dramatist Norman Corwin was asked to create a series that would tell Americans at the home front something about their nation’s gobal allies. Passport for Adams was a sonic travelogue relating the impressions of a small-town newspaper editor assigned to report on the impact of the war on the world’s civilian population; weekly broadcasts transported listeners to Moscow and Marrakesh, to Monrovia and Belem.

As Corwin explains it in his notes on the play “Tel Aviv”—a second production of which was soundstaged by Columbia Presents Corwin on this day, 23 May, in 1944—the “idea was to pull for unity and victory.” The “omission of ugly details was quite beside the point. To have dwelt upon them would have been to play exactly the same tune as Goebbels, who was constantly reminding the world that the British, in their time, were dreadful imperialists.”

To counter the ignorance of his fellow citizens, Corwin created a comic sidekick more naïve than they—a culturally insensitive if good-natured news photographer who greets with wisecracks his colleague’s advice that he prepare for his assignment by “striking up an acquaintance” with Hebrew: “I know plennya Hebrew: aleph, baze, vaze, gimbel, dullard, kibitz, schlemiel, guniff, kosher, gefilte fish, Yehudi Menuhin. . . .”

Poet-journalist Corwin, who, pressed for time, gleaned most of his facts about life in Tel Aviv from a single interview with a former correspondent in Palestine—approached his subject linguistically by making a foreign tongue sound friendly and familiar—a language expressing the ideals known to and embraced by all who fought fascism.

During their tour of the city, Adams and his colleague gather information like pieces of vocabulary, from the shouts of a newsboy (“Davar Iton Erev”) to street signs such as “Rechow Umot Hameuchadot” (Street of the United Nations). Along the way, the ignorant photographer—a man dealing in images rather than words—is set right about the Hora, which he thought of as some “kind of a Jewish jitterbug dance,” while Adams talks to the people of Tel Aviv, among them a construction worker who, once a lawyer in Germany, is proud of having helped laying the bricks of the “Bet-Haam” (House of the People).

The broadcast ends with the word “shalom,” which Adams hopes will gain in a “future not too distant” a “new meaning and a more lasting one than we have ever known.” While “shalom”—or “peace”—is a dream that has yet to be translated into a global reality, radio, as a disseminator of sentiments, kept alive an ideal that kept home front Americans from abandoning the war as a means of achieving it.

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