For close to 50 years, Judy Heiser Stein’s father, Cantor Mordecai Heiser, sang at B’nai Israel Congregation in the East End.
Some years after he passed away in 1989, she looked at her father’s cantorial record collection and, knowing what a treasure she had on her hands, searched for a place that would take the records and preserve them.
What she found, with the help of Cantor Moshe Taube of Congregation Beth Shalom, was the Judaica Sound Archives (JSA) at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) Libraries.
But Stein’s mission was just beginning.
Recognizing the importance of preserving Jewish music for future generations, Stein volunteered to become the Pittsburgh area’s Jewish music zamler, the Yiddish term for one who collects and saves treasures, for the FAU Judaica Sound Archives. Stein places monthly advertisements in the Chronicle, offering to ship the donated Jewish records.
As Stein winters in Florida, she will also hand deliver anything she collects.
“When I saw what they have down there at FAU, it’s unbelievable,” said Stein. “There are three or four colleges that do this across the country, but FAU is right where we go in the winter, and it’s just so beautiful what they have there. It’s just a wonderful place to visit and it’s run so fantastically.”
Since 2002, the JSA has grown into the largest online Jewish music resource in the world. Currently, more than 100,000 soundtracks have been inventoried and digitized. Vintage phonograph records are preserved on rows of shelves in archival jackets.
Only 10 to 12 percent of the archives are available online due to copyright issues. Still, that amounts to over 12,500 recordings that are available free of charge on the JSA website, www.fau.edu/jsa.
And there are 100,000 additional recordings that are waiting to be sorted through and digitized. For this monumental task, FAU relies heavily on volunteers.
Maxine Schackman, director of FAU’s Recorded Sound Archives and co-founder of the Judaica Sound Archives, says that the idea of the collection is to include all types of Jewish music. The public can search the database via album, song title, artist or genre.
The genres available online are: cantorial, Chassidic, children’s, comedy, holiday, Israeli, Sephardic and Yiddish.
The collection also contains performances by important Jewish artists, even if the music is not culturally Jewish. For example, Irving Berlin’s Christmas music is represented, as is Peter, Paul and Mary in that Peter Yarrow is Jewish. Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Milton Berle recordings also are part of the collection.
“The recordings date back to the time that records were invented, around 1900, and continue to the present day; the vast majority in the collection are over 50 years old,” said Schackman.
Students, scholars and researchers or anyone with an academic interest in Jewish music can request to come in person to access the rest of the collection that is not available online.
“From the very beginning, volunteers have been vital to our success. We do not buy recordings for our collection,” said Schackman. “Every single one has been donated. We have received well over 10,000 recordings a year for the past 10 years. Volunteers, like Judy Stein, seek out the recordings and make sure the public knows how to find us. Other volunteers regularly unpack the boxes of donated records, sort them and match them against the database so we can detect which ones are duplicates.”
The idea of using zamlers to grow a collection was originally devised by Aaron Lansky of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. Applying the same concept to music, the JSA reaches out to Jewish communities all over the country to let people know what they are doing and encourage them to donate vintage Jewish music.
“This is a cultural heritage,” Schackman said, “and it’s our mission, job and duty to find it, save it and protect it for the future, for our children and grandchildren, to say, ‘we were here, we did something, and it means something.’ ”
In reality, zamlers collect pieces of history and heritage. Like the music that is being preserved, Stein is a treasured part of that history.
While it may seem as if Stein is just making a small contribution by collecting Jewish recordings in the Pittsburgh area, nothing could be further from the truth.
“We are only left with a handful of zamlers,” Schackman said. “Judy is outstanding; she is our top zamler. She has been with us since the beginning and is tireless in her efforts to bring us recordings. We just love her; she has provided a very valuable service to us. Actually, she embodies the spirit of the JSA’s mission: seeking out the music and bringing it to a permanent home where it can be safely held for the future.”
Despite a dearth of responses lately to her monthly ads, Stein is still committed to helping FAU grow their collection. “I’ve collected a lot of records over the years but it’s dwindled down now.”
She plans to continue collecting indefinitely, as long as she continues to receive donations.
Want to help?
Judy Heiser Stein will be leaving in mid-December for Florida. To contact her with any donations of Jewish music, contact her at 412-422-2265 or her daughter, Adele Sufrin, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Hilary Daninhirsch an be reached at email@example.com.)