[This one’s for you, Al]
It was 1937, and the boy from Brooklyn visiting Cortlandt Street in Lower Manhattan—New York’s City’s Radio Row—couldn’t believe his ears. The Yiddish he heard his immigrant family speak in their home but was never for public use, was now blaring from speakers in store after store. They were playing the popular theme song from a short-lived 1932 Yiddish musical.
The musical didn’t last long, but the hit song heard that day on Cortland Street was just getting started. One story says songwriter and lyricist Sammy Cahn heard Black performers Johnnie and George performing it in Harlem’s Apollo Theater, and persuaded his employer to purchase rights to the song so he could add English lyrics. A little-known trio of sisters supposedly recorded the song for $50, and within thirty days, the Andrews Sisters had their first Billboard top hit.
Over the years, the song was covered by artist after artist, from a 20-year-old Ella Fitzgerald, to Guy Lombardo, to Bette Midler. Bizarrely, it was a hit in Nazi Germany, where it was retitled “Bei mir bist du schön”—until its supposedly ‘obscure’ German dialect was revealed to be Yiddish and it was banned.
It was so well-known that it was often parodied, such as Shasta’s “Root Beer, Mr. Shane” commercial:
Radio Row suffered during World War II but later rallied thanks to demand for FM radio and later television technology. There were over a thousand businesses employing over 30,000 New Yorkers. Although Radio Row was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the World Trade Center, the song remained.
—“Radio Row” [Cortlandt Street, Lower Manhattan, from Radio Diaries on Vimeo]
My father-in-law, the boy who was stunned to hear Yiddish music in public, is now in his nineties. But he still loves hearing the song’s Yiddish, and recently sent me a wonderful version recorded in Israel.
—Bei Mir Bistu Shein (cover by Polina Mayofis and Gennadiy Gurin)