Ben Gailing

By David Maisel

Some radio listeners who were tuned to WDLW-AM 1330 while in bed on a recent Sunday morning may have wondered whether they were still dreaming. They heard a Yiddish-accented man tack on to a commercial the message that he'd like to see that sponsor in shul more often. Ben Gailing, Hanukkah 1998, 100th Birthday Party. Behind Ben, left to right: Donna Halper, Edith Perry, Mark David, Hankus Netsky

Regular listeners at 10:00 a.m. to the Ben Gailing Show, The Freilicher Kabtzen ("The Jolly Beggar"), didn't need to pinch themselves to know that this was for real. They know Ben. Some of them have been listening since 1933. They can count on the personal brand of heymish, sentimental and upbeat Yiddish-ness that Ben delivers between the klezmer 78's, cantorials, Yiddish theater songs and Iraeli hits that he plays. To lead into an ardent pitch for Israel recently, Ben improvised, intoning, "This land is mine, God gave it all to me...."

At deli brunches throughout southern New England sixtyish-year-old men listen together to the show. Can this really be the same program they enjoyed in their mother's or neighbor's kitchen before entering public school and learning enough English to understand the rest of Boston radio fare? For decades an hour long, with actors, a studio orchestra and a soprano to share duets with Ben, the only remnants of live music on the program now are the advertising jungles Ben composed and sings each week on the half-hour show.

[Flash: An old tradition has just been revived, with Rosalie Gerut joining Ben for an occasional duet live from the studio.] At 88, Ben still sings like a cantor. In fact, he pitches in for an occasional Musaf at Canton's Temple Beth Abraham, where he is Cantor Emeritus.

Ben Gailing's Other Acts

It was cantorials that gave Ben his start as a performer. He sang in a shul choir in his shtetl in Czarist Poland until emigrating to America at 16. Before settling in Boston he was an actor in the Maurice Schwartz Yiddish Art Theater in New York. With other New York based Yiddish theater troupes he played the twelve-city circuit from Montreal to Cleveland. In the 1920's, the first decade of commercial radio, he had a show on WABC in New York.

Ben hasn't been only a media figure. For two summers in the '30's he was social director of the Workmen's Circle Camp in Framingham.

For decades he produced live shows in Boston, with talent both local and from New York.

And Ben is a writer. Long-time listeners to his radio show know the original rhyming editorials he used to recite before his eyes started getting too old. He has composed songs in Yiddish and done Yiddish translations of American popular songs. Most noteworthy is the weekly humor column he wrote from the '30's to the '50's in the Forverts. Ben has published a collection of those sketches in his book, Git a Shmeykhl, with titles like He stitches Matzos on the Singer Machine, An Interview with a Thanksgiving Turkey and The Busy Season in Heaven.
Ben Gailing on the air at the WDLW studio in Waltham, after "Arabian Nights" and before "Radio Free Albania," with Willie Nelson watching over all

The Ben Gailing Show is the longest running program in Boston broadcast history and probably in the history of the Free World, but Ben just can't rest on his laurels. At an age when other men who are still alive have long since settled into a dull and dignified retirement, Ben still works to gain new sponsors and listeners as if the show's survival depended on it.

Modernists may consider the show a relic, but the public service announcements Ben continues to read are for causes that are always current. Performers, communal agencies and a variety of Jewish interest groups know they can count on Ben to catch the attention of his audience and theirs every Sunday at 10:00 a.m.

Biz hundert un tsvantsik, Ben!

Excerpted from Yiddish in Boston, edited by David Maisel, published by The Workmen's Circle, Boston Branch. Copyright 1988 by David Maisel. Used with permission.

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