Back to the future with Freedland

Back to the future with Freedland

Freedland interviews for JC May 2021 by Jenni Frazer

Fifty years ago the journalist and broadcaster Michael Freedland launched a groundbreaking series of programmes on BBC Radio London, called “You Don’t Have To Be Jewish”, capturing the brightest and best of the Jewish world.

Now, thanks to his son, Guardian and JC columnist Jonathan Freedland, the cream of those programmes can be heard once again, on BBC Sounds, reopening a window on a world of communal causes, campaigns, fierce fights and political benevolence.

Michael Freedland, who died in 2018, began the programmes in 1971. The series, the last four years of which were on LBC, ran for an unprecedented 24 years, with Michael casting his net wide and interviewing the great and the good — and sometimes the not so great.

Jonathan Freedland — who features in one of the programmes picked out for the BBC Sounds package, interviewing, aged just 18, the writer Amos Oz, for a feature on fathers and sons — says that the BBC have been “fantastic” in helping bring this heritage feature to the airwaves again.

“Originally I had approached the BBC to ask permission to use the programmes on a small website we were going to set up, YouDon’ But there were so many legal and data protection hurdles, that someone from BBC Archives said, why don’t we just put the programmes out on BBC Sounds?”

Jacob Freedland, Jonathan’s elder son, now a student at Cambridge, spent much of his gap year working through his grandfather’s quarter-inch tapes and converting them into digital files so that they would be broadcast ready, a labour of love that involved him buying a reel-to-reel tape recorder from eBay and then playing through the programmes.

And what a treasure trove the family has uncovered. In the 50 programmes, a small snapshot of Anglo and world Jewry from 1971 onwards, there are features about Soviet Jewry — a big issue at the time — about interfaith, with an early set-piece between the Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits and the then Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan, about the massacre of Israel athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and conversations with film stars such as Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Jonathan Freedland notes that Ingrid Bergman was on the programme to talk about her support for Soviet Jews, rather than her Hollywood career.

There are contributions from prime ministers such as Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, and Yitzchak Rabin, and in 1975 a special programme devoted to the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen, featuring survivor Gena Turgel and her husband Norman, one of the liberating British soldiers whom she met in the camp.

There are, of course, rabbis aplenty, with the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, the Holocaust survivor and leading Reform rabbi, among Michael Freedland’s favourites, and thus a frequent guest. “My father really loved Hugo”, says Jonathan Freedland. One of the programmes features an unfortunate clash between Rabbi Gryn and the future chief rabbi of South Africa, the fiery-tempered Glaswegian Cyril Harris.

“This is the conversation which is said to have cost Cyril Harris his chance of being Chief Rabbi in the UK,” says Jonathan Freedland. It relates to an exchange which “turned nasty” when Harris told Gryn that there were Reform converts “who don’t know the difference between an alef (the Hebrew letter) and a swastika”. Not the kind of thing you want to say to a Holocaust survivor.

One of Jonathan Freedland’s favourite programmes dates from 1977, when his father broadcast live an address by Prime Minister James Callaghan to the Board of Deputies to mark the 60th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. And inevitably, there is the one that got away — Michael Freedland’s seminal programme on the Entebbe rescue of July 1976 is nowhere to be found. Maybe, hope the family, someone out there might have a copy of the broadcast.

Unravelling Israeli politics from Jerusalem was the future Israeli president, Belfast-born Chaim Herzog, whose son, Isaac, will appear on a celebratory panel on Sunday at JW3, together with Simon Schama and Karen Pollock.

Jonathan Freedland currently co-presents a podcast with Yonit Levi of Channel 12 in Israel, which, he says, “is recorded at exactly the same time that my father used to record YDHTBJ. I’d like to think that if he were around today, he’d be doing a podcast, too”.

Fifty of the best of YDHTBJ programmes will be available from Sunday May 21 on BBC Sounds.

  • 7 June, 2021