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Preserving an old culture on a new medium
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Preserving an old culture on a new medium

Charlie Bernhaut with a 1904 RCA victrola
Charlie Bernhaut with a 1904 RCA victrola

Some might consider Charlie Bernhaut a grumpy old man because he doesn’t care much for the current style of Jewish music. “Too Americanized,” as he put it.

When it comes to that good, old-fashioned Jewish soul music — the kind sung by classically-trained cantors — Bernhaut is your man. He likes it even better when he can pick from the collection of 15,000 78-RPM albums he has amassed over the last 30-plus years and play it on one of his antique victrolas.

“I guess I’m a traditionalist. I am not happy with the new wave,” Bernhaut told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview. “There was a sound, a feeling from the 30s, 40s, 50s, into the 70s. And then it seemed to me the music became more Americanized, louder. It became what I call ‘yaba-daba-do’ music [recalling cartoon character Fred Flintstone’s signature phrase]. It lost something.”

Bernhaut — a graduate of Weequahic High School in Newark and Rutgers University — stopped collecting “about eight or 10 years ago because I found the music to be boring, or let’s just say not Jewish for me.”

Today’s klezmer music, for example, bears little resemblance to that of generations past, he said. “You have groups all over the place, bands with perhaps some Jews, perhaps not many Jews, and they’ve co-opted the term ‘klezmer.’ It’s jazz, really. It’s guys getting together doing their thing. But it has lost, for me, the Jewish feel. I’ve pretty much given up on it.”

Technology allows musicians to make their CDs and MP3s available to a wide audience with little fuss and cost, but Bernhaut doesn’t necessarily think that’s a good thing. Nevertheless, he has taken advantage of some of that technology. In March, he launched the eponymous Charliebernhaut.com, where he “web-casts” Jewish Soul Music each Monday from 9 to 11 p.m. Since all the programs are archived, fans of the genre can listen in at any time.

Bernhaut became fascinated with old-fashioned phonographs in the early 1960s and from there began to collect the old-fashioned records to go with them. The advent of “45s” in the 1950s basically brought an end to the production of 78s. In the years before the Internet and eBay, he found his treasures via ads in Jewish newspapers — including the NJ Jewish News — or by visiting garage and estate sales. After awhile, he developed a reputation.

“People contacted me when a parent or grandparent would pass away. They would have the old records [but] they didn’t have the players on which to play them so they would throw them away or give them to me.”

Bernhaut got an unexpected break in 1977. While driving, he chanced upon a program on Upsala College’s radio station playing Jewish and Hebrew music. He contacted the show’s host with the idea of offering his albums for use. “He shocked me when he said he wasn’t interested in cantorial Yiddish, but if I wanted to, I could bring those records into the studio and every Friday morning he’d give me a half-hour, 45 minutes to play them.”

Bernhaut would also bring one of his old wind-up victrolas to the studio and put the steel needle onto the old records. A new “career” was launched. “I got the bug,” he said.

Bernhaut, whose “day job” is in real estate development, later hosted a two-hour show on Seton Hall University’s radio station, a gig which ended in 1995. In 2002, he and Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky of the Jewish Center in Manhattan formed Cantors World, an organization dedicated to promoting interest in traditional music.

For the past several years, Bernhaut hosted another program that focused on the genre, which ran from midnight to 1 a.m. “Even after midnight on not a major station, it was over $500 an hour.” Since he did not want to waste time by airing commercials, the money came out of his pocket and that of a few supporters, but “I just got tired of begging for money and went off the air.”

He realized that he could create a website for a fraction of the cost of the radio program. His new venture has the potential to reach a global audience, rather than just a relative handful who would receive a weak radio signal. “I have listeners contact me from South Africa, Israel, Europe, Australia,” he said. The number of people who visit Charliebernhaut.com “is not in the thousands yet, but it will get there.”

The project remains a labor of love. “Never made a penny in all the 33 years and people think I’m crazy. But if I had to make money on it, I’d be broke.”

“Two Hours of Jewish Soul Music” appears Mondays from 9 to 11 p.m. at www.charliebernhaut.com.

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