Radio Provides New Platform for Longtime Cantor


Marshall Portnoy has finally fulfilled a longtime dream: starting a radio show.

Since March 6, listeners have been able to tune into WWDB-AM Talk 860 or online on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. for The Marshall Portnoy Show.

He brings in guests from organizations, as well as musicians, a Yiddishist and even a chef — who happens to be his wife, Jane, though he said that’s a secret — for the hour-long program.

Cantor Marshall Portnoy

“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Portnoy said on a recent day at the Barnes Foundation. He is a docent there and gives special attention to the  Jewish artists with works in the facility, “to present to the community a mix of exciting Jewish music, of people in our community — and beyond our community — that make a difference, to examine with fresh eyes our Jewish holidays and the structure of our calendar that serves as an elegant structure for our lives as Jews.”

“Between the music and the conversation, radio is just a medium that is so marvelously immediate and lends itself to the celebration,” he said.

The language element is important to him, which is why each episode contains a bissel Yiddish as well as a Hebrew segment.

“It’s very important … that we not forget our Yiddish heritage. And that we always examine the roots, literal roots,” he said, pausing to say hello to Thom Collins, the director of the Barnes and his first guest. “Letter roots are more than letter roots; they’re the roots of our existence and our understanding of being a people.”

Portnoy, who has served as cantor at Main Line Reform Temple for 24 years, emphasized the show is not a classroom — he likes to make it fun. But there is also room to place appropriate focus on holidays and celebrations, like an upcoming episode about Yom Hashoah. On April 10, the session will be commercial-free and the hour will be filled with music, history, poetry and other elements related to the occasion.

But the following week, in honor of Yom Haatzmaut, there will be a joyful celebration of Israel’s independence, and he will be joined by a guest who grew up in Philadelphia and is making aliyah.

Another session will focus on the cantorial tradition: Portnoy will be joined by a group of cantors, including one who also serves as Philadelphia’s only full-time mohel.

It does take a lot of work to prepare and plan the sessions, he admitted, but the opportunity to bring on guests who are doing important work in the Jewish community and beyond was too good to pass up.

“I want people to know the depth and the breadth of what Jewish people are doing for one another and for non-Jewish people,” he said. “There’s so much good being done. Just in the last few weeks, I’ve interviewed JCHAI, HIAS, Philly Friendship Circle, Jewish Family and Children’s Service — and I want to keep their work at the forefront of my listeners’ attention.”

He also hopes his listeners will become a part of the show. Those who tune in are encouraged to tell him about their birthdays, their anniversaries, their kids’ birthdays — “I want the show to become like a town square,” he said.

The radio show will be one of his primary focuses moving forward — and spending time with his 15-month-old grandson — as he plans to take a step back from the synagogue when it welcomes a new full-time cantor.

He looks forward to interviewing future guests, as well as encouraging listeners to tune in to the interviews he’s done, such as with Austin Pendleton, the actor who originated the role of Motel in Fiddler on the Roof.

“The material is rich and compelling, the music is exciting, and it is a great way of connecting the past and affirming our future,” he said. “As the show evolves, it’s going to get even more exciting and more wonderful.”

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