You know who I miss? I miss Sam Moss, who had a radio program around here, but only for about 35 years. On Sunday mornings, when the gentiles were in church, Sam was on the radio kibitzing with the Jews.
In Sam’s inflections came echoes of Borscht Belt merriment, of immigrant inflections now fading with the years, and of pure ethnic pride, the kind that reminds every minority group of its membership in the great American mix.
Every week, Sam did an hour of Jewish history, song and humor. The jokes, you practically knew the punchlines before Sam recited them. They were mostly retreads swiped by Milton Berle from Henny Youngman, and in the same noble tradition, swiped by Sam. And the music was timely, fresh as the day Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor recorded it.
“The Sam Moss Jewish Hour of Comedy and Pride” seemed to shake something loose from history’s cobwebs. In Sam’s voice, you heard echoes of grandparents originally from Minsk or Warsaw trying so hard, and so sweetly, to delight an entire extended family.
Today, you turn on the radio and hear voices in constant talk-show combat. With Sam, the sound was pure joy. It was part of his DNA. For 41 years, he owned a small remodeling company. One of his customers was Jack Luskin, the owner of the appliance chain. Every time they met, Sam rattled off a series of jokes.
“You should have your own show,” Luskin told him one day.
“With all due respect,” said Moss, “you’re crazy.”
Then, Luskin told Sam he’d sponsor him. And so began a radio career in which Sam’s show actually outlived the first three stations on which he worked — WAYE, WITH and WFBR. Remember them? Sam was a one-man wandering tribe of the airwaves.
One time, we sat in his kitchen and talked about the show. He said his mother came from Russia, and “she never said a word of English that anybody could understand. She’d tell me, ‘Go to the store and pick up some important sardines.’ For her, ‘important’ meant ‘imported.’”
That gentle wordplay, and those vanishing dialects, became part of Moss’s radio persona. He and his wife, Rose, would spend evenings digging through old record albums and Yiddish joke books, refining each week’s show. They knew each other since their childhood days near Patterson Park.
“If Rose doesn’t like a joke,” Sam said, glancing lovingly at his bride of six decades, “I take it out of the show.”
“Not always,” Rose said.
“All right, not always,” Sam said. “If I take ’em all out, I’ll have nothing left.”
Behind such gentle banter was the very flavor of the show. It was the sound of the familiar — the self-effacing tone, the poke in one’s own ribs, the tribal rhythms of yesteryear. There were talmudic references, but this was a show built on Jewishness as it is lived around street corners and kitchen tables.
“My life,” Sam said one time, “is built on laughter, ever since I was a boy. You pick up a story here, a story there. And always, with love and pride.”
And then one day when Sam was only 85 and still full of energy, the show was over. He was working at WCBM when somebody got the brilliant idea to switch the show to Sunday afternoons — opposite pro football.
“Who’s going to listen at 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon?” Sam asked. “I wouldn’t listen myself. At 3 o’clock on a Sunday, I’m listening to a ballgame.”
Everybody else was, too. The ratings tanked. And then one day, Sam found a slip of paper in his mailbox at the station, saying, “Next week will be your last show.”
And that was it. That tiny corner of local radio long set aside for Jewish humor and music and memory was gone. For those who treasured the Sam Moss radio hour, it felt like a guy getting yanked in the middle of a joke, and the punchline was a real TKO.
Michael Olesker is a Jmore columnist. A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
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