Queen bee of Jewish music

Estelle Deutsch Abraham holds “Welcome to Yiddish” an album that she recorded as a guide to Klezmer music. Photo by Daniel Schere
Estelle Deutsch Abraham holds “Welcome to Yiddish” an album that she recorded as a guide to Klezmer music.
Photo by Daniel Schere

She teaches, she sings and she’s had an hour-long radio show on Sunday mornings for 30 years.
Jewish music has been central to Estelle Deutsch Abraham since she was 5 years old.

Abraham hosts “Jewish Community Radio” each Sunday at 10 a.m. on WUST-AM 1120. During the hourlong program, the Bethesda resident plays a variety of Jewish music — particularly songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino — and explains the songs’ origin and the meaning of the lyrics. She also conducts interviews with musicians and members of the Washington Jewish community.

On Sept. 11, she began her broadcast with a blast of the shofar and a brief remembrance of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

“On this day we sense the unbearable silence of the dead,” she said at the show’s opening. “Another temple of sorts was destroyed. But the purpose of good people must persist despite the cruelties of other men. We must take note of this when the shofar blows.”


This show also marked the first of four High Holiday-themed broadcasts, and included Jewish composer Max Janowski’s “Avinu Malkeinu.” Later, she interviewed Cantor Lisa Levine of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase about her career and plans for singing during the High Holidays, as well as an upcoming musical trip to Cuba.

“She knows everybody and everything about Jewish Washington music-wise,” said Cantor Mikhail Manevich of Washington Hebrew Congregation, who has known Abraham for 27 years and is a repeat guest on her show.

Abraham, 88, got hooked on radio as a child during the Great Depression, first in Brooklyn and then on 15th Street in Northeast Washington. It was a time, she said, when material goods were hard to come by and children had to find inventive ways to have fun.

“No toys. Nothing. We only had a radio and it was great,” she said. “We had it on all the time, tuned to the Jewish stations.”

Her immigrant parents bonded over a love of music, which they passed down to Estelle and her sister, Dolores. Estelle began singing on the radio for fun as a child and later joined forces with Dolores in making music professionally.

In the 1950s, the sisters often took their talents to Jewish camps around the United States.  “We were part of a wonderful, very lucky time to grow up in,” she said.

For her second act, she began teaching in her 20s and worked at what are now the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy and Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.

“I knew the old man Charles E. Smith,” she said of the real estate developer and contributor to a number of Washington-area Jewish institutions. “He liked his Yiddish songs actually that my sister and I used to sing. He was older and we were teenagers.”

For more than 20 years, Abraham taught music in Jewish schools, synagogues and even at Fort Belvoir — a job for which she received an award from the Army due to her innovative curriculum that was suited to military families. Along the way she married David Abraham, a biochemist at the National Institutes of Health, and had two boys. So by the spring of 1986, with her children grown and her teaching career nearing an end, Abraham decided it was time for her third act.

Abraham realized that she could mix her love of Jewish music with her love of teaching by taking to the airwaves. When the host of the radio show that played Jewish music called in sick, she filled in.

The host paid to broadcast during the time slot.  “It was going to go down the tube,” she said of the show. “Jews for Jesus was going to take the time slot. My husband said, ‘let’s [pay for the slot] for three months and see what we can do.’”

Abraham knew she wanted to be more than just a disc jockey. “I wanted use the venue as an educational thing,” she said. “I’m an educator, and I think that comes over the air. I have to watch myself from becoming too pedagogic.”

Abraham’s show has had a significant impact in the community, said Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who has been a guest on Abraham’s program several times, promoting the Pro Music Hebraica concert series at the Kennedy Center that he and his wife, Robyn, set up.

“She has been a real asset and hero in the cause of Jewish culture. More than anything is her real dedication to preservation and propagation of Jewish culture. She’s devoted so much of her life to it in a very admirable way.”

“She’s like an institution. She and the show,” said Chaplain Michael Blum, the national chaplain of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., which Abraham supports by reading a prayer each year at an Arlington Cemetery memorial service. “She is extremely knowledgeable about Judaism and Jewish music.”

Manevich said that “whenever I have a question about music, especially Yiddish music, she is the number one person that I call.”

“There’s so much new going on in Jewish music, and what’s good about her is that she evolves with the times.”

Well into her third act, Abraham said there is nothing she would like better than to hear her great-grandson sing.

“I was playing music for him last week,” she said. “Three months old, and his big eyes open up, and he loved it. I could sense it.”

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