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The Lamplighter

He had two million listeners.

Our mission here at Accidental Talmudist is to elevate social media by sharing Jewish wisdom with everybody. We just learned about a kindred soul, Rabbi Jacob Tarshish, who almost a hundred years ago did something very similar. His mission was to elevate radio by sharing Jewish wisdom with everybody.

Born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1892, Rabbi Jacob Tarshish came to America as a teenager. He settled in Ohio and became the rabbi of B’nei Israel Congregation in Columbus. He served as a pulpit rabbi in Columbus for eighteen years before shocking everyone by quitting to start a radio show.

In the 1930’s, radio was becoming increasingly popular in America, with nearly every home owning one. Unlike today, with so many forms of media available to us, radio was the only game in town for home entertainment. The vast majority of shows were light entertainment, music or news. There were also a few Christian evangelists, including the wildly popular Aimee Semple McPherson, but there was no Jewish religious content.

Rabbi Jacob Tarshish set out to change that. He saw in the new medium of radio a golden opportunity to inspire people with Jewish teachings. He called his show “The Lamplighter,” and started at WAIU-AM in Ohio. On the show, Rabbi Tarshish shared universal Jewish wisdom with a wide and diverse audience. He was especially adept at making deep concepts accessible to all, and he had a warm, charismatic personality that gave the show its trademark combination of entertainment value and spiritual uplift. The Lamplighter was so popular that many other stations picked it up and soon the show was available in radio markets all over the country.

Rabbi Tarshish supported his family during this time by airing radio ads for cosmetics and medical supplements such as Dr. Edwards Olive Tablets, Kreml Hair Tonic, and Bost Tooth Paste. Some in the Jewish community disapproved of Rabbi Tarshish for selling air space, considering it too commercial and not befitting the dignity of a rabbi (maybe he should have formed a nonprofit like Accidental Talmudist!). Despite the naysayers, The Lamplighter was wildly successful. At the height of its popularity, Rabbi Tarshish had two million devoted listeners all over the United States, the vast majority of whom were not Jewish.

The Lamplighter ran from Jan 3, 1936 to April 14, 1941. After it went off the air in 1941, Rabbi Tarshish became an in-demand motivational speaker who traveled the country lecturing to a wide variety of religious, fraternal, women’s and educational organizations. He gave over 300 speeches a year, setting audiences on fire with his oratory skills and universal message of love and friendship based on ancient Jewish teachings. Rabbi Tarshish wrote a popular book, Little Journeys with the Lamplighter, and published a compilation of his most popular speeches, Half Hours With Rabbi Jacob Tarshish.

Rabbi Jacob died at Hanukkah time in 1960, at age 67, and is buried at the Greater Baltimore Lodge Cemetery. His headstone reads: “Beloved Husband and Father” and below that his Hebrew name Yaakov ben Peretz HaLevi. Rabbi Tarshish was survived by his wife Goldie, children Emanuel Tarshish, Elaine Eistenstein, and Rhoda Cokain, and two grandchildren.

Although Rabbi Tarshish was well-known during his lifetime, he seems to have been forgotten by history. We weren’t able to find any more information about him than what we’ve presented here. We’re very curious to learn if he has any living relatives. If anybody knows more about him or the Tarshish family, please let us know!

For inspiring millions of radio listeners with the light of Judaism, we honor Rabbi Jacob Tarshish as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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