Live from Tov Pizza, it's `Shalom USA'

Marathon Christmas Day broadcast coincides with Hanukkah and features guest callers, music, fundraising and latke-eating contest


The frustration Jay Bernstein feels most Sundays on Shalom USA, the Jewish-affairs radio show that he broadcasts with lifelong friend Larry Cohen, is that two hours isn't enough time.

That won't be a problem this week. Bernstein and Cohen will be celebrating the first day of Hanukkah today with a 12-hour show live from Tov Pizza in Pikesville. Guests scheduled to call in include Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was elected last week to lead the Likud Party; and Yisrael Lau, the former chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Israel.

Amid the gravitas, Bernstein and Cohen also will find time for music, listener calls and a latke-eating contest.

"It's a lot of fun, even though it's a long day," said Bernstein, who will co-host the show with Cohen from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on WITH 1230 AM. "The adrenaline starts flowing, and the day goes quickly."

The marathon Christmas Day broadcast has become an annual tradition for Bernstein and Cohen, who were newcomers to radio when they started what they called Shalom Baltimore in 1999.

Both city natives, Bernstein, 48, an attorney in private practice, and Cohen, 49, an information technology specialist with the Social Security Administration, had attended Talmudical Academy together as children. As adults, they co-founded People Against Hate to counter local appearances by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and others and worked to raise funds for Jewish education.

It was during that work that a friend suggested the pair start a radio program. Neither had known that they could buy time on a local station and sell advertising themselves to cover their costs. They began planning a program that would include interviews with guests, some debate - they agree that Bernstein leans to the left, Cohen to the right, and both are pro-Israel - and music.

"Our goal all along was to provide a program that educates and entertains the Jewish community," Cohen said. "So we play some music, four or five short songs during our regular two-hour program, but most of the time our idea is to get people in the news to talk to the Jewish community about what they are doing and how it affects the Jewish community."

Bernstein and Cohen, who estimate their weekly audience at up to 10,000 listeners, have interviewed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, Soviet dissident-turned-Israeli politician Natan Sharansky and Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel.

Cohen has broadcast from Israel, where he was interrupted earlier this year by the blast of a nearby missile strike. The pair were at the governor's mansion last week to air the Hanukkah party thrown by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his wife, Kendel.

"Generally, they have very, very interesting guests," said Mark Carp, who appeared on the show after the 2003 publication of his novel Abraham: The Last Jew. "They're bright guys, and they're remarkably well-prepared. They don't fake their way through interviews."

Listener Margie Krell says the show presents an alternative to The Sun and other media, which she says are biased in their reporting on Israel.

Bernstein and Cohen "offer fair and balanced reporting," Krell said. "They also keep us informed of local events within the Jewish community, and we're able to call in and have a two-way conversation."

Gary Bauman, another listener, also appreciates the international coverage.

"It means that at least one day a week, I can get a concentrated portion of what's going on, particularly in Israel and between U.S. and Israel relations," he said. "They're both Orthodox, so probably that view is predominant, but surely you hear plenty of views, and of course all the callers are from the whole wide range, the whole spectrum."

Bernstein and Cohen, who say the show generates enough money to break even, began their Christmas Day marathon in response to the dearth of live programming on the holiday. This year, it will fall on the first day of Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights during which Jews celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel in the second century B.C. after it had been converted to a pagan shrine by invading Syrian Greeks.

At the kosher pizzeria in Pikesville, Bernstein and Cohen will light a menorah, host the latke-eating contest and raise money for Meir Panim, a charity that operates soup kitchens in Israel.

"Everybody's in a holiday spirit," said Tov Pizza owner Ronnie Rosenbluth. "We start much earlier in the morning than usual, come in and do breakfast, and have a lot of people coming through. It's a lot of fun."

Bernstein says the feeling is mutual.

"Usually, we're somewhat cloistered in the studio," he said. "It's nice to be out there before the public."

"It's a great feeling," Cohen said. "It's in the heart of the Jewish community, and people certainly know that we're going to be there. There will be people who like my perspective who will be heckling Jay, and the other way around."

Krell said Bernstein and Cohen are "a part of the heart of the Jewish community."

"They understand the feelings, and they know the pulse," she said. "They do good charity work. And they're great guys."

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