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Menachem of the Mike

Yisroel Besser

Menachem Toker is the voice of chareidi radio, the man who picks the next big star and keeps his audience chuckling, but don’t be fooled. There’s a mandate behind the moves

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

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HIGH VISIBILITY Toker is visible well beyond his radio show. He’s a sought-after emcee for dinners, events, and concerts. “I got a phone call one day,” he says, sitting up straight, instantly serious, “from Rav Aharon Leib Steinman. The Rosh Yeshivah told me that there was a role to play in this generation for someone who does what I do. He wanted me to realize that, to see the opportunities, and he gave me a warm brachah” (Photos: Lior Mizrachi)

Cofix CEO Avi Katz picks up his cell phone. 

“Avi, how are you?” 

“Good, thanks, who’s this?” 

“It’s Menachem Toker, from the radio. We’re live. We love your products, great stuff. Didn’t you promise that you’ll always sell coffee for five shekel a cup? Why did you go up to six shekels?” The CEO of the popular coffee chain hesitates, and in his silence, you can almost hear him weighing his options. He can hang up and reject the ambush, or play the good sport. But Menachem Toker, with his lightning-quick banter and easy affability, has already made Katz a friend, part of the joke. 

Katz takes a deep breath. “I see you like to surprise people,” he says, then launches into an explanation about the price hike. 

A few days later, in the heat of a public debate about featuring a Sephardic personality on some denomination of the shekel, Shas leader Aryeh Deri telephones Bank of Israel governor Karnit Flug and challenges her. Ms. Flug answers the minister with respect, explaining that it isn’t simple to add new denominations — large amounts make money-laundering simple, she says. Deri debates her, and eventually, the call ends.

Except it isn’t Aryeh Deri, it’s a comedian and talented Deri impersonator named Ariel Cohen, calling live, on-air, for the enjoyment of Toker listeners.

(Flug would be informed, the radio station would apologize, the governor would handle it with grace, and the recording of the Deri mimic would go viral.)

Like the Cofix call, it was typical Menachem Toker: first and foremost entertaining, but with a touch of real-time relevance. His audience, largely chareidi, isn’t glued to the radio like the rest of Israel, and many are unencumbered by the social media information deluge. That’s why this fun, slightly wacky social commentary that might seem hackneyed for a more media-obsessed audience actually works.

The chareidi radio scene in Israel is a bit bizarre, featuring deejays that sing along or even stop a song in the middle to say something important. Along with halachah lectures and the usual assortment of experts on parenting, health, and weight loss, there is a show where a kabbalist will make a Mi Shebeirach — live, on air — if you call now, now, now, a bargain at 18 shekel off your credit card.

Menachem Toker stands alone as a three-dimensional show host: music, talk, fun — and even some inspiration.

WE MEET ON AN ORDINARY WINTER AFTERNOON, some rain in the forecast, snow in the Hermon, but the radio host with unfailing instincts for hot topics has detected public anger about Israel’s new “bag tax.” As of January 2017, groceries began charging for plastic bags, so Toker’s gimmick — pick up free plastic bags at the studio — is today’s way of letting the people know that he gets it.

It’s this ability to not just tap into musical tastes, but feel the opinions and concerns of his audience, that makes Menachem Toker a celebrity. The cafe where we meet, on the second floor of Ramot’s shopping mall, features the standard Thursday night crowd — couples grabbing a few quiet moments, high school girls with binders held close, Shabbos shoppers from the huge supermarket on the first floor.

Sharing the air with Yaakov Shwekey. Toker’s Erev Shabbos show is often the only positive window on the chareidi community for many, and the host is well aware of the responsibility he carries. El Al Airlines features a Jewish music channel — all Toker, all the time

Not too many diners pass our table without lingering for a second glance. Some approach to shake his hand.

He laughs when I point it out. “It’s because I’m bald, so I have a distinctive face.”

Dinner with a radio host is very much like listening to his show: He does most of the talking, offering a running commentary and on-site analysis. Including self-analysis.

“I was raised in a classic yeshivish chareidi home, except for one thing. My father is American and my mother is Dutch, so there was a certain openness in our upbringing. My favorite 60 minutes of the week were the one hour when they played chassidic music on the radio. I would park myself next to the radio and listen intently, transported. I wished they would play more.” Menachem Toker’s destiny was sealed by his friendship with a classmate and fellow Bayit V’gan resident, Menachem Ehrenthal. 

“HE CONTRACTED LEUKEMIA AS A BABY, and fought it off again and again over the years. It was part of his life, and he was my best friend, so I shared that journey with him. I remember each stage, back to the hospital, home again. I was there when he lost his hair. There were periods of time when I was the only one allowed into his room, aside from his parents.”

Young Menachem Toker became too familiar with the Bayit V’gan–Hadassah Ein Kerem route. “Part of what kept his spirits up and gave him the ability to go on was music, so in his case, music was life.”

The Jewish music personalities of that era, the early 1980s, understood the obligations presented by a sick child, and Mordechai Ben David, Avraham Fried, and Rabbi Baruch Chait were among the regular visitors. Menachem Toker got to know them, he and his best friend imagining concerts and acting as pretend emcees for the singers.

Menachem Ehrenthal’s song was stilled too soon — the young man was niftar at the age of 14. His parents established Zichron Menachem, an organization that supports and assists cancer patients, and Menachem Toker became a force on the musical end; there were concerts in support of the new organization and frequent kumziztes and gatherings for patients and their families.

Younger brother Yerach Toker, a well-known political strategist, remembers his older brother with a stick in his hand. “Not chasing me,” Yerach jokes. “My earliest memories of Menachem are of him walking around with a pretend microphone, singing and announcing.”

Interestingly, Menachem says, it was this outlet, and his parents’ willingness to allow him to embrace it, that helped him later on.

“Later on, some of my friends got into different sorts of trouble, but I didn’t have a yetzer hara to join them because I had music. I was too devoted to it to be looking for other pursuits.” 

TOKER WAS A BOCHUR IN THE MIR, not yet 20 years old, when he received an interesting offer.

“A friend of mine who felt I had the personality and voice offered me a gig on Arutz Sheva. It was an overnight music show, and involved basically just sitting there and making sure everything was under control. I grabbed it.” (excerpted)

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