A Little Respect (for Jewish journalism)

For the 20th anniversary issue of The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, it was suggested that I write a column about Jewish journalism. Herewith the result:

Jewish journalism is a much-maligned enterprise — it cries out like the late Rodney Dangerfield for respect.

No one really admits to reading a Jewish newspaper. “It comes to my home,” is what most people tell me. Or they claim to read it only when they can’t get their hands on anything else. “I was at the deli — they have it there.” I hear that a lot.

People who seem to actually like what I write are always telling me they wish it were published somewhere else. Somewhere better — i.e., more prestigious, with a larger circulation or certainly a less parochial one … somewhere less, in a word, Jewish.
“It’s really good,” I’m told as if that would disqualify my work for publication in a Jewish publication.

I won’t say that I haven’t, on occasion, shared these thoughts about other Jewish papers or Jewish journalism or even about my own ambitions for my writing.
But when I do — and particularly on the occasion of The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles’ 20th anniversary — I call to mind the longer view and recall the great history, tradition and noble cause of Jewish journalism.

I’m not sure who qualifies as the first Jewish journalists. It may have been the biblical Caleb and Joshua, who reported on the land of Canaan and brought back the headline: “Flowing With Milk and Honey; Land of Plenty.”

Or perhaps it was Josephus (37 C.E.-100 C.E.) who chronicled “The Jewish Wars,” his firsthand account of the Roman conquest of what is today Israel.

Jewish tradition is marked by rendering the oral tradition in print and recording the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the accounts of the prophets, the tales of Kings David and Solomon and the tales of the rabbis. One can argue that the Jewish embrace of the responsibility to bear witness and pass along the stories from generation to generation is the cornerstone for a calling in journalism.

Regardless of the cause or the inspiration, by the late 19th century, Jewish journalism was flourishing, as were Jews who were journalists — some of whom would forever shape the course of journalism and the course of world events.

To give but one notable example: In 1894, among those covering the Paris trial of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist. Witnessing the French crowds screaming “Death to the Jews!” profoundly impacted him. Two years later in 1896, Herzl wrote “The Jewish State,” the rallying cry for Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Although he didn’t work for a Jewish publication, Herzl entered history when his reporting focused on Jewish matters. Herzl did not live to see the creation of the State of Israel, a mere 52 years later, but in recognition of his role in the founding of the state, and as per his wishes, he is buried there today.

In the United States, America’s first Jewish newspaper, The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, was published in 1843 by Philadelphia’s Isaac Leeser. More than a decade later in 1854, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, leader of the Reform movement, founded The Israelite, a weekly that proclaimed itself “devoted to the Religion, History and Literature of the Israelites.”

Wise, himself an immigrant from Bohemia, was one of the most important Jewish figures of the post-Civil War era. The Israelite (later The American Israelite) was devoted to helping its readers become, as Wise once wrote, “Americans through and through.” However, Wise’s greatest contribution to American Journalism may not be The Israelite but rather his daughter, Iphigene “Effie” Wise, who married German Jewish immigrant Adolph Ochs in 1884.

In 1896, Ochs purchased The New York Times and set about making it the national newspaper of record. His descendants continue to steer The Times to this day.

Around the same time, the Hungarian-born Joseph Pulitzer, who had worked as a journalist for a German-language newspaper, acquired the St. Louis Post, later merging it with the St. Louis Dispatch. Pulitzer continued to acquire newspapers and became famous for sensationalist stories — or “yellow journalism.” In spite of that — or maybe because of it — he endowed the Pulitzer Prizes in Journalism at Columbia University.

English was only one of several possible languages for Jewish journalism in the United States. There was also a prevalence of German and Russian. The beginning of the 20th century saw a flood of Jewish immigration to the United States, bringing in a vast and engaged audience for Jewish papers in many languages, most notably Yiddish.

For many of its readers, there was a special quality to the Yiddish press that is missing from today’s Jewish journalism. Eddie Portnoy, a historian of Yiddish popular culture, said it this way: “The Yiddish press was a private conversation.”

It was by Jews for Jews, without concern about what the non-Jewish population might think.

“I think this press was the most important element in modernizing both immigrant Jews, as well as Jews in Eastern Europe.” Portnoy told me. “It opened up a literal universe of new people, places, names and concepts. It also served as the birthplace for modern Yiddish literature. And in Russia, this was under the extreme duress of czarist oppression, which permitted only one Yiddish weekly from 1862 to 1889 for a population of nearly 5 million Jews, 97 percent of whom used Yiddish as their mother tongue.”

Although many still know the work of literary figures who appeared in the Yiddish press, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and his older brother, I.J. Singer, lost to time are the many great reporters of the day, who not only covered news but also sports and crime, such as Schlomye Feinkind, whom Portnoy dubbed “the king of the Warsaw crime reporters.”

Perhaps the most important American Jewish paper of that era was the Yiddish-language Forverts (Forward), which began as a daily on April 22, 1897, in New York. Founding editor Abraham Cahan, a Russian immigrant, also authored the famous “Bintel Brief” column, giving advice to immigrants. At one point in the first decades of the 20th century, there were five Yiddish dailies competing for New York’s readers, with The Forverts’ circulation reaching 275,000.

The Forverts’ Yiddish readership declined during the 20th century to the point where by the late 1980s, it had become a weekly. However, in 1990 an English-language independent, weekly publication, The Forward, was launched under the editorial leadership of Seth Lipsky. Lipsky has since become editor of the revived New York Sun, a paper that a century before had attacked Pulitzer for losing touch with his Jewish ethics.

Among the Jewish publications that furthered the idea of a private conversation were those directed specifically at women. Rabbi Wise’s 19th-century Israelite published a women’s supplement called Devorah. Along with The American Jewess (1895-99), these pioneering publications became the catalyst for a growing activism among Jewish women — whose voice would be furthered in such publications as Hadassah and Lilith.

Jewish journalism in the 21st century continues to thrive at more than 100 publications nationwide. There are more religious publications than ever before and more sacrilegious ones, as well. There are American Jewish newspapers devoted to Israeli and Persian immigrants and others aimed at a new generation of Russians, and there are also new Yiddish publications. In Europe, there is a resurgence of Jewish publications in Hebrew, Russian, German, Yiddish and Hungarian.

Which brings me back to my original point: Don’t Jewish newspapers deserve a little more respect?

The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Personally, I think it’s a thought-filled, well-written, well-edited publication that often trumps other L.A. papers on political, local and arts coverage. But more important, as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s a place that I, as a writer and as a reader, can call home.

So go ahead: Read a Jewish paper. And if you enjoy it, tell others. At first, they may be reluctant to admit it, but you may find that they are not only subscribers, they actually read The Journal, as well.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.