Thursday, January 10, 2008

In defense of Jewish journalism

About a year before I joined The Jewish Journal, on the paper's 20th anniversary, Tom Teicholz wrote this column in honor of Yiddish reportage. I just stumbled across it, and it's worth a read, especially in light of that article I linked to earlier this week.
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.
Like FUBU for Jews.
Which brings me back to my original point: Don't Jewish newspapers deserve a little more respect?

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