Jewish newspapers are a window not only into the Jewish present but also the Jewish past.
For nearly two centuries, Jewish daily and weekly newspapers have been a useful window into the life and soul of the local, regional and global Jewish community. Perusing the pages of a Jewish newspaper, as many of us do each week, one finds a diverse array of genres: news stories, scholarly essays by rabbis and lay intellectuals, op-eds, letters, poetry, serialized short stories and novellas and, of course, advertisements and announcements.
For historians of the Jewish community, especially for those of us interested in Alltagsgeschichte [history of daily life], Jewish newspapers are an indispensable source of firsthand accounts and firsthand perspectives. As such, Jewish newspapers have been, to paraphrase erstwhile publisher of the Washington Post Phil Graham: Jewish newspapers are the first rough draft of modern Jewish history.
Jewish newspapers, like other dailies and weeklies, have played a pivotal role in the democratization of knowledge. Prior to the rise of the internet and social media, the daily or weekly newspaper was the most effective way for writers to disseminate their ideas to the broadest audience in the shortest time. Contributors to Jewish newspapers at once benefited from and encouraged Jewish literacy. The more educated the readership, the more deeply and widely these written words would resonate. More importantly, the sheer variety and diversity of ideas and themes that emanated from the pages of the Jewish press — worlds beyond the erstwhile narrow range of rabbinic homilies and explications antiquated texts that often resonated very little with the pressing issues of the present — encouraged more Jews to attain a level of literacy and education necessary to appreciate these ideas.
The range of language and outlooks of the Jewish press, especially in the 20th century, has been as varied and diverse as the Jews themselves. The first Jewish weeklies published by German Jews (who pioneered so much of modern Jewish thought and politics) were, like most German Jews, liberal, enlightened, Reform, progressive. The Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums, which published its first issue in Leipzig in 1837, became the model for liberal Jewish weeklies in London, Vienna, Paris, Budapest and New York.
Though published in different languages, all these newspapers shared three aims: to provide a clearing house where Jewish communities around the world could exchange ideas and share successes and failures; to instill a sense of Jewish pride and a instill a connection with the Jewish community; and to advocate for and, later, to celebrate Jews attaining equal citizenship and access into mainstream society.
Russian Jews followed suit a generation later. Like Russian Jewry itself, Russian Jewish newspapers were more diverse than their Western counterparts in terms of language — Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino in addition to the many vernacular languages of Eastern Europe — and political and religious outlooks: Socialism, Zionism (of all varieties), Bundism, Modern Orthodox and even the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox press. By the turn of the 20th century, Jews living in major cities like Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna or Odessa, could choose from hundreds of Jewish daily and weekly papers written in a dozen languages, with views ranging from secular to ultra-Orthodox and from communist to conservative.
A Chorus of Voices
No less important, Jewish newspapers have been an invaluable venue for readers to encounter a tapestry of Jewish voices and outlooks that often engage with one another in constructive debate. In this regard, now and in the past, Jewish newspapers have varied in quality.
At their worst, Jewish newspapers targeted a relatively narrow audience with a one-dimensional view of the world and were reluctant to ruffle the feathers of less open-minded readers to the point of stifling the very free expression and exchange that made this genre so engaging and beneficial to the Jewish community as a whole. This was often the case of many (though by no means all) Orthodox newspapers, whose pages devolved into propaganda, ad hominem attacks and fearmongering. Often such newspapers survived only as long a wealthy Jewish patron who shared the view of the targeted readership was willing to underwrite the cost of what was typically a finite venture of limited value.
At their best, Jewish newspapers were a politically and religiously neutral space whose only prerequisite for publishing was elegance, nuance and substance; where all Jewish writers, especially those who were ostracized or marginalized by the traditional elements within the Jewish community, could express unconventional, novel and even controversial and heretical views.
In more than a few cases, a column or essay in a Jewish paper was the place where a view that started out radical found an audience and stirred discussion and debate en route to entering the psyche of the Jewish mainstream. Jewish authors like Sholem Aleichem, Y.L. Peretz, and Haim Nachman Bialik — to name a few — were first published in the pages of the Jewish press. Without this medium to connect them to their readers, these authors would have become so widely known to us only posthumously, if at all.
Today, Jewish newspapers are a window not only into the Jewish present but also the Jewish past. Spend an afternoon browsing the Detroit Jewish News archive (djnfoundation.org) or if you are more adventurous, check out a website called Historical Jewish press at www.nli.org.il/en/discover/newspapers/jpress, and you will see what I mean.
Professor Howard Lupovitch is associate professor of history and director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University.