I can still recall with some clarity the meeting that was convened ten years ago in the living room of the Shapiro-Bronstein home, at which the assembled parties shared their plans, visions and trepidations about setting up a new newspaper for the Calgary Jewish community. In spite of our general optimism, nagging doubts were nibbling in the backs of our minds about whether the proposed journal would succeed in attracting advertisers, satisfying readers and living up to our high-minded ideals. How gratifying it is to see that the Free Press has passed its ten-year milestone!
Whatever obstacles may have stood in the way of the Jewish Free Press, 's founders, they can hardly compare with the frustrations faced by the pioneers of Jewish journalism in Czarist Russia. The need for a Jewish press was felt to be urgent for several reasons. The economic situation of the Jewish populace was extremely delicate, and several Jewish leaders , aware of the developments that were going on in western European societies, became convinced that their plight could be alleviated only if Jewish society could be raised from the medieval morass in which it was steeped, and taught to function in a modern society.
Similar accusations were being levelled by the Russian government, who insisted that the Jews had only themselves to blame for their depressed condition, and that it was up to them to solve their predicament .
The establishment of a Jewish press was felt to be an ideal instrument in this struggle. The new medium would serve a dual purpose, of educating the Jews in modern thought and vocational skills, while at the same time providing an counterbalance to the antisemitic misrepresentations that coloured almost all portrayals of Judaism in Russian society. The newspapers would provide news about current events in the Jewish and general worlds, as well as introductory lessons in the rudiments of natural science and mathematics. The pages would serve as town-hall meetings for the exchange of opinions on social and political issues. Several of them would also have literary supplements that could showcase the creations of the Hebrew and Yiddish authors. Since few Russian Jews were fluent in Russian, the newspapers would be printed in Hebrew or Yiddish, though some of them would also contain sections in Russian, intended primarily to educate gentiles about Judaism.
The initial outlook did indeed seem promising for the prospective publishers. There was an emerging Jewish middle class with an awareness of current developments, that could supply the core readership for the newspapers. Several of these individuals could be counted on to invest in the new enterprises, and some were even knowledgable enough to contribute their share of articles. The turbulent events of the era, like the Crimean War of 1853, kindled a broad interest in current affairs. The success of the Yiddish Koreh Ha-Ittim, which began to appear twice-weekly in Roumania in 1855, provided encouragement to potential publishers in Russia.
There remained one formidable hurdle that had to be overcome: Under the totalitarian Czarist regime, such an enterprise required official permission from the government, and that permission was not forthcoming. This lesson was learned quickly by Samuel Warshawsky when, in 1850, he submitted a request to the minister of education to establish a Yiddish "kind of newspaper" in Odessa. The petition was not even considered.
A further attempt in that direction, this time for a Hebrew periodical to be printed in Zhitomer, was nipped in the bud in 1851 by the governor-general who noted that the project conflicted with government policy, and that the Jews were not sufficiently educated to benefit from a newspaper. He might have added, as did one potential contributor to the Jewish publications, that the strict Czarist censorship would stifle any open exchange of information of ideas.
In the end, all attempts to play by the rules were doomed to failure, and more imaginative stratagems were devised.
Eliezer Silbermann, founder of the Ha-Maggid newspaper, solved the problem by publishing his weekly outside of Russian territory, in East Prussia. The Russian minister of education allowed the newspaper to be imported provided it passed through the appropriate censorship procedures when it entered Russia. In spite of Ha-Maggid's obsequious tone toward its Russian overlords, the censors performed their task with great diligence, so that almost every issue was generously smeared with black ink at the slightest provocation. Thus, an article devoted to the praises of a well-known philanthropist, praised the man for instilling in his beneficiaries a new spirit of freedom and self-confidence. The alert censor inked out the subversive words "spirit of freedom."
The most ingenious ruse for circumventing the government al objections was surely that of Alexander Zederbaum, editor of the weekly Ha-Melitz. After squeezing out permission to print his periodical in Odessa in Hebrew and Hebrew-lettered German (but not in the despised Yiddish!), he was dismayed to discover that Odessa had neither a resident censor nor a printing press, and that the need to send the copy to Zhitomir for typesetting, and afterwards to Kiev for censorship, rendered the process impossibly cumbersome.
By seizing an opportune moment, however, Zederbaum was able to realize his dream of printing Ha-Melitz in Odessa.
In 1860, to mark the anniversary of Czar Alexander II's coronation, he composed a Hebrew ode that he had translated into German and sent to the Czar, accompanied by a humble request for permission to publish the patriotic masterpiece in the journal Ha-Melitz in Odessa. The Czar graciously agreed.
Now that His Majesty himself had consented to the request, it became necessary for there to be a newspaper named Ha-Melitz, and that it be published in Odessa!
Thus, the governor-general could not object to the Jewish newspaper without finding himself in disobedience to the Czar. Therefore, he quickly appointed a local censor, while Zederbaum arranged with the local German printer to handle Hebrew print jobs.
And that was how the first Hebrew newspaper was established in Russia.
This article and many others are now included in the book