This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Jewish Journalism:

Continuing the Tradition*

The birth of a new Jewish newspaper is, we are justified in hoping, an occasion to be celebrated. While Jewish journalism is of course a relatively recent phenomenon by Jewish standards--"mere" centuries old-- it is a channel of expression that has come to occupy an important and cherished place in most of our communities.

The first Jewish journals in Europe were not newspapers, nor was their chief purpose to inform their readers about the latest events in the world or in their communities. The editors were out to educate their public and to expose them to new ideas.


The Gatherer

The first important Jewish journal to make its appearance in Europe was the monthly Ha-Me'assef ("the Gatherer") whose first issue was published in Königsberg Germany in 1784. This pioneering periodical was founded by disciples of the father of modern Jewish Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn of Dessau, and was devoted to the promotion of his ideas among the Jewish masses.

A distinctively Jewish complication that had to be dealt with was the choice of a suitable language for the publication. It was not enough to simply compose the articles in the language most easily understood by the readership. Had the editors of Ha-Me'assef taken that seemingly logical course, they would probably have chosen some form of Yiddish, the spoken language of most German Jews of the time.

Choosing a Language

This option was abhorrent to Mendelssohn and his Enlightened followers (the Maskilim) who had nothing but disdain for Yiddish, regarding it as a crude corruption of "real" German. Indeed a major plank in the Enlightenment platform involved weaning Jews away from Yiddish and teaching them "proper" German, which would facilitate their entry into mainstream German society.

Given this outlook, we might have expected them to compose their publications in German. This however was not possible because their target audience was not yet familiar enough with that language, and would inevitably be reluctant to pick up anything written in a non-Jewish tongue.


Scriptural Purism

The only alternative now remaining was Hebrew. Traditional Jews would be likely to open the issues of Ha-Me'assef expecting to find conventional religious texts, the only type of material normally composed in the sacred tongue. Hopefully, by the time they caught on they would already have been won over to the ideology of Enlightenment.

While many of the Maskilim involved in the publication of Ha-Me'assef might have accepted Hebrew as merely a "second-best" alternative, they also had a positive agenda in promoting the sacred tongue.

For the most part they disapproved of the neglect of Biblical studies that prevailed in the traditional yeshivah curriculum, which was overwhelmingly slanted in favour of talmudic learning. Rabbinic Hebrew was, to most of the Maskilim, akin to the despised Yiddish, an impure version of the classical Hebrew of the Bible. The writers of Ha-Me'assef strove to replace the talmudic Hebrew jargon with a stately, but inflexible, Scriptural purism.


Like a Shtreimel

From these beginnings the Jewish journal or newspaper in whatever language quickly became an inseparable part of the communal landscape. Each ideological faction had its own organ of expression.

In such a context, moderation was not necessarily viewed as a virtue. Thus, the Warsaw Yiddish daily Moment (whose name has since been resurrected for a respected American Jewish periodical) was often criticized for its lack of editorial backbone. According to one quip, the newspaper would not offend a fly --out of fear that the fly might one day scrape up the two kopeks to buy the paper!

Another such barb expressed its wonder that the paper could continue to appear in spite of its indolent and lifeless staff. The strange phenomenon was explained by comparing Moment to an old shtreimel-- When you put the tattered fur hat on a table, it moves by itself, powered by the lice that inhabit it...


But Don't Read It

In this polarized world of nineteenth-century Judaism, the emerging Orthodox movement soon found that it had to publish its own newspapers in order to counter those of their opponents. Some of the important Rabbis of the day took part in the publication of those newspapers.

Nonetheless, in at least one instance a Rabbi had to warn his students not to waste their time reading his newspaper, since this would constitute bittul Torah, an unwarranted break from their religious studies.

The combination of strict orthodoxy and journalism could lead to some strange results. For example, Israel's foremost "ultra-Orthodox" daily, Ha-Modia, has a strict policy of excluding all things sexual.

In a recent instance, a report about a new drug that cures skin diseases happened to mention that the diseases in question were often sexually transmitted. The newspaper's internal censor did not catch the offending sentence until the type was already set and ready for printing, when only the most minor changes could still be introduced.

The result: A single-word emendation, according to which the diseases in question were "commercially transmitted!"


Indeed, there will always be problems and challenges that are peculiar to being a Jewish newspaper. We wish the Free Press the best of luck in ably continuing the colourful traditions of Jewish journalism.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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