It is hard to believe that five years have elapsed since I graced the premier issue of the Jewish Free Press with an article about the tradition of Jewish journalism. On the occasion of this anniversary it appears fitting to return to that topic, surveying some of the roles that have been filled by Jewish periodical publications since their inception.
According to most bibliographers, the title of "First Hebrew periodical" goes to a collection entitled "P'ri Etz Hayyim" (the fruit of the tree of life) whose first issue appeared in 1691 under the auspices of Amsterdam's renowned Etz Hayyim Yeshivah. It is hardly surprising that the pioneering Jewish publication, representing the values and interests of a traditional religious society, should have been a scholarly journal that served as a showcase for the yeshivah's rabbinical students and their erudite discussions of Jewish law and exegesis.
Almost a century would pass before journalism would become a major force in Jewish public life. The movement for Jewish Enlightenment, under the guidance of Moses Mendelssohn and his disciples in central Europe, found in the periodical format an effective vehicle for the promulgation of their ideological objectives.
Mendelssohn and his followers took particular care to establish digests for the education of the masses. In their pages, simple Jews would be introduced to Hebrew summaries of the latest achievements of European culture and science. It was hoped that this educational enterprise would inspire the readers to seek out a more thorough involvement in the cultural life of their home countries, equipping them for the responsibilities of citizenship in the modern world.
The constraints of this medium came to be felt before long. By 1839 the distinguished Reform ideologue and scholar Abraham Geiger, though extolling the importance of Jewish magazines as expressions of the collective spirit of their time, and as miniature communities or social movements, admitted that Hebrew journals no longer had much to offer in the way of scientific education for the masses. The ancient tongue was poorly equipped to deal with modern technical subjects, and by Geiger's time most of his Jewish compatriots were able to access such resources in German. He concluded that Jewish journalism, especially in the Hebrew language, would make a more valuable contribution if it confined itself to exploring specifically Jewish issues.
Indeed, the next phase of Jewish journalistic endeavour excelled in the exchange of ideas and scholarly advances in the fields of Jewish literature and culture. A milestone was reached in 1856 with the appearance of the first Hebrew daily, Ha-maggid. in Lyck, East Prussia. Under the editorial direction of David Gordon, a remarkable figure equally at home in traditional Judaism and European culture, this publication was initially intended to provide European Jews with information about the world at large, but it quickly evolved into a forum for debate and discussion of the weighty questions confronting the Jewish community.
The choice of Hebrew as the newspaper's language of discourse was at first justified on pragmatic grounds, as the only means to maintain bonds with Jews throughout the Diaspora. However Ha-maggid's "scholarly" supplement became an important instrument in the revival of Hebrew nationalism, which had been suffering grave setbacks under the ethos of the German Reformers. Ha-maggid's pages even hosted the first Hebrew novels (by Abraham Mapu and others), setting in motion a process that would facilitate the revival of Hebrew as a modern spoken language. Between 1860 and 1863 many new Hebrew newspapers began to proliferate throughout the Jewish world, including: Ha-mevasser in Galicia, Ha-karmel in Vilna, Ha-melitz in Odessa, Ha-levanon in Jerusalem.
In varying degrees, each of these journals underwent the same transitions in the perception of their editorial mission: Beginning as simple instruments for education and information, they took on the role of Jewish town halls for the communication of opinions on the controversies of the day. The zenith of their success was achieved when they became (sometimes unwittingly) active contributors and participants in the creation of a dynamic new Jewish culture.
It is to be hoped, that in its own modest way the Jewish Free Press will follow in the classic traditions of Jewish journalism, providing not only accurate news reports and a place for communal debate, but actually participating in the fashioning of the Jewish culture of future generations.
|This article and many others are now included in the book|