The B’nai B’rith Messenger [BBM], named after Los Angeles’s foremost nineteenth-century congregation of the same name, chronicled Jewish life in the city for almost one hundred years (1897-1995).
The paper was first published as the Emanu-El on March 10, 1897. It carried the same moniker as San Francisco’s then almost-two-year-old and widely-read Jewish newspaper, which was named for that city’s Gold Rush-era synagogue. Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger, the rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, criticized the new paper’s lack of originality, and in April, 1898, the Los Angeles paper changed its name to the B’nai B’rith Messenger. Replicating the San Francisco example, the paper called itself after its city’s prominent Reform temple, B’nai B’rith, now known as Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Lionel L. Edwards, a native of San Francisco and relatively new to the newspaper business, founded and published the B’nai B’rith Messenger when he was just twenty-four years old. His editor for more than nineteen years was Victor Harris, a traditional Jew, who lived with the Edwards family, and was a Zionist and active figure in Jewish organizational life. The hope was that the B’nai B’rith Messenger would come to educate and inform Jewish Los Angeles, a growing community which by the beginning of the 20th century numbered over 2,000. With the name change, Edwards introduced a larger-sized paper and distributed issues to Jewish publications around the country, and to secular newspapers in the city. The paper reflected his belief in a “dignified” press. In addition to embracing Zionism, the Messenger editorially supported the settling Eastern European Jews in Mexico, rather than California, and prior to 1917, it advocated American neutrality in World War I, arguing that European countries on both sides of the conflict espoused anti-Semitism.
With the expansion of the Los Angeles Jewish community in the 1920s, the Messenger, initially a bi-monthly, became a weekly. It encouraged community cohesion and chronicled the Los Angeles community’s steady growth. Reporting on local, national, and international news with different degrees of emphasis, depending on the sensibilities of its current publisher and editor, the Messenger is particularly important, historically, for its reports on local meetings, lectures, the comings and goings of rabbis and community leaders, the visits of international figures, and the rise of the city’s Jewish communal institutions. At different times, the paper also included a Zionist bulletin, Jewish sports reports, news of Hollywood, and editorials. Frequent editorial topics included: Jewish education, pleas for Jewish unity, and the need for new arrivals to join synagogues. One strong editorial condemned Jews who violated provisions of the Volstead Act that enforced the Constitutional prohibition of alcohol. Congregation B’nai B’rith’s flamboyant rabbi, Edgar Magnin, also became a frequent contributor to the paper. Authoring his own column for many years, under several editors, he commented on community activities, promoted relations between Christians and Jews, and reviewed Hollywood movies.
Attorney Joseph Cummins, who lived in Los Angeles and at different times owned Jewish newspapers in Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, St. Louis, and Kansas City, purchased the B’nai B’rith Messenger from Edwards in 1929, merging it with his own Los Angeles paper, the California Jewish Review. The masthead now read: the B’nai B’rith Messenger, with the California Jewish Review. Cummins and his editors put their mark on the paper, reducing its number of pages, featuring more world news, providing a detailed financial page, and shortening Rabbi Magnin’s column, restricting it to religious topics, and moving it from the front of the paper to the back near the editorial section. Informational pages that listed synagogues, their locations, officers, and events were eliminated. More columnists were hired and the paper became more diverse.
Cummins continued to publish the Messenger for the next fifty years. A local mover and shaker, he and his paper became prominent community fixtures – not least because he ran the paper out of his law office and his clients included the likes of Hollywood’s Errol Flynn and Betty Davis. In 1933, Cummins organized a boycott of Nazi Germany’s exports. Later, as Los Angeles grew from its core to its valleys and suburbs, he expanded his readership by purchasing smaller papers, gaining a larger territory and a larger customer base. Jewish families took the Messenger with them as they moved to newly developed neighborhoods in Los Angeles’s urban sprawl. As a result, the B’nai B’rith Messenger claimed at one time to be the largest independently owned Anglo-Jewish weekly in the United States. Times changed in the 1970s and 1980s, as the Messenger fought challenges from independent Jewish and federation-owned newspapers. After Cummins’ death in 1980, his paper was sold and renamed the L.A. Jewish Times.
Although it eventually failed, the Messenger left a treasure-trove for those interested in 20th century western Jewish history. The rise of Los Angeles Jewry, the emergence of Jews in Hollywood, the creation of West Coast Jewish educational and cultural institutions, and the development of distinct forms of Judaism and Jewishness on the Pacific Coast all are chronicled in the Messenger’s pages.
Submitted by: Ava F. Kahn