Isaac Leeser, the most famous leader and spokesman of traditional Judaism in Antebellum America, launched the The Occident and American Jewish Advocate: A Monthly Periodical Devoted to the Diffusion of Knowledge on Jewish Literature and Religion in April 1843. Published in Philadelphia, where its founder was serving as the spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation Mikveh Israel, it was the first successful Jewish serial in the United States. A monthly for the first sixteen years of its duration, it appeared as a weekly from April 1859 through March 1861. After Leeser’s demise in February 1868, his disciple, Mayer Sulzberger, later a prominent judge, took over as editor. Publication ceased roughly one year later.
Leeser was a native of Westphalia, the birthplace of Reform Judaism, a movement which he fiercely opposed throughout his public career, His source of journalistic inspiration was twofold. He had actively followed the recent establishment of Jewish serial publications in England, France and the German lands while also monitoring the Christian religious press of his adopted homeland. Specifically he sought to counter a missionary publication that targeted American Jews. The double title that he gave the journal reflects these two immediate concerns. The Occident was probably chosen for reasons of symmetry with Der Orient, a German Jewish periodical founded in Leipzig by Julius Furst three years earlier. American Jewish Advocate recalls Israel’s Advocate (1823-1827), the missionary journal published by the American Society for Ameliorating the Condition of the Jews. The missionaries had announced plans for a new journal, Jewish Chronicle, which began appearing in 1844.
Leeser had been defending Judaism in print for over a decade prior to his establishment of The Occident. He was the first American Jewish leader to appreciate the vast potential of the printing press for defending Jews and advancing Judaism. He also promoted settlement in the Land of Israel. Noted contributors to The Occident included Mordecai Manuel Noah, as well a recent American convert to Judaism living in Palestine Warder Cresson, a Philadelphia native. Both Gentile and Jewish efforts aimed at productive settlement in the Holy Land found expression in The Occident’s pages.
Throughout its existence, The Occident protested energetically against any form of discrimination against Jews, and against any but the most minor changes in Jewish ritual observance and liturgy. Traditionalist in the American rabbinate such as Abraham Rice of Baltimore, Sabato Morais, Leeser’s successor at Mikveh Israel, and Bernard Illowy of New Orleans found in it a sympathetic forum. Leeser steered clear of political controversy, especially concerning the volatile issues of slavery and the Civil War, and exercized editorial control on other subjects as well. Nevertheless, he did open The Occident’s pages to opponents, including Isaac Mayer Wise.
Leeser was primarily a religious leader of American Jews but through his Bible translation, his liturgical publications, and his periodical, he also sought to exert some influence over the entire Anglophone Jewish Diaspora of his day. That the venerated Anglo-Jewish notable, Moses Montefiore, was a subscriber to The Occident is worth noting in this context. Indeed, The Occident was even read in the far off British colonies of Australia and New Zealand. As such it serves as a major window onto the cultural world, religious sensibilities, reading practices and social habits of mid-nineteenth century English speaking Jews, both in North America and beyond.