The appearance of the Occident in April 1843 (the full title was the Occident and American Jewish Advocate), serves as an appropriate starting date for Jewish journalism in the United States. Focused squarely on Jewish readers and their interests, the Occident was edited by Isaac Leeser, reader (hazzan) of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia and the most significant Jewish traditionalist religious leader of his day. Leeser understood the power of the printing press—he published some 100 titles of various kinds—and sought to harness that power to strengthen Jewish life.
The success of the Occident generated a spate of new journals on the American scene, published in diverse locations including New York, New Orleans, Cincinnati, and San Francisco. Already by the 1850s, the movement in American Jewish journalism, as in American journalism generally, was away from all-embracing national newspapers and toward local or regional papers that were more narrowly focused and more circumscribed in their ambitions and aims. Most of these newspapers were weeklies, not monthlies like the Occident, and were modeled on American religious and family newspapers, rather than highbrow journals.
In New York, the first significant Jewish newspaper to be published was the Asmonean, edited on business principles by a (failed) New York Jewish businessman named Robert Lyon. The Asmonean, America’s first Jewish weekly, was livelier, bolder, and much more diverse in its subject matter than other nineteenth-century American Jewish newspapers. Just as American Jews compartmentalized their lives into secular and Jewish realms, so too did their newspapers.
A quite different direction was followed by the first Jewish newspaper in Cincinnati, now the oldest continuous Jewish newspaper in the United States. The Israelite, founded in 1854 and renamed the American Israelite in 1874, was published by the pioneer of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. It was the first American Jewish newspaper committed to advancing a particular ideology and unafraid of controversy in defense of that ideology. Wise wrote with a lively pen and cultivated an engaging, often biting, journalistic style. From his first issue, he waged war against “error, superstition, prejudice, ignorance, arrogance, hypocrisy and bigotry in whatever shape or form they may fall under our notice.” This made his newspaper much more entertaining than the Occident and gained it a wide national readership. As long as Wise was alive, it was recognized as his semiofficial organ representing the Reform Movement in American Judaism.
Another model beginning in this period was the foreign-language Jewish newspaper. Several appeared even before the Civil War, Sinai and Die Deborah being the most famous, both published in German. Later, the Yiddish daily Forward, edited by Abraham Cahan, became one of the most influential and widely read foreign-language newspapers in the United States, one of no fewer than 104 Yiddish periodicals of different sorts to appear in the United States prior to 1905. Significant Jewish newspapers were also published in Hebrew, Ladino, and, more recently, Russian.
Some foreign-language newspapers aimed at a highbrow readership, drawing chiefly upon intellectual émigrés, while others catered to a more popular readership, women in particular. Either way, the foreign-language Jewish press was generally far less compartmentalized than its English counterpart. It offered its readers both secular and Jewish news, as well as features. The foreign-language press was also much more focused on issues of immigration, Americanization, and developments in the old country than the Anglo-Jewish press. Several nineteenth-century American Jewish newspapers, notably the Jewish Record, published in Philadelphia, actually printed foreign news in German and domestic news in English!
Foreign-language Jewish newspapers tended to be bolder and more critical of America and American Jewish life than their English-language counterparts. Immigrants were understandably more comfortable protesting against America’s ills in their native tongue and likely enjoyed the security of knowing that their words would impact only a select and sympathetic audience: those with whom they shared a common language. Hebrew-language journals, written for the elite who studied the “holy tongue,” were particularly prone to be critical. Their writers could assume that they wrote for “Jewish eyes only,” unlike writers for the Anglo or German-Jewish press who might be read by non-Jews as well.
By the late nineteenth century, a large native-born generation of American Jews had come of age. In November 1879, nine of these youngsters established a New York newspaper titled the American Hebrew. “Our work,” they explained in their first issue, “shall consist of untiring endeavors to stir up our brethren to pride in our time-honored faith.” Since the paper sought both to “serve the future historian” and “to be sought by the best classes of non-Jews,” it took pride in its broad coverage of Jewish life and in the amount of original material that it published. It set new standards in American Jewish journalism and reached out to a broad range of Jewish and non-Jewish writers. For decades, long after it had passed out of the original owners’ hands, the American Hebrew stood as the foremost Jewish newspaper in the United States.
Even as the American Hebrew set a new standard, Jewish journalism as a whole, particularly during the interwar years, deteriorated. The Jewish press exercised considerable self-censorship. It did so with the best of intentions, believing that it served the larger interests of the Jewish people. The result, however, was a loss of credibility. Those who sought accurate and reliable Jewish news increasingly turned elsewhere. For years, many Jews read the Yiddish Press or in some cases the Hebrew Press, which, as noted, felt less constrained than the English-language weeklies; they were a much better and more accurate source of news. Other Jews subscribed to national Jewish magazines, which displayed more vibrancy than the local weeklies and did open their pages to debate. One thinks of Menorah Journal, the Reconstructionist, Jewish Frontier, the Contemporary Jewish Record, Commentary, Midstream, and many others. More than sixty such periodicals regularly appeared, in addition to magazines for schoolchildren, catering to the widest array of ideologies and interests. Jews dissatisfied with local Jewish newspapers, who wanted more serious and in-depth analyses, had, as a result of this exponential growth, many alternative publications.
The last third of the twentieth century witnessed tremendous improvements in American Jewish journalism. The best newspapers became bolder, more probing, and more critical. Their coverage of Jewish life broadened. More journalists in the Jewish press boasted degrees from journalism school and sought to bring the lessons they had learned there to religious and community papers. Beginning in 1980, the professional organization of Jewish journalists, the American Jewish Press Association (founded in 1944), encouraged these advances through a program of competitive Rockower Awards for Excellence in Journalism (the “Pulitzer Prizes” of American Jewish journalism), which came to include such categories as “excellence in commentary” and “excellence in comprehensive coverage or investigative reporting.”