The Hebrew newspaper
The Russian newspaper
The liberal reforms enacted by Tsar Aleksandr II (r. 1855–1881) at the outset of his rule, which included among others a letup in cencorship., encouraged Samuel Joseph Fuenn (1818–1891) to submit a request for a licence to the authorities in order to publish a weekly newspaper in Hebrew that would include supplements in Russian and German. Fuenn, who was at that time also a supervisor and teacher of Bible and Hebrew at the state sponsored rabbinical seminary in Vilnius, also served as an inspector for the district's Jewish schools and was one of the editors of a Hebrew periodical which appeared briefly in Vilnius during 1841 under the name Pirḥey Tsafon (Heb. ‘Northern Flowers’). Fuenn’s efforts bore fruit—apparently, his connexions with representatives of the Tsarist régime proved of help—and four years later, he received the desired license. Thus, on 26 June 1860, the first issue of ha-Karmel was published in Vilnius, preceding Aleksander ha-Kohen Zederbaum’s ha-Melits (Heb. ‘The Advocate’) in Odessa by five months and thus earning the title of the first Hebrew weekly in Russia. The license that Fuenn obtained for the newspaper did not allow him to publish articles on matters of statecraft or politics and, for this reason, he limited himself to dealing with matters literary and relevant to Jewish culture. This restriction impaired ha-Karmel’s ability to compete with ha-Maggid (Heb. ‘The Preacher’), which had appeared since 1856 in the Prussian city of Lyck (today Ełk, Poland), just across the border, and which was not subject to similar constraints. Nevertheless, the character of the newspaper fit the nature and outlook of Fuenn, who was not, as Gedaliah Elkoshi (1910–1988) observed, a crusading journalist, ‘but a scholar, linguist, and lexicographer, lodged underneath the tent of Torah’.
Indeed, Fuenn’s approach as an editor and guiding force of the newspaper was generally compromising on subjects that stirred controversy and, unlike the frequent, sharp editorials that Aleksander Zederbaum published in ha-Melits, demonstrating the latter's total commitment to open intellectual enquiry, Fuenn withheld from taking a stance on current events and from expressing opinions that might antagonise his Orthodox readership.
The format of ha-Karmel as crystallized during its first year fo appearance included two principal sections: the first one was informative, with news from the ‘Jewish arena’ (in Russia and abroad), and with occasional publication of translations of official edicts. For news on the Jewish world, ha-Karmel (like its counterparts ha-Maggid and ha-Melits) relied upon correspondents who sent reports to the staff from both within Russia and outside of the country. While news from Palestine was copied from ha-Levanon
(Heb. ‘The Lebanon’), which began to appear in Jerusalem in 1863, ‘general Jewish news’ was taken from the German-Jewish press. The other section of ha-Karmel was scientific and theoretical and was called ha-Sharon (Heb. ‘The Sharon’); throughout the years of its existence, a number of the leading figures in Hebrew literature and letters of the period contributed to its pages. The German-language supplement, to which Fuenn had committed upon receipt of the license for publishing the newspaper was in effect omitted already during the first year and the Russian-language supplement did not appear regularly during the first three years. Ḥayyim Löb Judah Katzenellenbogen (c. 1814–1876), one of the leaders of the Hebrew intellectual community in Vilnius, as well as linguist, and religious scholar in his own right, who had collaborated with Fuenn already on Pirḥey Tsafon endeavour, dealt with the editing and physical printing of ha-Karmel
. From its third year (1863), ha-Karmel was published in the printing house owned by Fuenn and his partners. The scope of the newspaper’s circulation did not exceed a few hundred and, for most of its existence, it suffered from a paucity of subscribers.
From an ideological stand point, ha-Karmel
reflected the values of the Jewish Enlightenment (Heb. Haskalah) movement in Eastern Europe. It advocated rapprochement with the Christian population, the productivisation of Jewish society, and encouraged a gradual shift to agriculture as a means of employment. Fuenn was an enthusiastic supporter of the intensive Russification policies implemented by the Tsarist authorities with respect to the Jewish minority in the aftermath of the failed Polish revolt of 1863. Unlike ha-Maggid
and its editor, ha-Karmel
and Fuenn demonstrated a forgiving and sympathetic attitude towards the Jewish Reform movement that was developing in Germany. In the ‘Legume Debate’ of 1868, he sided with those who believed that the consumption of legumes on Passover should be permitted in order to ease the burden upon the victims of the drought and famine raging at that time in Lithuania. Fuenn also encouraged and supported the foundation of aid committees for the hungry, which emerged in Russia and in Prussia across the border.
As stated, Fuenn avoided taking extreme positions on ‘matters of life’ that plagued the Jewish public—whether out of fear of the Tsarist censorship or from a desire to avoid internal squabbling that would threaten the pious subscription base of the newspaper—and generally tried to mediate between the traditional and the new currents. In its sixth year of publication (1866), ha-Karmel received a grant of three hundred rubles from the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia, which itself had intensified its activities on behalf of the ideas of the Jewish Enlightenment in order to appease its generous patrons and accommodate the agendæ that they promoted. At the same time, the number of articles on Torah scholarship declined, as the literary/scientific section took on a more popular and folk form. The abandonment of the conciliatory line on the matter of the conflict between the Enlightenment and tradition stemmed from a common belief at the time that the time was fast approaching when Tsar Aleksandr II would grant equal rights to the Jews, thus creating a desire to ‘prepare the hearts’ of the people in advance of their integration into Russian society.
Ha-Karmel suffered throughout most of its existence from difficulties with respect to its circulation and from lack of funds, which troubled Fuenn, harming not only his livelihood but his health as well. Issues did not appear on time or in proper serial order during the bulk of the newspaper's duration, and with the demise of its existence as a weekly, even the number of pages allotted to each issue was reduced. Even with occasional material assistance from the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia or from the Russian authorities, ha-Karmel found it difficult to contend with the broader distribution of its competitors ha-Melits and ha-Maggid; after it turned into a monthly, it failed to compete with ha-Shaḥar (Heb. ‘The Dawn’), published by Perets Smolenskin (1842–1882) in Vienna, which was the most influential monthly of that time. The financial challenges facing ha-Karmel were further exacerbated by the inability of Fuenn to cultivate and to maintain a consistent cadre of writers of high quality, who would contribute regularly their writing to the newspaper. This problem, therefore, forced him to rely increasingly upon local forces in Vilnius, which steadily turned ha-Karmel into a local and provincial newspaper. These difficulties ultimately overcame Fuenn and ha-Karmel ceased to exist in 1880.