How Jewish journalism started in the Bay Area 100 years ago

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Page one of the Nov. 15, 1901, Emanu-El — a weekly newspaper devoted to the interests of Pacific Coast Jews, and the predecessor of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California — included the announcement of some new merchandise:

"Smyrna figs, dates stuffed with nuts and fruits, German salad potatoes…Lauenbrau beer…and a large line of bon-bons and dinner favors," the newspaper proclaimed, were now available at L. Lebenbaum and Co. on San Francisco's Sutter Street.

Also here was the revelation that "Robert Wallace has removed to his new quarters, 219 Grant Ave., and is now open for your patronage with an elegant line of fur and cloth garments, also millinery."

A total of six advertisements made up the front page of that Friday's edition. What followed on page five was a feature that ran regularly in the paper: Jacob Voorsanger's "Random Thoughts."

On this particular Sabbath in 1901, Voorsanger — who was Congregation Emanu-El's spiritual leader — reiterated his reasons for founding the paper six years earlier.

"There now exists an ever-growing circle of people in San Francisco whose opinions have undergone a wholesome change," he wrote.

His own opinions had been altered as well, he told readers.

The columnist, who was born in Amsterdam and reared in an Orthodox home, described the journey he made in the 1870s to the United States where, gaining access to literature denied him in the Netherlands, he "cast his lot with the progressive elements of Judaism in America."

Believing that "intelligent and progressive Judaism should have newspaper representation on the Pacific Coast," the rabbi — an honorary professor in U.C. Berkeley's Semitics Department and a chaplain and lecturer at Stanford University — stated his paper's mission:

The Emanu-El "only seeks the conservation of the sacred interests of Judaism," he wrote, "if we are once agreed what these interests really are, and if we can harmonize the eternal truth with the shifting form."

Sue Morris, curator of the Western Jewish History Center at Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum, said that Voorsanger's letters, copies of which are now housed at the Magnes, "clearly stated that this was not a congregation newspaper." He was an experienced journalist, and "felt very committed to communication among Jewish people, that they be informed and united in their community."

The paper, whose first issue appeared Nov. 22, 1895, was published by Jacob Voorsanger's brother, A.W. Voorsanger. In the early days, it averaged 20 pages an issue and cost $2 a year for a subscription.

Much of the editorial content included the rabbi's Sabbath lectures and reprints from other publications. The Nov. 15, 1901, edition, for example, included an article on ancient relics. The story, whose headline read "Prehistoric Egypt," originally appeared in the Utica Daily Press. A poem entitled "Heroes to Heroes" was supplied by the Rocky Mountain News.

Foreign news appeared in short paragraphs. An item from Palestine declared that commentators from Jerusalem "speak of an unusually severe thunderstorm which broke out over the city on the first of the month. Considerable discomfort was caused, by this sudden change in the weather, to the Jews celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles."

Bay Area news was divided into localities, and often described events of social interest: "The rooms of the Sewing School, under the supervision of Mrs. Letter, have been repapered and refurnished," read a notice under the "Oakland" heading. An item in the "Social Column" stated: "Mr. George Samuels has returned from his Southern B'nai B'rith itinerary."

Back pages contained theater reviews, jokes, the Jewish calendar and a directory of Jewish institutions in San Francisco.

Sometimes advertisements became news stories themselves. Following the report on "Prehistoric Egypt" was this one titled "An Important Difference":

"To make it apparent to thousands, who think themselves ill, that they are not afflicted with any disease, but that the system simply needs cleansing, is to bring comfort home to their hearts, as a costive condition is easily cured by using Syrup of Figs. Manufactured by the California Fig Syrup Co. only, and sold by druggists."

The April 20 issue that immediately followed the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, was a clearly makeshift affair. That issue comprised six typed pages, four of which were legal summons and notices to creditors. On May 4, Voorsanger wrote from a temporary office at 954 Clay St. in Oakland:

"In this devastation the Jewish community has probably suffered more than any other, for the reason that at least two thousand Jewish families living in the south-of-Market district and belonging to the immigrant element composed of small traders, artisans, unskilled laborers and peddlers, that is to say, a population of about ten thousand people, are houseless, helpless, totally ruined and destitute."

He listed Jewish institutions destroyed by fire, and included his own synagogue at 414 Sutter St.

Two years later, upon reading in Amsterdam's Nieuw Isralitish Weekblad the news of Voorsanger's sudden death, Emanu-El's foreign correspondent Maurice Brodzky recalled his boss' response to the temblor:

"One hour after the shock, in the midst of tottering buildings and belching tongues of fire, Dr. Jacob Voorsanger's first thought was to rush to the rescue of the wounded and to provide food for the homeless…Magic-like he had in less than four hours a supply of food at the hall of the Young Men's Hebrew Association, near the Golden Gate Park."

A.W. Voorsanger continued as publisher until he died in 1931; then attorney Sol Silverman took over as editor. The following year, Emanu-El merged with Raymond Dannenbaum's Jewish Journal because the publisher wanted to retire. This union resulted in more subscribers and a price increase: The paper now cost $3 per year.

In 1945 Silverman sold Emanu-El and the Jewish Journal to a group of individuals who turned the newspaper into the Jewish Community Bulletin. These individuals formed the paper's board of directors.

They hired as editor San Francisco Call-Bulletin veteran Eugene B. Block. He had retired from the Hearst-owned paper in 1939 and was heading the Jewish Community Relations Council. He recruited San Francisco Chronicle reporter Rita Semel as assistant editor and his own son, Charles W. Block, a U.S. Navy signalman fresh from World War II, as advertising manager. With the addition of Jewish Telegraphic Agency wire service stories, the Bulletin began looking much like the newspaper it is today.

The staff of four — including a society reporter — donned many hats to get the paper to the Linotype printer by press time each Wednesday. Semel was editing, writing stories and handling public relations for the federation. Eugene Block was holding down his job at the JCRC while his son dummied pages, collected bills and pounded the pavement for $3.50 a column inch. "I was very busy," Charles Block recalls. "I didn't worry about punching a time clock. I did my work till it was done."

World War II had just ended; the United Nations was planning the establishment of the state of Israel; word was coming out about the killing of Jews in Nazi concentration camps and "there was a big push to get people out of displaced-persons camps and on to Palestine," says Semel in a recent interview.

It was clearly necessary, she says, to drum up community involvement "and rescue those people."

Two front-page stories on March 1, 1946, reported a $100 million nationwide United Jewish Appeal for Refugees, Overseas Needs and Palestine. A JTA story, datelined Washington, D.C., called this "the largest single Jewish drive in history." Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel, campaign chair for the Jewish National Welfare Fund (forerunner of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation), said he planned to raise the Bay Area's share of that drive, "to help bring speedy relief and to ensure the survival of 1,400,000 Jewish men, women and children who remain alive in Europe."

Because the Bulletin donated space for the JNWF to report how contribution dollars were spent, each JNWF subscriber got a copy of the Bulletin, and inside pages carried notices reading, "Stories made possible by your welfare fund contributions."

The paper got a new name, a new look and a new editor on Oct. 3, 1969, when Geoffrey Fisher took over for the retiring Eugene Block. The San Francisco Jewish Bulletin "will bring to Jewish families of San Francisco, Marin County and the Peninsula as much of the news that shapes the world of Jewish affairs as its columns can carry," he wrote.

Page one of that 16-page edition ran the story of Israel's Prime Minister Golda Meir's state visit to Washington, plus news of an upcoming "Speak Out For Soviet Jewry Rally" at San Francisco's Stern Grove, and the story of a "Coffee House" movement sponsored by many Reform temples hoping to make synagogue life more relevant to young people.

In 1982 the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin merged with the Jewish Observer of the East Bay, which had been a bimonthly publication issued to some 5,000 members of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay since 1967.

Two years later new editor and publisher Marc Klein arrived from Philadelphia's Jewish Exponent. Klein hired managing editor Sherwood L. Weingarten and associate publisher Nora Contini, and the three began bringing the paper up to date.

"It was like going back to the `50s," Contini says of her first day on the job. "A staff of seven was using carbon paper and manual typewriters."

The first task was to computerize the operation, then switch to desktop publishing and finally move on into cyberspace. Last year the Bulletin became the only Jewish newspaper to put its entire edition on the World Wide Web each week.

"We're not allowing the Jewish world to be behind the times," says Klein.

He had been disconcerted about the paper's identity while he was still in Pennsylvania. "It was being published in one of the most exciting places and fascinating cities in the world," he says, "and you wouldn't know it by reading the paper.

"There's a lot of Jewish life going on. It's not one Bay Area Jewish community, but a lot of diverse people doing their own thing, yet doing it Jewishly."

For two years he tried out the new name Northern California Jewish Bulletin, then switched to Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.

He thought the latter moniker "would be easier to find in the phone book," he says.

It would be listed under "Jewish."