Magnes headlines century of Jewish life in Bulletin

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A newspaper presses itself against a moment in time, taking an imprint that may be worthless a week later but is priceless in the eyes of history.

For 100 years now, the Jewish Bulletin — in various incarnations — has been documenting life in the Bay Area week by week and story by story. Thousands of editions — once just yesterday's news or fish wrap — are now snapshots of the past, a collection that unfolds history with photographic precision through its sand-colored pages.

To mark the Bulletin's centennial, Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum is mounting "Published Every Friday: Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Jewish Bulletin, 1895-1995," opening Sunday, July 28.

Curators have transformed thousands of pages of worn copy into a comprehensive look at Jewish life over the past century.

Through milestone editions and related artifacts, the exhibit examines changes in Judaism over the years, and the role of Jewish newspapers in documenting those shifts.

"The Bulletin and other papers are a vital link, a key element of Jewish life," says Susan Morris, who curated the exhibit with Tova Gazit.

For Morris, the edition that best crystallizes the Bulletin's role is the one that hit the city's fire-ravaged streets May 4, 1906.

San Franciscans were panic-stricken, the city was destroyed, and the Bulletin (then called the Emanu-El) only missed a single week of publication after the April 18 quake. On the front page, editor Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger waxed paternal in a lengthy editorial, assuring readers the paper would "remain at work in our shack, between the ruins."

That edition also includes pages of personal listings. With phone service out, the pages helped displaced friends and family members find one another.

The newspaper "acted as the Jewish community's voice," says Morris. "It was the first voice to gather the community together and let them know they're OK."

With the historic edition will be artifacts from that time, including a ticket to a High Holy Day service — in Golden Gate Park.

Also on view will be a 1989 edition. The Bulletin kept publishing after the Oct. 17 earthquake.

"Federations seek funds for quake relief," shouts a headline. Alongside the story is a simple photo of a synagogue door. A handwritten sign on the door reads: "The cantor will not be in today due to bridge collapsing."

Some weeks during the past 100 years recorded the destruction or completion of bridges; others saw the formation of new bridge clubs. All are commemorated.

In fact, Morris and Gazit want museumgoers to take in the editorials, birth announcements, advertisements and social columns as much as the major news items.

"You have to read a paper in its totality," says Morris.

The exhibit includes tables at which full-scale facsimiles of 20 Bulletins past — two from each decade –can be perused.

In those specially recreated editions, crucial events such as Hitler's rise to power, the founding of the state of Israel, the ordination of the first female rabbi and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge are covered alongside ads for piano lessons and columns of engagement announcements.

In the exhibit's section "Announcing and Recording a Changing Society," the Magnes returns to a time when prominent San Franciscans carried calling cards to hand to butlers and wrote wedding guest lists in calligraphy.

The 1924 wedding dress of Sadie Gordon Gittlesohn, whose nuptials were announced in the newspaper, will be worn by a museum mannequin, displayed alongside a photo of the stylish bride-to-be.

While the exhibit uses photographs and artifacts to enliven written material, curators recognize archival materials may be less than scintillating to young viewers.

For that reason, a "Hot Off the Presses" hands-on companion exhibit was designed for children. Education director Ruth Levitch says it "makes journalism more fun and relevant to kids' lives."

In a small room off the main exhibit, kids can try their hand at being "junior Jewish journalists," says Levitch. They are taken back through the evolution of writing methods such as clay and stylus, quill and ink, stampers, early typewriters and modern computers.

Kids will be given stories the Bulletin has covered and asked to write their own versions. Their coverage of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination and other topics will be exhibited.

For adults, a section on the paper's coverage of Zionism is among the most telling.

Voorsanger, the paper's founding editor and spiritual leader of San Francisco Congregation Emanu-El, looked unfavorably at the concept of a Jewish state. He was not alone. During the '30s and '40s, the Bay Area was home to an anti-Zionist Jewish group called the American Council for Judaism.

Around 1931, however, the Bulletin's coverage of Zionism noticeably increased, perhaps as the result of a shift in personnel. Emanu-El publisher A. W. Voorsanger, Jacob's brother, died, and attorney Sol Silverman took over as editor. Editorials, including one by Hebrew University chancellor and Bay Area Jewish leader Rabbi Judah Magnes, began aggressively advocating the establishment of a Jewish state.

Stories are shown with a timeline of events.

"Often as revealing as what was in the paper was what was not," says Morris.

She and Gazit, who is Israeli, point to the Biltmore Program, a noted 1942 Zionist conference in New York that endorsed the establishment of a Jewish state. The conference was not covered in the Bulletin.

"We don't know why, we weren't in the newsroom," says Morris. "But often an event is only a turning point in retrospect."