Head of Yiddish paper comes from a different school

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JERUSALEM — He is Walter Matthau in "The Front Page," a grizzled 50-year veteran of the newspaper business with the street-smart savvy and gut instincts of a classic beat reporter.

But though Gershon Jacobson, founder, publisher and editor of the Yiddish weekly Algemeiner Journal, doesn't quite look the type, don't be fooled by the beard and accent. He may appear and sound like an elderly religious Jew from New York's Lower East Side, but the 71-year-old can cuss like a sailor and doesn't give a damn who is bothered by it.

"Go to hell," he'll say with a shrug, if anyone should question the incongruity. "I am from a different school."

Call it the school of hard knocks, the street, reality. Jacobson began his education in his native Russia under Stalin, who arrested his father when Jacobson was 8 and kept him imprisoned for nine years. Later, he moved with the family through Europe and on to Toronto, and finally, New York.

Jacobson's career as a journalist began at age 18, in Paris. He is still a working journalist, 54 years later, writing in a language whose life and future he worries about. The Algemeiner's circulation of 62,000 to 65,000 is higher than that of more famous, international weeklies, with a loyal readership from Mexico City to Montreal to Jerusalem. And from the Chassidic communities of Brooklyn, he's able to pick up 2,000 to 3,000 subscriptions a year.

But when Jacobson looks at the demographics and the trends of the Yiddish language, he is forced to face reality.

The ravages of age are also a problem for Jacobson's circulation. "I lose every year about 5,000 or 6,000 [subscribers] who die or become senile," he said, his voice lowering.

Jacobson not only longs for the time when Yiddish was a vibrant, living language, but he remembers well when the newsprint business was a flourishing industry, when reporters wore trench coats and fedoras, and dangled cigarettes from their lips. He doesn't just remember; he was part of it.

It was 1954, and the 25-year-old Jacobson, having just graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism, headed downtown for a noon appointment at the New York Herald Tribune, among the best dailies in the country and one of nearly a dozen in the city.

"I was told to meet a Buddy Weiss, and when I ask, 'Where is Mr. Weiss?' the woman says, 'We don't have a Mr. Weiss, we have Buddy Weiss.' And this cigar-chewing, Bronx-type of a Jew begins to holler, 'Who's that f—ing kid there?'"

Jacobson had already started learning about reality as a boy in Moscow. He was born Boris Yacobashvili on May 30, 1929, to Simon, a Sephardi from Georgia, and Frida, an Ashkenazi from Belarus.

Jacobson's parents met and married in Leningrad, and then settled in Moscow, where his father, a cultured man who spoke Russian, Georgian, Italian, Yiddish and English, worked in the literary department of a government agency.

Jacobson's father was arrested August 19, 1937, a night that saw 10,000 people picked up off the streets of Moscow. The charge against Simon was spying for the Joint Distribution Committee, and the sentence was death by firing squad. Instead, he was exiled to Siberia.

One night after the Second World War, Jacobson's uncle drank all night with the jail guard and got Simon temporarily released. Simon then ran away to Georgia, bought false identity papers, and the family began their trek through Europe.

After a couple of weeks in pre-state Israel, Jacobson returned to Europe, to a yeshiva in Paris, where he became a reporter for a Yiddish newspaper. Then he received a call from the London Jewish Chronicle also requesting dispatches.

"So I became a syndicated reporter," he said.

The family moved to Toronto in 1952. After graduating from the University of Toronto, Jacobson headed to journalism school at Columbia, and then to the Herald Tribune. Jacobson started out there writing obituaries for two years, and then was assigned to cover the Jewish community.

During one Pesach, he covered a press conference held by the rabbinic head of a division of Reform Judaism. All the other religion writers were there to cover it as well, including the New York Times, Associated Press, United Press International, Time, and Newsweek.

"I walked in and on the table was ham and matzah," he said.

"At the end I asked [the rabbi], 'I understand it's Pesach, and you have matzah, but why ham?' He answers me, in Yiddish, 'What's for God is for God, that's why I'm eating matzah; and as for people, we enjoy ham.' To me it was an eye opener.

"The next day I wrote a story, and wrote that. That caught the eye of many liberal Jews, and I became a celebrity, because, until then, reporters from the daily papers did not write such things."

It was during this time, over a period of six years, that Jacobson became religious, or "a very conscious Jew," as he puts it

He also managed to get a world scoop through a relationship he developed with the Israeli consulate in New York. "One day I walk in and I see all those guerrillas –[former Mossad head] Isser Harel and company. I got very curious –what are they all doing there?"

It was 1960, and Harel was on his way to Argentina to kidnap the notorious Adolf Eichmann. Harel said they were on a top-secret mission, but he struck a deal with Jacobson to keep quiet for now and he would eventually get a story.

"One day, I got a call that [prime minister David] Ben-Gurion was going to announce in the Knesset that Eichmann was on his way to Israel in an El Al plane," he said.

At 4 p.m. that day — May 22, 1960 — the Herald Tribune came out with a rare Sunday extra, a new front page that screamed, "Eichmann caught by Israeli agents," by Gershon Jacobson.

"John Jay Whitney, the publisher, called me in and said, 'Jacobson, I want to kiss you, and here is 10 grand.' This was a world scoop." He had beaten Ben-Gurion's announcement by 17 hours.

Two years later, he scored another triumph, made possible by his fluency in Russian: a one-on-one interview with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

After the Tribune folded in the mid-1960s, Jacobson worked at the New York Post for three months and Newsweek for a year, while also working at the Tog Morning Journal, a Yiddish publication, and for Yediot Achronot, an Israeli newspaper. He also continued to garner scoops, including an interview with Nasser in Egypt, two months after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Nasser, he said, "was very smart, very anti-Semitic. First question I asked him, 'Why didn't you make peace with Israel?'

"He says to me, 'Mr. Jacobson, are you familiar with the recent history? Why do you think the German people killed 6 million Jews? You think Hitler went crazy? The Germans went crazy? No,' he says.

"'I don't want to kill the Jews. I don't want to be Hitler. If I make peace with them, I'll have to kill them, because the Jews, who were in the diaspora for so many years, became exploiters. They are very smart, they are very educated, they are very wise, they are very shrewd, and they take over. If we make peace with Israel, they will take over the whole Middle East.'"

Jacobson still writes a column each week and often a political story as well. It's still fun, but he worries about the future, for himself and his 116 employees.

Seven years ago, he started an English section in the middle of the paper, and a whole new crowd from the Upper West Side started reading his paper.

"I predict, if I will be alive, that in 10 years from now I don't think we'll have enough Yiddish readers," he said, "and I think eventually I'll go over to English — the whole paper."