A protest on behalf of Soviet Jewry in front of the Soviet consulate in San Francisco captured in the Jewish Bulletin.
A protest on behalf of Soviet Jewry in front of the Soviet consulate in San Francisco captured in the Jewish Bulletin.

J.’s digitized archives are a window into the unique ethos of Bay Area Jews

Digitizing the entire 127-year run of J., a long-term project requiring skill and dedication, is paramount in preserving the history of our community. No other primary source captures the full range of the forces that have shaped Jewish identity here from the turn of the 19th century.

The newspaper’s pages reflect the fierce debates that raged over religious observance and liturgy, the mass migration of East European Jews, the Jewish relationship to other minority groups such as the Chinese and Blacks and, above all, the local response to the Holocaust and the creation of Israel. Our triumphs are vividly described, such as boundless civic philanthropy, the outsize role in relief and reconstruction following the earthquake and fire of 1906, the vitality of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews from 1967 to the early 1990s, and the artistic and spiritual creativity that has characterized us to the present day. Our shortcomings can be found, too, with examples of bigotry, apathy and scandal.

The paper has not only reported the news, but has also carried thoughtful, indeed philosophical, opinion pieces from the leading lights of each era. Sweeping visions of Jewish life in the Golden State were put forth by two forceful and eloquent turn-of-the-century rabbis, Jacob Voorsanger of Emanu-El and Jacob Nieto of Sherith Israel.

RELATED: How we’ve covered the biggest Bay Area Jewish stories through the years

The hundreds of hard-hitting columns of Rabbi Saul White of Beth Sholom, throughout the entirety of World War II, pierced the armor of the assimilationist mentality that had held sway here and paved the way for a proud, vibrant Jewish community. Later, the voices of an increasingly diverse Northern California Jewry graced J. with impassioned pleas for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, and income equality, making tikkun olam a centerpiece of the Jewish experience.

But how to access this vast trove of over 6,500 issues? I may be the only person who has read all the back issues, dating from 1895, as I researched four books on local Jewish history. It was one of the most fruitful yet tedious tasks as a historian I’ve ever undertaken; priceless gems are surrounded by reams of bland and banal articles and announcements. One editor in the tumultuous 1940s bragged that before he went on summer vacation, he wrote three months of editorials in advance.

But a digitized J., accessible online, is much more than a great time-saver for the researcher. It facilitates verifying information and quotes at any stage before publication, and it ensures that all the paper’s relevant material on a person or a subject is presented. Perhaps most important, the process of searching the archive naturally leads to related topics of inquiry, which can then be easily pursued either there or through another online source.

The ethos of Bay Area Jewry is unique in the world. Digitizing the pages of this publication opens a window into how and why that is so.

headshot of Fred Rosenbaum
Fred Rosenbaum

Fred Rosenbaum is the founding director of the former Lehrhaus Judaica and the author of “Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area” (University of California Press, 2009), among other books about local Jewish history.