the cover says "EMANU-EL" in large letters and features an old photo of a man with a beard
The cover of the first issue of Emanu-El, the newspaper that would become J. over 100 years later.

‘All hail!’ 127 years ago today, this newspaper’s first issue

“To all our communities — greeting! To the San Francisco congregations; to the religious and literary bodies south and north of us, all hail! We have come to speak to and for them all. We reach out the hand of fellowship to every Jew on the Coast.”

Those words come from the very first issue of this paper, which reached Jewish homes 127 years ago this week, making November a very good time to celebrate our anniversary and the wealth of fascinating, chilling, amusing and even outrageous articles we’ve published in our more-than-a-century in print. This, of course, is made possible by the digitizing of the treasure trove of California and Jewish history that is our archives, which went online in February.

But what was published in the very first Emanu-El on Nov. 22, 1895? Why was it founded? And why was it called Emanu-El?

The paper was started by Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger, a Dutch immigrant and self-educated rabbi who was a hugely popular local figure.

Voorsanger felt there was a need for a newspaper that would unite Jews of every denomination under a banner of what he called a “progressive, rational Judaism.”

“It will be a Jewish organ and an organ for Jews. It will report the doings of all bodies and organizations and advocate the righteous claims of all,” he said.

It was also not just for San Franciscans.

“My object is to reach homes, most of which have hitherto not been reached, outside of San Francisco, throughout the length and breadth of our Coast country. If this seems an ambitious project, I can only excuse it on the ground that I am an ambitious man,” he continued.

We reach out the hand of fellowship to every Jew on the Coast.

Voorsanger was rabbi of San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El and named the paper in honor of it — but even in the first issue he tried to disassociate Emanu-El the synagogue from Emanu-El the newspaper.

“I desire, also, to dispel a suspicion some one has already been kind enough to generate, that Emanu-El, because it is named after the leading Jewish congregation of the Coast, is therefore the organ of that eminent body to the exclusion of other congregations,” he wrote, taking a slightly snarky tone, in the first issue. “That insinuation has no foot to stand on.”

So what did Voorsanger think his readers wanted to hear about?

The cover featured a photo of Abraham Anspacher, profiled in the first of a series called “Emanu-El’s Gallery of Notable Israelites of the Pacific Coast.” Anspacher was born in Germany in 1818 and came to California in 1868. Owner of a profitable feed and dry goods store in Livermore, he was a prominent philanthropist and president of Temple Emanu-El, casting a bit of a doubt on Voorsanger’s assertions of total independence.

The first paper also published dispatches from Palo Alto, Merced and San Jose, as well as Portland and Los Angeles. In Merced, the correspondent wrote, there were 14 or 15 Jewish families out of a total population of about 3,000, and they had a Torah, though no synagogue.

The dispatch from San Jose was amusingly blasé: “A few items did you say — well that’s harder to do than we would imagine, for there is very little going on here. Socially, nothing startling has happened in the last few weeks.”

There was quite a long section on doings in Oakland, including a performance by two groups from the First Hebrew Congregation (now Temple Sinai): “The Musicale, Farce and Ball was well attended, yet not up to the expectations of the management, who had hoped through the joint efforts of the two most worthy institutions to have a gigantic success. The absence of the husbands was felt.”

Absent husbands aside, Californians also wanted to hear international news, such as about the antisemitism in Vienna’s city council. Voorsanger didn’t think much of the threat of that ancient hatred in the European capital:

“That almost any political party can obtain votes among the credulous and the impressionable, our own country has often given evidence; and it need, therefore, create no great surprise that an anti-Semitic political party, more the latter than the former, can for a while gain the upper hand in the city elections of Austria.”

It was nothing to worry about, though, Voorsanger said. Nor were the bills proposed in Berlin, one to strip Jews of assets and another “depriving of citizenship all persons who for three generations past have had a drop of Jewish blood in their families.”

“One cannot avoid looking at the humorous side of such suggestions,” he wrote. “They tend to show the hopeless want of both cause and logic in the attitude of the anti-Semites. As a political measure, called into existence by Bismarckian influences, anti-Semitism is dead.”

In the first issue you could also read a long dissertation on the history of Dutch Jews and a poem especially written for the paper (“That from awed lips at Sinai broke, The Royal Psalmist’s harp attuned”). There was a society column and a theater review — the latter of Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels, a blackface troupe, a cringy but unfortunately common form of “entertainment” at the time.

And, of course, advertisements! For dog collars (“Barker brand collars are the best”) and oyster houses (“dinner parties in the best style”), for typewriters (“thoroughly up to date”) and one charmingly handwritten advertisement for a grocery store (“we ask your kind patronage”).

Also printed in the very first paper was this notice: “A number of articles received for the initial number of Emanu-El have been crowded out for want of space. They will be published next week.”

And they were — and the week after, and the week after that. Today, 127 years later, we’re proud of the longevity of the newspaper here at J. and thankful for all of the help from the community we’ve received along the way. That support is what has kept J. alive and kicking, and we’re still glad to be “A Weekly Paper devoted to the Interests of Jews and Judaism on the Pacific Coast.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.