Steve Fankuchen died in January at the age of 79. (Photo/Courtesy of Eric Smith)
Steve Fankuchen died in January at the age of 79. (Photo/Courtesy of Eric Smith)

Steve Fankuchen, quirky local champion of Jewish avant-garde, dies at 79

In 1980, Steve Fankuchen convened a group of friends to discuss putting out a new Jewish periodical in the Bay Area. But every time they’d get together, the conversation would be so stimulating that nothing would ever get done.

As he told this publication in 1985: “They all wanted to resolve what it meant to be Jewish. … I see no reason for waiting for the Messiah to get work done, so I just went ahead.”

He went ahead by founding a punchy, countercultural Jewish periodical that mixed colorful personality profiles with progressive political commentary and articles about antisemitism, social issues, poetry, humor and more.

Since newspapers were called “rags” in the slang of the time, he named it Shmate. That’s Yiddish for “rag” — a name that elicited strong reactions from readers, both positive and negative.

An alternative Jewish publication, it was as unique as it sounded. Fankuchen did everything, from the editing to getting his son to stick on the address labels from their Oakland apartment (though its post-office box was in Berkeley). Shmate lasted from 1982 to 1990.

Fankuchen, known to most as “Fanny,” died of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, on Jan. 27 in South San Francisco. He was 79.

While some of his later years were spent in New Mexico, he lived for four decades in Berkeley and Oakland.

According to a 2022 article in Tablet Magazine, he traveled in Europe as a young man before hitchhiking to California. According to Fankuchen, he attended the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963, took part in student protests against capitalism in France in 1968, was visiting Prague during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia later that year, and attended the legendary Altamont music festival in 1969 in Tracy, California.

Fankuchen never held down a traditional job. Before his son was born, he busked on the street, playing guitar and singing. He volunteered in many ways, such as a tenant rights organizer and with the Berkeley Free Clinic, a “radical health-care collective” as described on its website.

I went where interesting things showed up, and didn’t force it into any mold.

His son, Jory Fankuchen, lived primarily with his father growing up. “When I think about that time, I never felt I didn’t have what I needed. We had help but made it work,” he said this week.

“My dad was an extremely devoted parent,” he added. “During the day, he did all the things a parent does. And then at night, I’d go to sleep and he’d sit there with his lightboard and work on Shmate.”

He recalled his father’s devotion to “the rag.” He’d be taken along to the printer, near Oakland’s airport, “where it smelled of ink and paper, and there would always be a problem with something.”

Shmate featured writers who never had a byline anywhere else, as well as names like J. Hoberman, who went on to write for The Village Voice. Contributors weren’t paid and had total control over their own words. It regularly featured women writers, a rarity at that time in mainstream publications, and covered groundbreaking topics at the time such as gay and lesbian Jews. Other topics included resistance during the Holocaust, Jewish humor and U.S. intervention in Nicaragua.

As Fankuchen told Tablet, his original motivation was to deal with antisemitism from a leftist perspective, even though he also had a strong libertarian streak. “But the best thing I ever did was ignore my original intent. I went where interesting things showed up, and didn’t force it into any mold. I’m proud to say that the magazine was nothing like what I intended,” he said.

One highlight was a 15-page interview with Jewish porn star Nina Hartley, for example, in which she expounded on her feminist and socialist views.

A print run was around 2,000 copies, and at its height, Shmate had about 350 subscribers in many states. Fankuchen would go around to local bookstores himself with new issues. He published most letters he received and didn’t cut off subscribers if they couldn’t afford to renew.

Larry Bush, an editor of Jewish Currents at the time, told Tablet that “Shmate had a flippancy and sense of humor while probing serious things.”

Fankuchen also served as an informal adviser to the youth group at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham. 

Beth Abraham Rabbi Mark Bloom, who conducted the funeral, said this week that Fankuchen was as proud of this work with synagogue teens as he was of Shmate. Fankuchen constantly questioned them about their relationship to Israel and to money. And he continually warned them of the dangers of drinking and driving.

Bloom said Fankuchen was the only regular at the Conservative shul who had a ponytail and full beard and typically dressed in a brown suede vest with fringes.

“He identified as ‘not religious,’ but was the only one of his generation to never miss the twice-a-week morning minyan and hated most deviations from the traditional service,” Bloom said.

Born on Feb. 16, 1944, Steven Morton Fankuchen was raised on Merrick, Long Island. He attended Cornell but didn’t graduate.

He is survived by his son and grandson, both of San Francisco. Donations can be made to the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."