Commentary Magazine


Observations: The Jewish Chronicle & Others

A Well-Organized exhibition devoted to the Anglo-Jewish press has just closed in London. In some ways it was a melancholy affair: dead newspapers lay in their display cases thick as autumnal leaves. But the show was built around a success story: that of the weekly Jewish Chronicle, which for most people is the Anglo-Jewish press. Founded as far back as 1841, the Chronicle has been the longest-lived Jewish periodical in the world since the French Archives Israélites closed down shortly before the war. Its current circulation is over 65,000; at a guess it reaches half the 400,000 Jews in Britain, and a fair number abroad.

Intellectually the Chronicle’s heyday was at the turn of the century, when it numbered among its regular contributors Solomon Schechter, Israel Zangwill, Herbert Loewe, the historians Israel Abrahams and Lucien Wolf, the folklorist Joseph Jacobs, and others of the same caliber. The Golden Jubilee number carried a fifty-year retrospect by Graetz, probably the last piece he wrote. If comparable contributors are lacking today, it is not through oversight, but because they are scarcely to be found—in England, at any rate. The Chronicle is the mirror of the community, as anyone leafing through Cecil Roth’s centenary history will quickly realize. Hence today its property supplements are considerably fatter than its literary ones. But editorially it tries to keep its standards high, and in one important respect there has been no falling off. The late-Victorian Chronicle established an outstanding tradition of foreign reporting, including such things as the famous monthly supplement “Darkest Russia” and exceptionally thorough accounts of the Dreyfus Affair. This was during the epoch, inaugurated earlier in the century by Moses Montefiore, when the English community aspired to some kind of moral leadership among Jews throughout the world. That period now belongs to history, but the Chronicle’s international coverage is still equally good. The current issue, opened at random, carries stories on the latest activities of the nationalist and anti-Semitic Tacuara in Buenos Aires, the Czech refusal to rehabilitate Mordecai Oren, the publication of a new Russian-Hebrew dictionary, this week’s Israeli political crisis, an attack by the former West German Finance Minister on payment of reparations to Israel—the kind of item treated skimpily if at all by the general British press.

Most readers of the Jewish Chronicle buy it in the first place for its domestic news, however—and in this context, domestic means domestic. Poring over the births, marriages, and deaths (particularly the deaths) has become an established Friday night ritual. Great stretches of space, too, are taken up with communal politics—every time I look at the paper, after however long an interval, the same wrangles seem to be going on and the same officials handing in their resignations. There is also a tendency which sometimes verges on the morbid: to dredge up items of Jewish interest from unlikely sources. I recall one review, a few years back, of a revival of Wycherley’s bawdy Restoration comedy The Country Wife, which began by speculating whether or not Manasseh ben Israel could have seen the original production.

But if all this smacks of the parish pump, at least it proves that the parish still exists. Indeed, although the Jewish Chronicle owes a good deal to a succession of gifted editors, it continues to flourish primarily because there is a demand for it: the Anglo-Jewish community is still homogeneous enough to require highly centralized if flexible institutions, among them a paper with an undogmatic Klal Yisrael policy. The Jewish newspaper which can please everybody hasn’t been invented, but the Chronicle has generally shown a sure instinct for the prevailing mood of its readers. Certainly it could never have kept its position if it had opposed Zionism; but the most notable of its editors in this century, the fiery Leopold J. Greenberg, led it firmly into the Zionist camp as far back as 1907 (through he continued to give the anti-Zionists a hearing). This was at a time when most communal leaders were either indifferent or actively hostile to Herzl’s ideas, but Greenberg looked to the future. In the years before the First World War his tireless advocacy of Zionism conferred respectability on the movement in many English eyes, and undoubtedly played a major part in creating the climate which made the Balfour Declaration possible.

The Chronicle wasn’t the first in the field—there was a Hebrew Intelligencer as early as the 1820’s—but its very success has drained much of the life away from the rest of the English-language Jewish press. It swallowed up its only serious rival, the World, long ago; for the rest there have been a mass of small, scholarly, Zionist, and local magazines. A few curiosities have bobbed up, such as Jewish Society, a Tatler-like compilation of smart society chatter brought out by a lady novelist in the 90’s. The casualty list has been high: one factor is the steady departure abroad of journalists and sometimes even journals, most notably the Jewish Quarterly Review, which moved from London to Philadelphia in 1910. Hebrew-speaking journalists were particularly prone to think of themselves as transients, although eight or nine Hebrew journals had appeared sporadically in mid-Victorian London. Ahad-ha’am had next to no contact with English Jews during his fifteen-odd years in London as representative of a Russian tea firm; Joseph Chaim Brenner lived for a time in Whitechapel in near isolation, setting up and printing his own work, before he left for Palestine. One Hebrew weekly, produced under impossible conditions in a small flat in the East End, did manage to struggle on for the better part of twenty years—HaYehoody (or so the title was charmingly transliterated in the copy on display at the recent London exhibition, which dated from a time when the British Raj still lorded it over the Hindoo).

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The big surprise of the exhibition was the Yiddish section. The period of the great influx of Jews to England from Eastern Europe has still not been properly explored; most British Jews seems incurious about their immediate past, and it is characteristic that the only adequate study of the period, Lloyd P. Gartner’s invaluable survey, The Jewish Immigrant in England 1870—1914, should come from America. Even Gartner admits that the Yiddish press is an uncharted field, although it is now being studied by another American, Leonard Prager. Meanwhile it was an eye-opener for visitors to the exhibition to learn that Britain has had as many as one-hundred-sixty Yiddish journals, the first of them dating from 1867, well before large-scale immigration was under way.

Caught halfway between America and Eastern Europe, Yiddish culture in England was short-lived. Numbers were comparatively small, and the pressure to anglicize was fierce. Consequently, what looked like positively exotic items in London would scarcely seem novelties in New York. But there is something peculiarly poignant about these plants which never quite managed to take root in the unpropitious soil. One doesn’t have to go much further than the titles of the papers on display or listed in the catalogue for vivid reminders of the East End of slums and sweated labor to which the first immigrants had to adjust: Der Poylisher Yidel, Heypni (i.e. halfpenny) Speshel Telegraf, Brill’s Telefon, the Yiddish supplement to the Anti-Sweater, Der Londoner Yud, with its stunted little drawings of peddlers and tailors, like woodcuts on a Victorian broadsheet. The old country still looms up in the Bundist sheets, Pogromin-Blatt and “Latest News from Despotic Russia.” But equally forlorn in their way, from this side of the European holocaust, are the humorous magazines: Der Bluffer, Der Ligner, Freyliche Shtunden, Pipifox (or “Illustrated Jewish Bits”).

Remotest of all, however, was the corner given over to the socialist and anarchist press. London, in other respects on the periphery of the Yiddish world, here alone had some claim to be considered an important center. Most of the leading socialist writers eventually went to America, and the movement rapidly dwindled away, to be replaced largely by trade unionism. For a time, though, its work set a pattern for Jewish socialist groups elsewhere, and it knew a brief moment of glory: the birthday celebrations of the socialist-cum-anarchist club in Berner Street, a narrow turning off the Commercial Road, were attended by Kropotkin and William Morris. (Morris was unique among prominent English socialists in taking a warm personal interest in the East End immigrant movement; Jewish socialism might have made more of a mark in London if the Fabians hadn’t remained detached, or if H. M. Hyndman, leader of the English Marxists, hadn’t been an avowed anti-Semite.)

The anarchists had a longer run. They took over the leading socialist paper, the Arbeiter Freint, and founded some journals of their own, such as Zherminal. The leading anarchist journalist in the East End was a remarkable personality, Rudolph Rocker, a non-Jew from Germany who taught himself Yiddish and made his home in London. Active in England as far back as the 1890’s, he died only five years ago, leaving behind a fascinating autobiography, The London Years. Rocker was a citizen of the world, a highly educated man who deplored terrorism; but to the English public at large, anarchism increasingly came to suggest conspiratorial violence, particularly after the notorious Sidney Street siege in 1911 (a gunfight between an East End gang, wrongly assumed to be anarchists, and troops who were led on the spot by Winston Churchill, Home Secretary at the time). The movement was largely crushed by the First World War, though it trickled on into the recent past. It was, of course, bitterly anti-bourgeois and anti-religious; some of the smartly dressed visitors to the West End gallery where last month’s exhibition was held, who stood peering indulgently at faded copies of journals open at articles commemorating the extremist German leader Johann Most, would probably have run a mile if an authentic 1900 anarchist had come into the room.

The Yiddish journalists who stared hopefully or sternly or quizzically out of the old sepia photographs pinned up in the exhibition hall have left virtually no successors. The last Yiddish daily closed down in 1950, and now there is only a solitary weekly. The group of Yiddish litterateurs who used to gather every afternoon in Lyons’s teashop in Whitechapel have scattered, too, although one of them, the poet A. N. Stencl, still runs a periodical, Loshn un Lebn, which he can be seen hawking outside Jewish meeting all over London. Apart from occasional concerts and charity shows, the Grand Palais, the last of London’s Yiddish theaters, is now used exclusively for bingo. The language has not yet entirely died out, but ten years from now it is unlikely to survive outside of a few pockets of extreme Orthodoxy. Meanwhile the future lies wholly with English. This means that, although specialist groups are bound to go on setting up their own magazines (a significant newcomer is the Jewish Journal of Sociology), the Jewish Chronicle has assumed more importance than ever as a cohesive force in the community.

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About the Author

John Gross is the editor most recently of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. His “Mr. Virginia Woolf” appeared in the December 2006 COMMENTARY.




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