On a hot morning in mid-July, another wagon piled with ancient manuscripts pulls up to the town-center of medieval Paris. Unloading the scrolls, a group of middle-aged men take turns hurling the texts into a growing bonfire to the vindictive cheers of the townspeople.
The year was 1242 and this infamous day, on which tens of thousands of Talmuds were thrust into the flames, came at the tail-end of a public debate forced upon the Jewish community. It all began two years prior when a Jewish convert to Christianity challenged four leading rabbis to a theological debate. Of course, like all debates under the rule of Christendom, the “judges” were always impartial and, while the Jews were almost always falsly promised protection, always ended with dangerous repercussions for the local Jewish community. Pogroms, riots, and looting resulted in twenty-four wagons full of Jewish texts being brought to the center of the city and thrown into the flames.
In their attempt to control and destroy these works the Christian hegemony understood a deep and profound lesson that Jews have understood since our inception: the immense power of writing and words. If it weren’t for these texts, the government quite correctly deduced, the Jewish community would lose one of its foundational mechanisms of existence and perseverance.
Literacy and writing has long been at the center of Jewish tradition. We frequently gather for communal readings, have books that have been passed down and studied for thousands of years, and parents have a series of obligations to teach their children about our texts. Perhaps more to the point, Judaism is the first religious tradition in the world to posit that its inception was the revelation of a book. It is for good reason that for much of our history Jews were known by the appellation “People of the Book.”
Understandably then, with the advent of movable type printing and the subsequent development of newspapers, the Jewish community was quick to understand both the importance and power of this new mode of communication. Starting in Europe, but soon coming across the ocean to America and other global Jewish communities, Jewish news magazines have become a community staple. For a minority group that has faced a seemingly endless flow of discrimination in morphed forms, coupled with the fact that the American Jew is part of an ever-increasing struggle of being both a committed Jew and functionally assimilated into broader American society, having local Jewish media is absolutely paramount to the thriving of a modern and educated Jewish community.
From important news events that potentially have a unique effect on the Jewish population, analysis and briefings about Israel, opinion pieces that truly highlight the myriad of ways that Jews may view the world, and bits of Jewish culture and tradition that bolster the community—the Jewish news magazine has become the true public sphere for American Jewish communities. But we are at potential risk of losing one of these cornerstones. One of the major Jewish news stories to break this past year is the closing down of both local and national Jewish news magazines. Digitalization of media, a surplus of informational sources and recent economic turmoil, along with a variety of other factors have been forcing many well-known names in Jewish journalism to “close up shop.”
Three and a half years ago I woke up with the sunrise and hopped in my car, hoping to beat the morning traffic to Irvine from Los Angeles. I was at the tail-end of rabbinical school and had arrived at the Orange County Jewish Federation for an interview with the local Hillel. Coming from the LA Jewish “bubble,” my knowledge of Orange County Judaism was basically zero and my smile and enthusiasm belied the fact that moving to Irvine would be a major Jewish culture shock to my system. Sitting in the waiting room I picked up a copy of JLife. Immediately I was overcome by the feeling of a pleasant surprise that the community had a local news magazine that touched on a wide range of issues. At UCLA I spent years as a student writer and editor for the Jewish news magazine on campus, and therefore understood both the work, commitment, and passion required to run such an endeavor. The sheer quality of the JLife production, along with the diverse array of interesting topics, provided me with an important glimpse into the community.
As a rabbi and Jewish historian I have been taught my entire life that if I wanted to understand more about a specific point in history or another community I should read the works that they produce. One of my greatest joys is studying Jewish texts with students, allowing them to get a glimpse of our ancestors and the way that they tackled the tough issues in their times. When it comes to the study of Jewish history, primary texts are the key to enter into the mind and thought process of these societies. Naturally then, the local Jewish news magazine is one of the central means to comprehend central communal matters. We may attend different shuls, send our children to different schools and camps, but there is only one central Jewish news magazine. We must cherish and protect this community pillar.
Daniel Levine is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine and a senior Jewish Educator for Hillel. His email is Dlevine21@gmail.com