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Beyond the Shtetlsphere: Using Media to Create Community

Jane EisnerFilmed at Limmud New York

How can Jewish media today be as essential as Ab Cahan’s Yiddish Forward was to its readers a century ago? By going beyond the traditional journalistic role of reporting and explaining the news to create a new conversation that connects our community with our Jewish beliefs.

Jane Eisner is Editor-in-Chief of the Forward, the national newspaper and website that for more than a century has been the authoritative source of news, opinion and cultural coverage for the American Jewish community.  Under her leadership, the Forward has won numerous national and regional journalism awards and Eisner’s editorials have been repeatedly honored by the Society of Professional Journalists. Prior to joining the Forward in 2008, Eisner held executive editorial and news positions at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years, including stints as editorial page editor, syndicated columnist, City Hall bureau chief and foreign correspondent.  She has taught at Wesleyan University and the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of “Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in our Democracy.”

Thank you. It’s March 25th 1911, a Saturday, it’s late in the afternoon towards the end of the work day and that’s when the Triangle Shirtways factory fire burst into flames, trapped on the tenth floor of a building on Washington place in Lower Manhattan where 146, mostly women and girls of Jewish and immigrant descent, the scene was horrific, flames were everywhere. People were clamouring to leave the building; some people just held hands and jumped from the top floors. In scenes that were eerily reminiscent of what happened 100 years later at Ground Zero. The largest fire trucks in the city could not reach the flames. The headline in the next phase Yiddish Forward read, “The Morgue Is Full Of Our Victims”. Our victims, notice the language here. There was no attempt at journalistic objectivity or distance there was real, direct, visceral identification and it continued during the day. The Forward building at 175 East Broadway became the hub for everyone in the neighbourhood who rushed there to find out what was going on, they knew where to go. The legendary editor of The Forward, Ab Cahan, who started the newspaper in 1897, wrote an editorial two days later, he said, “the entire neighbourhood is sitting Shiva. Every heart is drawn to mourning; every heart is tearing and drowning in tears. What a catastrophe, what a dark misfortune.” The Yiddish Forward in the days and months ahead connected to its readers in such a way that made it so that there was no distance between the pages of The Forward and the suffering and the struggle of the immigrant community. The funeral marches for these victims began at that building. Today I think about this deep connection and I wonder to myself how can Jewish media be as essential to our community in the 21st century, as big and verse as it is, as Cahan’s Forward was to the immigrant community back then. Now this is not an easy task as you can imagine, it is pretty tough to be a journalist these days, everyone is telling us that nobody reads print anymore that the business models are collapsing in favour of a digital world in which everybody can participate and nobody knows how to make any money. That’s kind of hard for me because I am one of those nerdy people that wanted to be a journalist ever since I was in what we used to call junior high school.  I love to write, I’m nosy, and I like to ask impertinent questions. When I was young I remember watching on public television the re- runs of Edward R Murrow’s, “See It Now”, and I just became infatuated with the kind of journalist he was. I read so much about him, now when I teach journalism to my college students I inflict upon them many many hours of watching Edward R Murrow broadcasts. They were incredible, he spoke from the rooftops of London during The Blitz, he flew in bomber planes over Europe and then back after the war in the United States he did some ground-breaking work and talked about the terrible plight and suffering of farmworkers in the United States and of course his real great contribution, the work that he did, which was very brave, to take down Senator Jo McCarthy. He was tough and independent and I believe that he really helped to shape the identity of Post-war America. So, these are my heroes, my champions, Ab Cahan and Edward R Murrow and I feel that it’s so important to keep that kind of tough, independent, journalism alive. But it also has to change and this is our challenge, you know the old fashioned way of thinking about journalism is it was to tell you the facts, right? Well the best of 20th century journalists did more than that, they helped you understand the facts. And I think the very best of 20th century journalists did even more than that and helped champion causes and I think about the editors of some of the Southern newspapers during the Civil Rights Movement who so bravely stood up against segregation or other journalists who in the 70s and 80s and now until this time have gone to great lengths to reveal government secrets, so this kind of tough, independent, accountable, watchdog journalism must be part of Jewish media today. But I think we have to go more, we have to take one more step. I like to think of a good journalist organisation upholding 4 values; inform, reflect, crusade, connect. It’s not just enough for us to sit in our pyjamas, create a blog and opine, no we have to inform our readers about what is going on in their world in stories that are tough and accurate and fair where facts are verified. We have to  reflect their lives and reflect upon their lives, we have to champion their causes and we have to connect, connect them with each other and with the broader world. And this is where I think the next challenge the 21st century Jewish media lies in trying to build this connection. Now it’s hard because our readers are everywhere. I can’t do what Ab Cahan used to do, leave the building at 175 East Broadway, walk along the streets of the Lower Eastside stop in the Garden cafeteria for a cup of tea, visit the union halls and the schools and the synagogue and listen. Because that’s what he did, he listened and that’s where he learned about the concerns of his community. But now we have to do our listening in different ways and I think we can use the tools of digital media, online, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all sorts of tools that perhaps we haven’t even invented yet, to communicate and listen to one another. So imagine this, imagine if everyone in the Jewish world in the Jewish community in America, opened their day with reading about Jewish news, of course I’d love it if they all read The Forward newsletter, 8am every weekday, 10am weekends but we have many worthy competitors. The idea is to learn about each other and then imagine taking that a step further, imagine if we used these tools to create a conversation that reflects our concerns not the concerns if I may self-appointed leaders, who often say they are speaking for the community but I don’t believe they are. The world doesn’t work that way anymore that’s why Limmud is such a powerful and successful idea, because we live in a time of democratisation, of grassroots conversation and we can use the tools of Jewish media to further that conversation, to hold our leaders accountable to bring in new voices, to really expand the ideas of what we want to take forward into the next century. But there are challenges when doing this, think of this; when Cahan published his Yiddish Forward the only people who could access the content were only those who read or understood Yiddish and then during the 20th century as regional newspapers became very popular in the Jewish community, thick with stories and adds still almost all the people who read them were other Jews mostly subscribers who obviously had an affinity with those newspapers. Now, online, anyone can read us in fact we want anyone to read us, we are thrilled at The Forward when a large news organisation links to one of our stories but it also means that our conversation is occurring outside the family and it requires a certain degree of consideration and restraint. After all we are talking in front of everyone, in front of people who might use our words against us, people who might use our words to aid people who don’t like us very much or consider us their enemies. And there are some who say that because of this we shouldn’t have these kinds of vibrant conversations in our media and to that I say, nonsense. We must get over this idea that we shouldn’t talk this way in front of the goyim, we are not an isolated, insulated community anymore. We are community that needs to confront its differences, its religious and social and political differences in full and fair conversation and so I come back to my essential idea, that the media needs to inform, reflect, crusade and connect and that idea of connection cannot just be having political debates or debates about religious life. I also think we need to look to our past and understand how powerfully places like the Yiddish Forward helped to enable Jews to navigate their lives. You know one of the most popular features of the Yiddish Forward was called the Bintel Brief, I’m sure many of you have heard of it, literally a bundle of letters. It lasted for over 60 years in the pages of the Forward. I still dream about bringing it back some way now. People used to write letters to Ab Cahan, many of them were addressed, “Dear Worthy Editor”, that’s what they thought of him and they would bring him all their questions and concerns and he helped them with so many things. He told them how to can peaches, how to understand baseball, he told them what to do when they walked down the street and how to conduct themselves. Unfortunately, there were some very difficult aspects of immigrant life that were also reflected in the Bintel Brief; questions about abusive husbands and about broken families and he answered them all, he became their advisor, he became the guide to this immigrant community, he became its Rebbe. One of my favourite letters dates back to 1908, a young man writes to, “Dear Worthy Editor, I’m in love with a young woman but there is one problem, before I ask her to marry me I am concerned because she has a dimple in her chin and I am told that those who have a dimple in their chin will not make good spouses and this could lead to an early death, what can I do?” So Cahan’s reply, “the tragedy is not that the young woman has a dimple in her chin but that someone has a screw loose in his head.” The historian Jenna Weissman Joselit who is a columnist for The Forward once wrote about Ab Cahan that he spent 51 years explaining America to its newest Americans. Well we in the Jewish media do not need to explain American to our readers anymore but we do need to use every tool in our disposal to publish the kind of compelling stories that will bind our community together and connect its disparate parts and we cannot do that without your help, without your engagement in joining this conversation as it unfolds in this new journalistic world. Thank you.

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