COHEN: Jewish Journalism: Good, Bad or Ugly, We Need it

By ANDREW COHEN

At the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw – perhaps the finest institution of its kind in the world – one of the most striking galleries recreates Jewish urban life in Poland between the wars.

“On the Jewish Street,” as it is called, presents something staggering: An entire wall groaning with newspapers, magazines and journals in Yiddish, as if it were a gargantuan news kiosk. There were 3.1 million Polish Jews in 1931, the largest community in Europe, and this was their reflection.

Jews sustained daily newspapers in Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow and other cities, as well as specialty publications on art, photography, literature, science, history and politics.

This was the age of newspapers. Canada itself had myriad English-language dailies (four remain in Toronto today) and many that served Jews. One of the early Jewish periodicals was Der Yiddisher Zhurnal (The Hebrew Journal), which appeared in 1913 in Yiddish. It came out every day but Saturday, serving new immigrants.

For years, Montreal had the Keneder Adler (Canadian Eagle), also six days a week. Like publications in Toronto, it competed with Yiddish dailies sent from New York. Over the years, English-language Jewish papers in Canada came and went. Among them were the Jewish Star, Jewish Times, The Canadian Jewish Review (which merged with the Canadian Jewish Chronicle to become the Chronicle Review), and the Western Jewish News.

The best known was The Canadian Jewish News. For 60 years, with a brief hiatus in 2013, it was the record of Canadian Jewry. Under the able Yoni Goldstein, its last editor, it offered a weekly mix of news, commentary, and features.

In April, The CJN closed. Suddenly, sadly, we have no voice. This is something to lament, consider and correct. Which is why a circle of journalists and writers have founded The Canadian Jewish Record.

Why bother? Aren’t newspapers closing everywhere? Are they not obsolete amid Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook? More particularly, why mourn the end of The CJN?

It matters because there are some 390,000 Jews in Canada, the second- or third-largest community in the world outside Israel. Jews are represented everywhere here in national life – business, law, medicine, government, entertainment, sports. We have something to say.

We are a community, and we have a story. We have interests, values and views different from other communities, and a multiplicity – indeed, a cacophony – of voices. Everyone knows Jews rarely agree.

No publication can reflect all that but we owe it ourselves to try. Without a voice, we risk isolating ourselves, losing a part of ourselves and becoming distant from each other in ways far worse than the ravages of COVID-19.

Good journalism does for our community what it does for any community. It challenges our institutions and our leaders, explores our ideas and experiences, conveys our pleasures and pastimes, and captures our way of life, in its diversity, curiosity, whimsy and levity.

Good journalism illuminates how we organize ourselves and holds institutions accountable. One mystery, for example, is the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which succeeded the venerable Canadian Jewish Congress. How that happened is contentious, and how CIJA operates – particularly its financing from the Jewish Federations of Canada in its role as “advocacy agent” – demands closer scrutiny.

(I have raised this in the past in the mainstream media, as well as in The CJN, proposing a mechanism allowing skeptical donors to bypass CIJA and select individual charities. The Federation was clearly uninterested.)

Exploring these and other issues is why we need a forum of news and ideas. But it is not just for serious matters. We face many existential issues: The properties of the perfect bagel, the way to make better challah, the demise of the delicatessen and the dairy restaurant.

Food, the arts, travel, commerce, science, health. News isn’t just politics. It’s the soul and sinew of our lives as Jews in Canada in the 21st century: the word on our Jewish Street.


(Photo: Pat McGrath/The Ottawa Citizen)

Andrew Cohen is a columnist with Postmedia News, a professor at Carleton University, and the author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.