Jewish Journal

News Machers

L.A.'s Jewish newspapers reflect a growing, increasingly complex community.

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Mar. 1, 2001 at 7:00 pm

The Jewish Journal's first issue.

The Jewish Journal's first issue.

Joseph Jonah Cummins was a complex man. A prominent Hollywood attorney, the powerful, opinionated Cummins represented Errol Flynn and Bette Davis and lived next door to Milton Berle and Jack Benny. He simultaneously was deeply devoted to Jewish issues; across five decades, Cummins helmed the city's then-preeminent Jewish newspaper, the B'nai B'rith Messenger.

"He didn't need the newspaper," said Ted Sandler, 77, the Messenger's managing editor from 1961 to 1979. "He used to say, 'I have more money than I can use.' "

But Cummins cared deeply about his community, and with the wealth and prestige he represented, every individual and organization who needed help passed through the Messenger's offices. Sandler recalled, "When Marvin Hier came to town, he saw me and Joe. When Shlomo Cunin came to town, the first person he came to was Joseph Cummins."

Cummins was typical of the men who ran L.A.'s Jewish press in its early days. The papers reflected the strong-willed, outspoken, sometimes volatile individuals who ran them; hands-on publisher-editors such as Cummins, the Jewish Voice's Samuel Gach and Heritage Southwest Jewish Press' Herb Brin.

To chart the history from those men to this paper, as it celebrates its 15th anniversary with this issue, is to see the growth of the L.A. Jewish community and of the very notion of Jewish journalism. Over time, the newspaper field grew in complexity and spread geographically, but not without enduring, like the local Jewish populace itself, some wrenching growing pains.

L.A.'s Jewish Press:The Early Years

During the mid-19th century, the center of Pacific Coast Jewish life was not L.A. but San Francisco, where several Jewish papers flourished. While Conrad Jacoby had established the German-language Sud Californische Post, it was not until spring 1897 that L.A. had an English-language Jewish paper, started by Santa Ana printer Lionel Edwards. One year after founding a broadsheet called Emanu-El, he hired Victor Harris as its editor. It was customary to name a city's Jewish paper after the dominant congregation in town, so Harris renamed Emanu-El the B'nai B'rith Messenger, after what is now Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

But it wasn't until Cummins took over as its second publisher that the Messenger gained momentum. Cummins hailed from an Orthodox Johnstown, Pa. family. He arrived in L.A. in May 1924 after acquiring several publications, including the Detroit Jewish Chronicle.

"We had superb columnists," said Sandler, nostalgic for writers such as Lenny Leader and humorist Dave Weissman. Sandler first met Cummins while working as editor of the Jersey Journal and joined the Messenger when his Atlantic City paper, the Jewish Record, folded.

"Out here, the community was much more alive, alert, interested in trying new things," said Sandler, now a consultant for the American Friends of Tel-Aviv University.

Throughout the 1940s, the Messenger's major competition was the Jewish Voice (no affiliation to 1997's version). When Detroit native Gach took over the Voice, he reduced its Yiddish content to one page in favor of English-language prose. Gach's periodical was basically a rudimentary crazy quilt of Jewish Telegraphic Agency stories and social announcements, but he did introduce quirky features, such as the entertainment column Dot's Dashes and original gag cartoons. Gach's own column, In The Know, was a lively discourse on current affairs.

"I enjoyed the Voice," Sandler said of the Messenger's competition. "It was a typographical mess. Sam's column was very pro-labor, very left-wing."

In other words, the Voice was the political polar opposite of the Messenger. Cummins fortified his empire by purchasing a string of rivals, including the Studio City-based Valley Jewish News, and he reluctantly bought the Jewish Voice out of principle, after Gach sold it in the mid-1970s to non-Jewish management. "Joe said, 'No Jewish paper should be run by Catholics,'" Sandler recalled.

Not everyone is a fan of Cummins. Ari Noonan, current editor of Heritage, said the Messenger/Voice era was the nadir for Jewish journalism -- "pretty much flat event and calendar-type coverage." Heritage founder Brin remembers Cummins as an "arrogant" and "vindictive" man. Brin became the target of a bitter personal attack by the Messenger, which evolved into a libel case after Cummins used his editorials to paint Brin as a Communist for hiring a writer from a socialist publication.

"Joe and I had a falling out at the end," Sandler admitted, explaining that Cummins' health had deteriorated. Sandler still has respect for a man who transcended personal politics to extend a hand to disparate people and institutions within the community, even those whose methods he deplored. Cummins even invited longtime rival Gach to continue his In the Know column in the Messenger following the Voice's dissolution. Gach declined.

The Heritage: Jewish Journalism Becomes Personal

As Jewish journalism entered the 1950s and 1960s, postwar anti-Semitism and Israel became hot-button issues, as reflected by papers such as the Beverly Hill Zionist -- launched on Crescent Drive by Rabbi Joseph Jasin in 1959 -- which echoed the ideals of Theodore Herzl.

The Zionist was short-lived, but another paper from that time has survived. This year marked the 47th anniversary of what is now Heritage Southwest Jewish Press. While Heritage has featured valuable contributors over the decades, there is no question that this newspaper is the vision of one man: Herb Brin.

Today, Heritage's modest San Fernando Valley offices are lined with many municipal and organizational awards, evidence of Brin's passion for community. Now 86, Brin earned these honors virtually single-handedly through a personal and colloquial style of reporting.

"He truly is a one-man crusade, a Jewish Paul Revere warning the community," said Noonan, whose own colorful brand of journalism is a stylistic heir to Brin's.

Brin founded Heritage in 1954 as a reaction to a specific incident during his L.A. Times days. Brin stepped onto Times Mirror Square one evening to find hundreds of Jews gathered in front of City Hall to hear a visiting David Ben-Gurion speak. As Brin took in the proceedings, a colleague cracked, "They oughta drop a bomb on those people." That defining moment sealed Brin's destiny -- he quit the Times to serve "those people."

"There wasn't a newspaper in America that didn't know what Hitler was doing," Brin said, "and they buried the stories. This was a time that called on greatness, and we didn't have it in Jewish journalism."

Brin mortgaged his Flintridge home to open Heritage's original Vermont Avenue offices, eventually expanding the paper's reach to Orange County, San Diego and the Central Valley. What Heritage lacked in staff, Brin made up for with lively reporting. He covered the Adolf Eichmann and Klaus Barbie trials; spent four decades hounding Seal Beach retiree Andrija Artukovic, the former head of a Croatian Nazi puppet government that doomed thousands of Jews; infiltrated the Aryan Nations' Idaho compound, from which he walked away with T-shirts and mugs, and published a slew of Ku Klux Klan code words in his paper.

Brin's intense, first-person stylings won him an American Jewish Press Association's (AJPA) Rockower Award by the 1970s. Yet as defiantly independent as Brin's newspaper was, many Jewish organizational leaders felt that both Heritage and the Messenger were not adequately covering L.A.'s burgeoning Jewish community.

Battle Over the Bulletin

In the mid-1970s, The Jewish Federation began to consider turning its biweekly Jewish Community Bulletin into a weekly, community-wide newspaper. Longtime rivals Messenger and Heritage banded together to combat what they perceived as a threat by the Federation to dominate the Jewish press in Los Angeles. (Even so, Cummins and Brin were still embroiled in a bitter libel suit.) At issue was a Federation subscriber list of more than 76,000 homes, which at the time totaled circulation of all the other Jewish papers combined. Making things stickier was the Federation's past failed attempts to purchase both papers.

Brin and Cummins declared war on the Federation, and even the AJPA condemned the organization's move, labeling it an attempt "to drive these private newspapers out of existence." Many believed a Federation-backed paper would amount to a weekly summation of its press releases and spell the end of independent journalism.

But Bulletin managing editor Manuel Chait countered that the other papers were not comprehensive enough. Osias Goren, a Jewish Journal co-founder and longtime Federation participant, said, "If they didn't succeed when we were the Bulletin, what made them feel they would succeed otherwise?"

Many meetings were held at the Federation, where the papers sent representatives to debate the proposed move. Brin now regards the emotionally charged debates as "absolutely devastating. I couldn't believe that in the aftermath of the Holocaust, we would be engaged in such an exchange."

Ultimately, all parties involved survived the dark times intact, albeit not unchanged. Cummins passed away shortly after, and the Messenger, after changing hands and redubbing itself the L.A. Jewish Times, quietly disintegrated by the end of the 1990s.

"We're struggling," Dan Brin -- Herb's son and the Heritage's managing editor of two decades -- told The Journal with unvarnished candor, admitting that his paper almost folded on several occasions. "But I'm not a quitter, and neither is my father."

As for the Bulletin, after much internal discussion and a yearlong study spearheaded by Richard Volpert, the newsletter was discontinued in favor of establishing an independent community paper.

Enter The Journal

In the very first issue of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles on Feb. 28, 1986, Volpert, its founding publisher, stated, "The newspaper seeks to cover the whole Jewish community and do it well. While not a source of daily news, our primary goals are to inform and educate our readers, to be editorially independent, and to achieve financial self-sufficiency in the next several years."

At times this was easier said than done.

The Journal's founding editor-in-chief, Gene Lichtenstein, said he originally came to L.A. from Boston in 1985 "to court a woman" (now his wife, Jocelyn). He was mulling over whether to remain here when he was approached by Ethel Narvid, a coordinator for the Federation-appointed committee in charge of establishing The Journal. Lichtenstein had been recommended based on his extensive magazine experience and his creation of The Jewish Journal of the North Shore for a Boston-area federation. Lichtenstein pitched his vision for The Journal, with one stipulation: he wanted complete editorial independence.

In September 1985, Lichtenstein returned from vacation to learn that he had won the post over some stiff competition, including journalist Yehuda Lev. Lichtenstein secured The Journal's Koreatown offices and a staff that included writers Tom Waldman, Joe Domanick and Sheldon Teitelbaum (who recently returned to the Journal). Lichtenstein also made some eyebrow-raising hires.

"To Gene's eternal credit, he hired his rival as associate editor," said Lev, a contributing Journal editor through June 1993. "Not many people would have done that."

Lichtenstein sought Lev because he wanted "to get good writers that would be the spine of the paper."

But Lichtenstein's literary sensibility won him many detractors, who felt that he exercised such tendencies at the expense of genuine Jewish content. Lichtenstein is the first to admit that "I didn't know L.A. at all" when he first arrived. However, he strived to raise the bar of Jewish journalism beyond what was too often a parochial medium. This meant going outside of the box, such as with Domanick, who is not Jewish but was hired out of USC on the strength of an article on Jewish-black relations.

Domanick, now a widely published journalist, said, "The Journal gave me an opportunity to flex my writing and reporting chops. It gave me confidence that someone like Gene, who had worked at Esquire, liked my piece."

Domanick also recalls "a struggle to make it a real newspaper, as opposed to something that kind of promoted The Jewish Federation." Independence was something that the Journal's founding fathers grappled with from the beginning. Lev, in his column "A Majority of One" (rescued from a short-lived newspaper he launched in the 1980s), caused much controversy with his unabashed criticism of community sacred cows. But Lev's column was one way The Journal distanced itself from the Bulletin's mouthpiece stigma. Of course, The Journal's connection with the Federation was real -- the paper was the culmination of a yearlong Federation report, built on funding advanced by The Jewish Federation-Council.

The union of Lichtenstein and The Jewish Journal board (which overlapped with Federation boards), was often an uneasy marriage. But there was no denying that The Journal flourished under Lichtenstein's leadership.

Jewish newspapers from other cities began making overtures to purchase The Journal. Goren recalled, "In an attempt to keep the paper local and not have it be sold as part of a major newspaper empire, Ed Brennglass, Stanley Hirsh and I formed a group that would keep the paper local, buy it off from the Federation, pay off the $685,000 debt the Bulletin owed to the Federation by borrowing the money on a personal level from City National Bank, and to take it independent with the purpose of being a community newspaper."

After Brennglass passed away, Hirsh took over as publisher.

By the mid-1990s, the Journal shed its shaky financial state and began to become profitable. Lichtenstein, with then-managing editor Marlene Adler Marks and his eventual successor as editor-in-chief, Rob Eshman, were working to fine-tune the paper to reflect its diverse readership. In the process of hiring quality writers such as Tom Tugend and Arts and Entertainment Editor Naomi Pfefferman, Lichtenstein opened doors for female columnists -- Marks, Teresa Strasser, Jane Ulman -- in a manner unprecedented locally. And when The Journal lacked Orthodox viewpoints, Lichtenstein found writers such as David Margulies and hired Julie Fax as religion editor.

"There is always room for improvement," said Lichtenstein, who left The Journal last September to pursue other interests. "But I think we moved a long way toward creating the paper I had in mind."

As The Journal grew, so did the community's journalistic output. Phil Blazer began numerous media enterprises, such as Israel Today. Iranian-, Russian- and Hebrew-speaking Jews established periodicals in their native languages. And direct competitors to The Journal appeared, such as The Jewish Voice. Founded in February 1997 by Selwyn Gerber and a group of investors, the Voice published 11 issues before folding.

The Journal survived, and perhaps gained from such competition. In the past year alone, the weekly's ad pages have grown by 20 percent and the paper's circulation has jumped to 80,000. Last year, it won five Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism. "Our goals are very simple," said editor-in-chief Rob Eshman. "We are going to get bigger and better."

Granted, some lament the days when L.A.'s papers were reflections of powerful, idiosyncratic editorial voices. "The Messenger is dead. It shouldn't be," Sandler said.

Yet other veterans -- such as Journal contributing editor Tom Tugend (whose substantial Jewish press experience includes reporting for Heritage from 1957 to 1993) and Noonan, now writing for Heritage -- believe that the field of Jewish journalism has vastly improved since the days of what Tugend calls "the bar mitzvah sheets."

"L.A. opinions did not materialize in the press until the late 1980s," Noonan said, and Gene was instrumental in that. He brought the perspective of not only an outsider, but a sophisticated, intelligent New Yorker. He emphasized the importance of putting down on paper impressions rather than just quotes. That was the birth of interesting Jewish journalism in L.A."

Tugend added, "Overall, there's been a dramatic change in all Jewish papers over the last 25 years." For instance, New York's coverage of the Baruch Lanner case, he said, would never have happened three decades ago. He also believes that the journalism will improve as newspapers beholden to a parent organization maintain an impartial relationship analogous to a mainstream paper with City Hall. "The closer we can get to that ideal, the more credible we become," Tugend said.

Goren believes that The Journal has fulfilled its original mandate. Sure, The Journal still generates criticism, he said, "but the paper is open to every spectrum -- political, social, and community-wise. Your opinion is heard. If it's respectably written, it will get in. And I'm most proud of that fact."

Steve Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, assisted in locating historical information.

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