American Israelite plays significant role in community’s history
By Phyllis Singer – Editor
and Yehoshua Mizrachi – Assistant Editor
The American Israelite has played a significant role in the history of Cincinnati’s Jewish community, as well as in the American Jewish community.
Founded as The Israelite on July 15,1854, by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the paper today is the oldest English-Jewish weekly in America and the second oldest in the world. (The London Jewish Chronicle was founded in 1841.)
On The Israelite’s birth in 1854, an existing paper The Occident made the following comment: “ (The Israelite) will, in all likelihood, prove a creature of a day and soon go the way of all flesh.”
The Israelite has survived, while The Occident and two other papers existing at the time did not.
In April 1854, Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise came to Cincinnati as rabbi of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun (now known as Isaac M. Wise Temple). Shortly thereafter he began work on The Israelite.
When The Israelite was established, there was no Jewish journal published west of the Alleghenies, and the Jews who could read English were comparatively few in number.
It was founded as a national Jewish newspaper—in Wise’s own words “a weekly periodical, devoted to the religion, history and literature of the Israelites”—with correspondents filing dispatches reporting on Jewish communities around the country. The weekly paper also contained international news plus serialized novels of Jewish interests, written by Wise and others. During Wise’s life, the front page of the paper was primarily devoted to installments of these novels.
The Israelite, which changed its name to The American Israelite in 1874, remained national rather than local in scope through the 1920s. By the 1930s, when many other American Jewish communities had established their own papers, The American Israelite no longer included dispatches from correspondents in other Jewish communities around the country, but instead focused on news of Cincinnati’s Jewish community and national and international news of interest to Jews living here.
That remains the mission of the paper today—bringing local, national and international Jewish news to Cincinnati’s Jewish community.
What Wise had in mind in founding the paper is best described in his own words, as recorded in his “reminiscences”:
“As early as the month of May 1854, I began to take steps toward establishing a Jewish weekly, I wrote very many letters and received very glowing promises, which however, were never kept. Contributions of all kinds were promised, but they were never received; yet I went confidently to work and wrote matter which I intended to make use of later.
“Fortunately I wrote very readily, and possessed rare facility in the use of the English language; hence I could commit to writing very quickly thoughts which may have occupied my mind many days. Writing itself was mere play after I had thought out a theme.
“At the end of May I began to look for some merciful individual who would be so amiable as to publish a Jewish weekly under my direction; but such a one was not to be found, and I began to admire the good, sound sense of all the disciples of Faust and Guttenberg.
“There was no one among the Jews who had any idea of printing or publishing; therefore I could not expect any one of them to undertake this very risky venture. Christian publishers declared bluntly that a few Jews could not insure the success of any paper.
“I did not relish the thought of borrowing money so soon after my arrival in Cincinnati, particularly as my debts in Albany were not yet liquidated. I did not know what to do.
“Finally I came across a visionary, Dr. Schmidt, the owner of the German evening paper, The Republican, and of quite a large printing establishment on Third Street, in the very heart of the business district of Cincinnati.
“Dr. Schmidt accepted my promise that I would make good all losses at the end of the first year. Steps were now taken to have The Israelite appear the beginning of July. Having given orders that I did not wish to be disturbed, I locked myself in my room from 2 o’clock in the afteroon til 4 in the morning, and wrote a prospectus…
“…I wrote the prospectus—short, concise, clear, and fearless. I promised Judaism a sharper weapon. I promised progress, enlightenment, spiritual striving, a fearless organ. The prospectus was printed, distributed and mailed by the following afternoon…
“The prospectus was well received in Cincinnati for the most part. Naturally, only a few friends were enthusiastic. The replies from the country were few, and still fewer from other cities. The indifference was greater than the objection to reform…
“At the end of June we had about 500 subscribers for The Israelite and began to print and mail one thousand copies. The first number appeared on the 15th of July. It contained the beginning of a novel “The Convert,” a poem, news, leading articles, my Fourth of July oration, an opening article on the institutions of Cincinnati, and miscellanea.
“As a matter of course, everyone in Cincinnati had to see the paper, whose motto was ‘Let there be light,’ and which was voyage through the world bearing the name of Israel.
“I knew full well that every beginning is difficult; but I had no idea that the establishment of a Jewish weekly would prove as difficult as it did. Three things particularly were wanting, viz., confidence in the editor; secondly, writers; thirdly, readers…
“A number of friends had promised me original contributions and translations, but when the campaign was ready to be opened, I found myself without an army. My sorriest embarrassment lay in the fact that I had announced Jewish novels in the prospectus, and could not obtain any. I wished to reawaken the slumbering patriotism by Jewish stories, and thus overcome the indifference. I had an object therefore, in desiring novels; but despite all promises, I had none.
“I had no choice but to write novels in the sweat of my brow. During the first year I wrote two, ‘The Convert’ and ‘The Shoemaker’s Family,’ the latter with a historical background. These assisted the paper greatly. How did I write the novels? I wrote the required chapter every week, but no sooner than I had to. The first pages were set up while the last were being written…
“A still greater difficulty lay in procuring readers. It was very hard to obtain such. No one was used to reading a Jewish paper and sought to circulate it; but their number was sad to say very small…
“The fact is that very few could read English and the fewest of these wanted to be known as Jews…
“It came to pass ere long that every pastor and every insignificant little preacher, every common jester, and every political rogue, rained blows upon the Talmud and the Jews. A rascally Jew figured in every cheap novel, every newspaper printed some stale jokes about the Jews to fill up space, every backwoodsman had a few such jokes on hand for use in public address; and all this called forth not one word of protest from any source…
“I cannot deny that these things disgusted me; but for this very reason I proceeded against them maliciously, wrote articles filled with fire and brimstone instead of with becoming words, forgetting for the time I was a clergyman…
“I struck right and left so violently that the sparks flew in all directions. I belabored unmercifully everyone who spoke against the Jews, Judaism and the Talmud, and used both fists on principle. ‘Two kicks for one blow.’ In short I became a malicious, biting, pugnacious, challenging and mocking monster of the pen.
“Friends scolded me and begged me for God’s sake to be a gentleman; but I would not listen to them, and continued to fight like a wild boar that had been fired at. These tactics proved efficacious, but as a matter of course, only after a time.
“In the first place, I succeeded in silencing the opposition…In the second place, The Israelite became known and recognized as the organ of all Jewry and not alone of Reform party. Thirdly, the cowards threw off their disguise and were no longer ashamed to be Jews. Fourthly, the much derided Wise became all at once a mighty personage so that The Israelite continued to exist and to propser despite all obstacles and all opponents.”
Wise remained editor of the paper until his death in 1900.
The paper remained in the Wise family for more than 75 years. Following the death of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, his oldest son, Leo, served as editor and publisher from 1900-1928. From 1907-1928, Isidor Wise was also associated with his brother at The American Israelite.
In 1928, Leo Wise sold the paper to another brother and sister, Rabbi Jonah Wise of New York City and Mrs. Adolph S. Ochs, also of New York City, wife of the publisher of The New York Times. Rabbi Jonah Wise was editor from 1928 to 1930.
In 1930, Wise and Ochs sold The American Israelite to Henry C. Segal and his brother A.L. Segal. Henry Segal had joined the paper as managing editor in 1928 and became editor and publisher in 1930. A.L. Segal subsequently left the paper for the printing business. Henry remained editor and publisher of the paper until his death in 1985.
During the 55 years he was editor and publisher of The American Israelite, Segal regarded the paper as the watch dog, the voice and the bulletin board of Cincinnati’s Jewish community. He dedicated his life to using the paper to build community unity and to fight prejudice.
After Segal’s death, owners of the paper became Millard H. Mack, Henry Segal’s stepson; Robert E. Segal, Henry’s brother, and Phyllis R. Singer, the paper’s editor and general manager, who had joined the paper in 1977. Robert Segal subsequently sold his portion to Millard Mack, who served as president of The American Israelite Co., publishers. Phyllis Singer continued as editor/general manager until 1998.
Dr. Jacob R. Marcus, director of the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, praised The American Israelite as “the cement that held the community together.”
The Israelite “has been a faithful recorder of community activities,” Marcus said. “Because it has been a faithful recorder of community activities, it is the cement that has held the community together. That’s the important thing. Because without communication, there is no community.”
In 1998 the paper was bought by publishing veteran Netanel (Ted) Deutsch. He had been in charge of Key Magazine for 18 years, taking over after his father passed away in 1980.
“As I began to understand publishing I noticed the business opportunities that The American Israelite presented. So I contacted Millard Mack in 1998 and negotiated the purchasing of the paper.
“I view The American Israelite as my dream job and opportunity. I view it as serving the community, as serving the Jewish Nation, as serving G-d. I view it as a win-win for everyone.”
After Deutsch bought the paper, he sat down in his office contemplating what needed to be done. Over time he realized the paper could not survive in its current form in these modern times. So he began to strategize on how to bring the paper into the modern era.
“The paper could not survive in this new age of the Internet without significant changes across the board. I had to be careful, though, that I did not destroy what made this paper so great, while at the same time instituting my vision for its future…
“I began slowly, first by changing the paper into a subscription publication. Second, I looked into evolving the graphics style to fit a more modern look…
“Over the years we’ve incrementally updated the look of the paper to make it look more contemporary and appeal to a younger audience…
“My vision for the future of the paper is based on two things. First, strategic alliances with major organizations in the community. Second, to capitalize on the electronic age…
“To do that we started by adding a website that is currently in its third inception, or as we at The American Israelite like to call it, AI version 3.0. Current traffic on the site is about 3,500 new, unique visitors a month and over 3 million hits last year…
“We have added the Cincinnati Jewish Yellow Pages, as well as working with a company called Proquest to digitize the entire American Israelite archive. This will be available online in 2012…
“Selling ads on the website has also played a significant role and allowed us to broaden our horizons with more electronic platforms for the future, such as Android and Ipad apps…
“As we move forward, The American Israelite will embrace the electronic, Internet and mobile age with open arms.”