August 9, 2020

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Jewish newspapers affected by coronavirus

Although it is fair to assume that more people today are reading the news than at this time last year, the newspaper industry is fast becoming a casualty of the coronavirus. As advertising dollars have dramatically decreased, thousands of newspaper staff have been laid off and many papers have either ceased publication entirely or move exclusively online. This has especially been the case for smaller community and faith-based newspapers like the Toronto-based Canadian Jewish News and Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News.

The Jewish Post and News (JPN) has been a mainstay of the Winnipeg Jewish community since 1925, but after almost a century, it will no longer, at least for the time being, appear in print format. Instead, its faithful readership, representing about 1,400 current and former local Jewish community members, will have to turn to its website to read about their synagogues, schools and summer camps.

The JPN, founded as the Jewish Post, was Western Canada’s first Anglo-Jewish newspaper and immediately attracted a significant readership. It also courted a rival upstart, the Western Jewish News, which was launched within days of the Jewish Post and for decades vied with it for the community’s attention and advertising dollars. The two papers finally merged in 1987 when the Jewish Post acquired the Western Jewish News and became the JPN.

Prior to the founding of those two English-language papers, local Jewish community members — the majority of whom were emigrants from the Russian Pale of Settlement — relied on the Yiddish language weekly, the Yiddishe Vorte, known in English as the Israelite Press, for news about their faith. That paper remained in print until 1976, but by the mid-1920’s, as a community of immigrants evolved into a community of assimilated, educated and English-proficient first-generation Canadians, it seemed a natural time to launch an English-language Jewish community newspaper.

The Anglo-Jewish newspapers, like the Yiddish papers that preceded them, served many purposes. They relayed news from the Old Country and around the world, helped deliver rabbinical commentary and religious inspiration, and provided a soapbox for digressing viewpoints about war, peace and politics. They helped shaped public opinion, rallied calls to action, and promoted causes and fundraising appeals. Their social pages were filled with news about community members’ academic, artistic and athletic achievements, and birth, death and in memoriam announcements, as well as bowling scores and holiday greetings.

After the Second World War, the papers played a vital role in family reunifications, publishing pleas for information and inquiries from the Red Cross and survivors about family members not heard from in years.

With every byline and every column, the Jewish papers chronicled the modern history of a dispersed people and kept those people feeling unified and connected to one another and to their shared history and traditions.

While the papers’ central role in doing so began to change with the advent of the internet, it is only in the last few weeks that many of them have finally had to stop the presses.

This, according to historian Jonathan Sarna, is worrisome.

"Without a reliable press, our community’s past — the records of its achievements and mistakes, its milestones and its missteps — will inevitably disappear," he recently wrote in response to the demise of the CJN and other Jewish papers. "So too will our broad sense of what a Jewish community is."

Of course, to a certain extent, websites, livestreams and blog and social media posts will prevent that from being the case. They also will ensure that news of concern to Jewish community members will be delivered and updated faster and more efficiently than at any time in the past.

Nonetheless, for a certain segment of readers, particularly those of an older generation, nothing will compare to or replace the hard-copy newspapers that were faithfully delivered to their doorstep every week or two for years. For it is only in the rustle of and the turning of those black and white pages that those readers can truly be transported back in time through the decades and across the oceans to the people, places and events that shaped who they are as Jews in the 21st century.

swchisvin@gmail.com

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The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.

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