The great Samuel Johnson poet and writer once opined that "the two offices of memory are collection and distribution." Indeed then newspapers are for many the official vehicle that both collect memory and distribute it such that we are all better informed.
This week much has been said and written about the possible demise of a veritable institution in this country, the Canadian Jewish News (CJN). There was hardly a gathering of Jews anywhere I traveled this week both in and out of Toronto where the topic did not turn to this distressing news.
And the questions, though obvious, nonetheless beg for answers. What happened? How did the Board of the CJN allow this to happen? What can we do?
Before answering the last question let's examine the first two.
In the Canadian Jewish community we seem all too often to take for granted that which has been around for a long time. The organization that I was formally headed, Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), was around from 1919. It spoke on all matters of social justice, human rights and antisemitism. In many ways it seemed to be more respected outside the Jewish community than within. Nevertheless it was also understood to be our conscience and soul. It was very much the voice of Canadian Jewry. Yet two years ago in a dramatic re-shaping of Canadian Jewry organizational life the CJC was dismantled, gone it seems as T.S. Eliot might say, "not with a bang but a whimper".
Yet even today at functions and cocktail parties or other gatherings I am asked as to the goings on at CJC. When I explain that the CJC is no longer I get blank stares and questions of incredulity; what happened? How can this be?
And here we are today facing the potential shattering loss to Canadian Jewry of the CJN. However this time there seems to be a different feeling in the air. There is a clear recognition that with the potential loss of the CJN we lose a large piece of who we are as a community of Jews. There will be no communication vehicle left in the country that for all intents and purposes is independent, practices professional journalism and unites the Jewish community from coast to coast.
This will have an impact not just on the average community member but on Jewish communal organizations as well. Be it ORT, Hadassah, JNF and the myriad of acronymic Jewish groups that counted on the CJN to get its information or dispense its own view of the world, that car, if plans to dismantle the paper continue, will be without fuel. My friend and colleague Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs certainly understood the issue well when he explained recently in an interview,
"Absent The CJN, it's going to create serious challenges for us to ensure an adequate level of awareness of what we do, how we do it and ways [people] can become more directly engaged in the advocacy process".
And sadly there is more to this potential loss than meets the eye. Jews have always been people of the book. Voracious readers with many opinions, the development of a Jewish press in North America and Canada specifically spoke to a community that grew with its ability to speak out freely without fear.
As far back as the early 1900s there was an open and healthy Jewish press in Toronto and Montreal where the vast majority of Jews lived. "Der Yidisher Zshurnal" (The Jewish Journal) Toronto's first Jewish community daily published six days a week in the language of Eastern European Jews, Yiddish, similarly the "Adler" (the Eagle) in Montreal fulfilled the role of its Toronto counterpart. And over the years many other Jewish journals and magazines in both English and Yiddish continued to offer new immigrants and later their children, first generation Canadians, news of our community. Whether it was the "Jewish Standard", the communist inspired "Proletarisher Gedank" ( later changing its name to "Der Veg" The Way),the "Canadian Jewish Review" or the "Kanader Naies"(Canadian News), the competition, editorial stands and provision of community information rarely ceased.
Today for perhaps the first time in our young history as a Jewish community in Canada we may be without a trusted journalistic Jewish voice.
To be sure voices are being raised. To my utter delight and surprise the strongest of these voices seem to be emanating from a new younger generation of readers. Twenty-something folks like Rachel Singer and Alana Kayfetz (ironically the niece of one of Canada's most prolific Jewish journalists and community professionals from a day gone by, Ben Kayfetz Z"L) are putting words into action. Utilizing a 21st century communications device, the internet, they have developed a "Save the CJN" campaign" which has to date gathered more than 3000 digital signatures and close to 50,000 page views.
Playwright Arthur Miller once intoned "A good newspaper is a Nation talking to itself", indeed the CJN talked to a nation of Canadian Jews for over 40 years. To let it die without a bang would be a disservice to who we are as a people. Perhaps if we stood up this time and as my late father use to intone "open a mouth" we can save us from ourselves.