By mid-nineteenth century the American Jewish community stretched clear across the continent from New York to San Francisco. More than one hundred congregations and an even larger number of charitable organizations served its needs. One monthly, The Occident, established by Isaac Leeser in 1843, and three weeklies, The Asmonean in New York, The Israelite in Cincinnati, and The Gleaner in San Francisco, reported its activities. News comprised only a small part of the reading matter, the greater part being devoted to educational and polemical articles, and to occasional fiction and poetry.
In the first issue of The Asmonean, "For the Week ending Friday, October 26, 1849," publisher Robert Lyon, an English-born New York businessman, wrote to his subscribers:
In the circular announcing our intention to publish the Journal, we set forth that the Asmonean would be devoted to the advocacy of a congregational Union of the Israelites of the United States, and the general dissemination of information relating to the people. That its columns would be open to all and every communication appertaining to our Societies, our Congregations, our Literature and Our Religion. That all Foreign and Domestic News would be collected up to the latest moment prior to going to press, and that all matters of public interest, would be temperately commented on.
Such turned out to be a true description of the journal's contents during its decade of publication, until the death of its publisher in 1858. From 1852 until his departure to Cincinnati in 1854, Isaac Mayer Wise, then in Albany, served as the journal's coeditor.
Not long after Wise arrived in the Queen City to serve as rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, he decided to undertake the publication and editorship of a new weekly, which he called The Israelite. In his Reminiscences, he describes the tribulations of founding the journal:
As early as the month of May I began to take steps towards establishing a Jewish weekly. I wrote very many letters and received very glowing promises, which, however, were never kept. I began to look for some merciful individual who would ... publish a weekly under my direction; but such a man was not to be found.... Finally I came across a visionary, Dr. Schmidt, the owner of the evening paper the Republican ... [who] accepted my promise that I would make good all losses at the end of the first year.... I locked myself in my room from two o'clock in the afternoon till four in the morning, and wrote a prospectus ...
I promised Judaism a sharp weapon. I promised progress, enlightenment, spiritual striving, a fearless organ.... I visited ... M., where about ten Jewish families lived, to whom I gave the prospectus. Seven of them declared they could not read English; one said that a Jewish paper was a useless commodity, and two subscribed.... I visited Louisville.... I delivered two public addresses there. I was admired by the public.... My prospectus was received coldly, except by the few friends of reformed tendencies, who were very enthusiastic. At the end of June we had almost five hundred subscribers ... and began to print and mail one thousand copies. The first number appeared on the sixth 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.
Two years later, in 1856, Rabbi Julius Eckman (1805-1877) of San Francisco began to publish The Gleaner under even more trying circumstances. Ten years earlier, he had gone to Mobile, Alabama, to serve as rabbi, but his tenure there was brief, as it was subsequently in Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans. In 1854, he accepted the pulpit of San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El, but at the end of one year he was without a position. Temperamentally unsuited to the pulpit, Eckman devoted his life to his Heptsibah Hebrew School and his weekly newspaper. As late as March 1861, he had to plead with his subscribers:
We have a number of names in our book of subscribers who receive the "Gleaner" since the issue of the first number, without receiving any remittance, whatever, for subscription....
Will our subscribers try to settle in some way. if not able to pay at all, or at present, a few lines to that effect will satisfy us....
We shall be glad to assent to any mode of settling, as we, in a publication like the "Gleaner" cannot adopt strict mercantile rules. We wish the paper, as a religious messenger, with all its faults, to be received religiously.
In the Passover issue of that year, Rabbi Eckman wrote of the Festival in a brief sermonette ("Our Declaration of Dependence"), commented on "Dr. Raphael's Pro-slavery Sermon," reported on two letters of appeal for funds for the poor in Jerusalem, published a scholarly letter from Dr. Elkan Cohn (rabbi of Temple Emanu-El on Sabbath observance, with citations in Hebrew from the Mishneh Torah, printed a reminiscence of "San Francisco in 1849," and reported on his Religious School.
In his California Sketches (Nashville, 1882), 0. P. Fitzgerald remembered the rabbi.
Seated in his library, enveloped in a faded figured gown, a black velvet cap on his massive head ... Power and gentleness, childlike simplicity, and scholarliness, were curiously mingled in this man. His library was a reflex of its owner. In it were books that the great public libraries of the world could not match-block- letter folios that were almost as old as the printing art, illuminated volumes that were once the pride and joy of men who had been in their graves many generations, rabbinical lore, theology, magic, and great volumes of Hebrew literature that looked, when placed beside a modern book, like an old ducal palace along-side a gingerbread cottage of to-day.
These journals were established too late to report two battles waged by American Jews for rights at home and for the security of fellow Jews abroad. Source materials on both the struggle for the Jew Bill in Maryland and the protest against the Blood Libel in Damascus are found in the Library's holdings.
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).