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e Language of ard Knock
Don't be fooled by the beard and accent
By Elli Wohlgelernter

(Excerpts from an article in The Jerusalem Post, February 25 2001)


He is Walter Matthau in The Front Page, a grizzled 50-year veteran of the newspaper business with the street-smart savvy and gut instincts of a classic beat reporter.

But though Gershon Jacobson, founder, publisher and editor of the Yiddish weekly Algemeiner Journal, doesn't quite look the type, don't be fooled by the beard and accent. He may appear and sound like an elderly religious Jew from New York's Lower East Side, but the 66 year-old can cuss like a sailor and doesn't give a damn who is bothered by it.

"Go to hell," he'll say with a shrug, if anyone should question the incongruity. "I am from a different school."

Call it the school of hard knocks, the street, reality. Jacobson began his education in his native Russia under Stalin, who arrested his father when Jacobson was eight and kept him imprisoned for nine years. Later, he moved with the family through Europe: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy and France, and on to Toronto, and finally, New York.

Jacobson's career as a journalist began at age 18, in Paris. He is still a working journalist, 50 years later, writing in a language over whose life and future he worries. The Algemeiner's circulation of 62,000 to 65,000 is higher than other, more famous, international weeklies, with a loyal readership from Mexico City to Montreal to Jerusalem. And from the Hassidic communities in Brooklyn - Satmar, Lubavitch, Bobov, Ger - with their many children, he's able to pick up 2,000 to 3,000 subscriptions a year. 

"They are huge communities, and they speak this language. You go to Williamsburg, girls 16, 17, speak the language. So when they get married they buy my paper. That's why I write about them; I am very careful to cultivate this element."

But when Jacobson looks at the demographics and the trends of the Yiddish language, he is forced to face reality.

"I don't think Yiddish has a future; eventually, assimilation is such that it will disappear." He cites as an example the big yeshivot in Baltimore and Lakewood, New Jersey, where the tradition of teaching Talmud in the singsong of Yiddish has given way to teaching in English.

"Everybody who studies Talmud in Yiddish is interested in reading a Yiddish paper to know what's going on in the Jewish community. But now they study it in English, their song becomes the English song. It's strange to the ear, studying Gemara in English. That's the problem. And I have the same problem. They are not attached anymore to the language."

The ravages of age are also a problem for Jacobson's circulation. "I lose every year about 5,000 or 6,000 [subscribers] who die or become senile," he says, his voice lowering. "If you want to see a tragedy, come sit in my office and see what I get in the mail: 'deceased,' 'senile,' 'sick,' 'cannot see,' 'cannot read.' The kids or grandchildren send it to me; some of them demand the money back, the $40 for a year."

Jacobson not only longs for the time when Yiddish was a vibrant, living language, but remembers well when the newsprint business was a flourishing industry, when reporters wore trench coats and fedoras, and dangled cigarettes from their lips. Hell, he doesn't just remember, he was part of it.

It was 1954, and the 20 year-old Jacobson headed downtown for a noon appointment at the New York Herald Tribune, among the best dailies in the country and one of nearly a dozen in the city.

"It was the first time I walked into a city room of a major daily newspaper," he reminisces during a recent visit here. "I was very educated, an Ivy League-type guy, thin, tall, spoke with a 'thank you' and 'please.'

"I was told to meet a Buddy Weiss, and when I ask, 'Where is Mr. Weiss?' the woman says, 'We don't have a Mr. Weiss, we have Buddy Weiss.' And this cigar-chewing, Bronx-type of a Jew begins to holler - 'Who's that f---ing kid there?'

"I was overwhelmed - you go into city room, with so many people who are supposed to be educated newspaper people, who cover the world, and he uses this four-letter word. I was a kid, inexperienced, to a certain degree very naive. I wasn't used to it - on the street, in a disco, a bar, yes, but not in a city room."

Weiss, says Jacobson, was an old-fashioned newspaperman out of Citizen Kane, not unlike the journalist Jacobson himself became.

"He was a very great newspaperman, in control over everything, with his four-letter words. But he knew exactly what he wanted. He would say, 'We are here selling newspapers, we are not producing Shakespeare.' Reality - he would speak about reality, and that's the school I come from. I kind of adopted it after working there for nine years."

Jacobson had already started learning about reality as a boy in Moscow. He was born Boris Yacobashvili on May 30, 1934, to Simon, a Sephardi from Georgia, and Frida, an Ashkenazi from Belarus.

His father was from a wealthy family, the son of a furrier, and was on his way to learn the silk business in Rome, in 1918, when he happened to meet the Lubavitcher rebbe one Rosh Hashana morning.

The Rebbe told him to forgo Rome and stay and learn, which started the family on a long association with Habad that continues till today with Jacobson's son Simon, the author of the best-seller Towards a Meaningful Life, based on the teachings of the last Rebbe.

Jacobson's parents met and married in Leningrad, and then settled in Moscow, where his father, a cultured man who spoke Russian, Georgian, Italian, Yiddish and English, worked in the government agency that produced chocolates - in the literary department.

"Every piece of chocolate had a poem for children: 'The bear danced, the cat came, the monkey sang,' to give a child some educational value. My father was in charge of this department; he had 400 people working for him."

Jacobson's father was arrested August 19, 1937, a night that saw 10,000 people picked up off the streets of Moscow. The charge against Simon was spying for the Joint Distribution Committee, and the sentence was death by firing squad.

"For three years and eight months my mother didn't know whether my father was alive or not," Jacobson says matter-of-factly. "I used to go with my mother to the jail window once a month to find out what had happened to my father. I remember there was a line, you'd get there at four in the morning, and you'd get to the window at one in the afternoon. She'd give his name, his father's name and his birthday. They would answer, 'He disappeared, we don't know where he is.'

"There were thousands of people there, Lubianka Prison, from all over Russia. It was a horrible time, Stalin's period of terror."

A cellmate of his father for three years came one day to the Jacobson family and told them their father was alive, exiled in Siberia.

Simon had written a 25-page letter to the minister of interior, a fellow Georgian, and the sentence was reduced to 25 years.

The family survived with the help of an underground Habad network, which helped children whose fathers had been arrested.

One night after the Second World War, Jacobson's uncle drank all night with the jail guard and got Simon temporarily released. Simon then ran away to Georgia, bought false identity papers, and the family began their trek through Europe.

In 1947, Simon sent 18-year-old Gershon to Palestine, the first of his 96 visits to the Holy Land.

"I was there two weeks, I got very disenchanted. They asked me who I was with, what party. I didn't want to belong to anyone. I wanted to go to the army - they mistrusted me."

Jacobson returned to Europe, to a yeshiva in Paris. There was a trial taking place involving a high-ranking Soviet pilot, a Jew who had defected, who was suing a Communist paper in Paris for libel, for writing that he was a dope addict and part of the underworld.

"This was a fantastic trial, a newspaper sued by a Russian Jew. I walked into the Yiddish daily paper in Paris, a Mapai paper, and said, 'Why aren't you covering the trial?' They said, 'We have no reporters. You want to cover it for us?'"

They paid 25 francs a week, and Jacobson was suddenly a reporter. Then he received a call from the London Jewish Chronicle also requesting dispatches.

"So I became a syndicated reporter, in Yiddish and English. I didn't know English, I would send the stories [in] half French, half Russian, half Yiddish. I covered the trial for six months."

The family moved to Toronto in 1952, with the help of Edgar and Charles Bronfman's father who wanted to enable Simon Jacobson to have a cancer operation after hearing him once give a speech and being very impressed.

After graduating from the University of Toronto, Jacobson headed to journalism school at Columbia, and then to the Tribune. Jacobson started out there writing obituaries for two years, and then was assigned to cover the Jewish community.

"I didn't know the difference between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform - I had to go to conventions, listen to speeches, to be able to comprehend the reality of American Jewish life. But I was a fast learner, because I was a very good reporter, and because I did not have pre-set ideas. I accepted life the way it is, I did not question why. If a guy told me...." And Jacobson launches into a story, which he does to answer almost any question.

There is no false modesty with Jacobson, in fact no modesty at all. But there is no bragging either, because he talks the same talk as he walks the walk: a straight shooter who tells the story just as it happened.

During one Pessach, he covered a press conference held by the rabbinic head of a division of Reform Judaism. All the other religion writers were there to cover it as well, including The New York Times, AP, UPI, Time, and Newsweek.

"I wasn't that learned, but basic things I knew, that on Pessach you don't eat hametz - I knew it and I observed it. I knew Reform was very liberal, but I walked in and on the table was ham and matza.

"At the end I asked him, 'I understand it's Pessach, and you have matza; but why ham?' He answers me, in Yiddish, 'What's for God is for God, that's why I'm eating matza; and as for people, we enjoy ham.' To me it was an eye opener.

"The next day I wrote a story, and wrote that. That caught the eye of many liberal Jews, and I became a celebrity, because, until then, reporters from the daily papers did not write such things."

He started writing about other previously untouched subjects, he says, like a comparison of professors' salaries at Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College, or how much executives at Jewish organizations were making, the kind of lifestyle they were living, whether they had mistresses, whether they were faithful to what they were preaching.

"Nobody ever wrote in the [secular] papers about such things. Not that I was a judge - I just told the story! Just like you tell a story about a political party or an organization, or any other group."

It was during this time, over a period of six years, that Jacobson became "a very conscious Jew," as he puts it. It was a profound search, and he read everything he could find about about Judaism, the religion, the philosophy and the history.

"It was a long process, and it was very hard work, because I wouldn't go to sleep. I would spend nights finishing Kafka, and [reading about] the whole Zionist movements, the discussions between the religious and non-religious, Herzl and Tchernichowsky and so on. I accepted the philosophy of Judaism in a very substantial way - you cannot be a Jew without it."

Jacobson's method of probing into Judaism helped him when it came to journalism as well, the stripping away of hypocrisy.

One story was a nine-part series on American companies complying with the Arab boycott of Israel, for which he won a prize. What he found out was that a lot of them were owned by Jews, or, the CEOs were Jews.

"They were the ones who, on one hand, would donate money to the United Jewish Appeal or the JNF, or some other charity; but on the other hand, in their businesses, they were boycotting Israel. Again, the same inconsistencies, like the ham and the matza." 

Jacobson was helped on that story by the Israeli government through a relationship he cultivated over the years with the consulate in New York, which resulted in a world scoop. He used to visit there once a week "to sniff around, to have a cup of coffee. One day I walk in and I see all those guerrillas - [former Mossad head] Isser Harel and company. I got very curious - what are they all doing there?"

It was 1960, and Harel was on his way to Argentina to kidnap the notorious Adolf Eichmann. Harel said they were on a top-secret mission, but struck a deal with Jacobson - keep quiet for now, and if you keep your word, as soon as it happens, we will let you know.

"One day, I got a call that [prime minister David] Ben-Gurion was going to announce in the Knesset that Eichmann was on his way to Israel in an El Al plane. Abba Eban was on the plane, he was then foreign minister, because the cover was that Eban was visiting Argentina - that's all I knew.

"Buddy Weiss said he wants 2,000 words. I didn't have more than 300 words. So I took the encyclopedia, and two interns gave me all the history books we had. They said Jacobson went crazy - I was there like a wild professor. I had to prepare it in three hours, they gave me a deadline of three o'clock, 3:15."

At four o'clock that afternoon, May 22, 1960, the Herald Tribune came out with a rare Sunday extra, a new front page that screamed, "Eichmann caught by Israeli agents, by Gershon Jacobson." He filled up the 2,000 words with all he could find on Jewish history, talking about the Inquisition, the centuries of pogroms, and the significance of Israeli agents from the Jewish state which was able to have its own military force with which to capture an Eichmann.

"I said, 'We didn't have it when the Crusaders were killing communities in Central Europe, the Russian pogroms in the '20s, and other major mass murders of the Jewish people through history.' I put it all in the story. In our city room, people cried. Not only Jews, goyim cried."

But not the publisher - he was all smiles. Back then, when papers put out an extra, the reporter got a bonus.

"John Jay Whitney, the publisher, called me in and said, 'Jacobson, I want to kiss you, and here is 10 grand.' This was a world scoop." He had beaten Ben-Gurion's announcement by 17 hours.

Two years later, he scored another triumph, made possible by his fluency in Russian: a one-on-one interview with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Jacobson was part of the press entourage that traveled with Khrushchev in 1962 across the US, all of it by train because "the Russians distrusted the American Air Force." On the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Jacobson decided to walk up to Khrushchev's car and ask for an interview. The guard said Khrushchev was resting and he couldn't go in.

"Suddenly he comes out with his suspenders, shorts, socks, and says in Russian, 'Why don't you let him in? He's the only newspaperman who speaks Russian here. I don't need any interpreters. I can talk to him.'

"The guard says, 'He has no protocol, no arrangements.' Khrushchev says, 'F-- you, I'm gong to talk to him.' We spoke for an hour and 15 minutes, and I had an excellent story, front-page Herald Tribune."

Khrushchev wouldn't talk about Israel, but Jacobson asked why he didn't give the Jews in Russia the freedom to leave. "He said, 'They don't want to go out.' I said, 'But they do.' He says, 'If you have five Jews, they have 10 synagogues. Everybody gives a different opinion. They have it good in Russia. There are some people who have problems, but I don't persecute them as Jews. The Jews are very assimilated.'"

Khrushchev also noted how all his advisers were Jews, "'because they are smart, very smart. I rely on them - they know economics, they know English, history, geography, everything. The best engineers, the best everything.' He said the reason is because the Jews are spread all over the world, and are a conglomeration of cultures. 'When you put so much culture into a human being, and he knows how to use the tools, he becomes Superman. A lot of Jews are Supermen.' He was very smart."

At the time, Jacobson was working for three newspapers, in three languages: The Tribune in English, the Tog Morning Journal in Yiddish, and Yediot Aharonot, a job he secured when their regular correspondent, who was in a car accident, was laid up for three months and recommended Jacobson.

That correspondent was Elie Wiesel.

After the Tribune folded in the mid-1960s, Jacobson worked at the New York Post for three months, and Newsweek for a year, while still working at the Tog and for Yediot. He also continued to garner scoops.

It was the summer of '67, two months after the Six Day War, and Jacobson had an idea: Everyone was running to Israel to see the Suez Canal, but he wanted to go see it from the Egyptian side.

"People told me, 'You are crazy.' I said, I am an American citizen, I'll get a visa and I'll go and interview people there."

When he arrived in Cairo, he called the editor of Al-Aram to introduce himself as a Jewish newspaperman, and asked what the chances were of meeting Nasser. Zero, he was told, Nasser doesn't give interviews. Maybe he'll make an exception, Jacobson said with his infamous hutzpa. Next day he received a call at the Cairo Hilton: He had an appointment at 3 o'clock.

"[Nasser] was very smart, very antisemitic. First question I asked him, 'Why didn't you make peace with Israel? You have a huge country, 40 million people, Israel only has three million. You can spit and finish Israel. Why fight every couple of years?'

"He says to me, 'Mr. Jacobson, are you familiar with the recent history? Why do you think the German people killed six million Jews? You think Hitler went crazy? The Germans went crazy? No,' he says.

"'I don't want to kill the Jews. I don't want to be Hitler. If I make peace with them, I'll have to kill them, because the Jews, who were in the Diaspora for so many years, became exploiters. They are very smart, they are very educated, they are very wise, they are very shrewd, and they take over. If we make peace with Israel, they will take over the whole Middle East. The Germans killed them because they took over Germany. They came from Poland and Czechoslovakia and Russia and they took over. They'll take over the Middle East.'

"I said, 'Are you convinced of that?' He said, 'Everybody is convinced of that. Any intelligent Egyptian or Frenchman is convinced. Why do you think there is antisemitism in the world? Because the Jews killed Jesus? I don't give a hoot about Jesus. I am a Moslem. The Jews have something in their nature. Before the revolution in Egypt, they were the editors, they were the bankers, they were the economists. The family of Abba Eban owned Port Said. Before the revolution under Farouk, the Jews controlled Egypt. They are a small minority, they control the press, they control the banking, they control the economy, and we were their slaves.

"'And that's why we are going to fight them. And we have patience, 200 years, 300 years. We cannot allow them as an entity. They can live here as individuals, then they don't have the ability to take over.'"

After Jacobson published the story, the official Egyptian news service issued a denial, saying Jacobson had been there but had not identified himself as working for Yediot, and that the interview had been off the record.

Nasser, Khrushchev, Eichmann - these are some of the big stories of his career, but there were many others. Covering John Kennedy during the 1960 campaign; the ecumenical council in Rome that produced Nostra Aetate; an interview, in Russian, of course, with Stalin's daughter when she defected to the US; and other interviews with presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, and stars like Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, and one of his favorites, Elizabeth Taylor.

"I wrote a story that she went to the mikva - she did it because Eddie Fisher's mother was very demanding. Fisher's mother wasn't frum, but she wanted the shiksa to go to the mikva, and she explained to me how Elizabeth Taylor went to the mikva. I interviewed the rabbi, Rabbi Nussbaum, in Los Angeles, and I interviewed Elizabeth Taylor for an hour and a half, how this famous shiksa became Jewish. And she was making fun of Judaism. She was not a real convert that accepted the philosophical concepts; she accepted it because Eddie Fisher's mother wanted her to be Jewish.

"So I said, 'What did you do?' And she said she went to the mikva, and how they made love after the mikva."

Was she really that pretty?

"Very pretty. And she was eidel [refined]. There are other girls, and women, I met a lot of them, who are very disgusting. She was very eidel."

Jacobson talks about his great scoops, and the big names he's interviewed, but then he reflects and says, "No, the biggest story I ever did was the interview with the dead man." Somehow, you just knew something like this was coming.

"The man's name was Einhorn, he had a candy store on the Lower East Side. I get a call from one of the detectives in the precinct; a man has taken a razor blade and cut his throat.

"I went over there, it was around the corner from the paper, and he was bleeding to death. His family was there, they were waiting for an ambulance to come and pick him up. You can't describe it - it was a horrible scene. No other reporters were there. I began to talk to him, he didn't understand English, so I talked to him in Yiddish.

"'Far vus host du zich gehartig?' Why did you kill yourself? He couldn't answer me, he was bleeding. He took a napkin while he was lying on the floor, and he was putting his finger in the blood and was writing on the napkin, with the blood."

Einhorn, in his late 40s or early 50s, was a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, who had seen his whole family killed in front of him. He married when he came to the US after the war, and had two children, a boy who was in yeshiva, and a teenage girl in high school.

"One day he comes home early from his candy store for dinner, and finds his 16-year-old daughter in bed with a Puerto Rican guy. And he said to himself - and that's what he wrote in the napkin, by the way. He was bleeding to death, but he was totally conscious. He wrote, 'This is why I survived, to find my daughter in bed with a Puerto Rican? I have no right to live, that's why I am killing myself.'

"This was a real story, around 1957, '58. The Tribune and Tog published a picture of the napkin on the front page, where you can see his bloody writing. The rest he told me. I called it 'An interview with a dead man.' His wife told me he was not a religious man, but a traditional Jew, a typical survivor. It was a real-life story, about a person who commits suicide, and I wrote it very dramatically, but not over-dramatic. 'Then he closed his eyes, he couldn't talk anymore.' That's how I finished the story. It was moving for me."

Jacobson still writes a column each week and often a political story as well, filled with information from Jewish and government officials and sources he has cultivated over the last 50 years. It's still fun, but he worries about the future, for himself and his 116 employees.

"People were predicting the end of Yiddish 50 or 60 years ago, after the Holocaust, when immigration [to America] stopped. But it didn't happen. It is still alive. I believe in miracles. From my experience with this newspaper, things happen that I don't expect - we gained 5,000 to 6,000 readers when Russia opened up."

So a newsstand that used to sell 10 papers in Brighten Beach, Brooklyn, is now selling 100 papers, he says, and the same in Kew Garden Hills, Queens. "This was like a miracle, who the hell expected that?"

Seven years ago, he started an English section in the middle of the paper, and a whole new crowd from the Upper West Side started reading his paper.

Like yeshivot teaching Talmud in English, an idea once thought blasphemous, the Algemeiner Journal soon won't be the same. "I predict, if I will be alive, that in 10 years from now I don't think we'll have enough Yiddish readers, and I think eventually I'll go over to English - the whole paper."

But though the paper's language may change, you can bet it's publisher won't, not this throwback character out of the Ben Hecht script. A classic.

The Jerusalem Post


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Posted on June 22, 2005
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