Paper Chase

Texas Jewish Post Publisher Jimmy Wisch says he's being run out of town by leaders of the community he has served for 54 years. They say he's overstayed his welcome.

Having grown up Jewish in Dallas, I rarely read the Texas Jewish Post--OK, one time when my sister got married and the newspaper ran her picture, and another time after I had heard a rumor that the weekly had extended birthday wishes in its pages to a dead guy. It seemed like such an antiquated rag, a poorly pieced-together hodgepodge of Israeli boosterism and community gossip. Its better features were straight off the Jewish wire (Jewish Telegraphic Agency); its editorials were indistinguishable from its news stories; its endless listings of life-cycle events seemed a trivial chronicle of local Jewish life.

And my parents loved it.

Sitting on their kitchen countertop every Friday for more than 40 years, next to the coffeepot and the stale box of matzo, was the Texas Jewish Post. For them, it offered a sense of community, connective tissue between the layers of their Jewishness--chicken soup for their soul. Once every decade or so, I might peruse its pages, amazed that it continued to be in business, surprised that it looked and felt and read the same.

Mark Graham
The Texas Jewish Post, a mom-and-pop Jewish weekly newspaper, has been operating in the metroplex since 1947.
Mark Graham
The Texas Jewish Post, a mom-and-pop Jewish weekly newspaper, has been operating in the metroplex since 1947.

Why I glanced at the September 7, 2000, edition, I don't recall. But beneath the fold in bold red print was the headline, "Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas Declares War on TJP: Imports New Jewish Weekly."

Apparently, the Dallas Federation, the powerful fundraising arm of the Jewish community (a.k.a. the Jewish mafia--using guilt not guns to separate donors from their money) felt that after 54 years, the Texas Jewish Post was no longer serving the needs of the local Jewish population. It had organized a newspaper committee to study those needs and, based on the committee's findings, induced the for-profit Washington Jewish Week to begin a sister paper in Dallas. According to the article, the federation guaranteed the new paper, Dallas Jewish Week, at least 6,000 subscribers, access to its prized mailing list of donors, and "bountiful" advertising revenue. The Texas Jewish Post claimed this arrangement was "an open attack for the subjugation and demise" of the newspaper. Yet even as the newspaper accused federation officials of deceit, favoritism, unfair competition, and "chutzpah a la carte," it praised Stephen Waldman, the organization's president, as a "fine young man whose bar mitzvah story and photo the TJP printed some decades ago."

Despite the folksy asides and the blatant editorializing in what was billed as a feature story, the author (also the editor and publisher) Jimmy Wisch raised some provocative questions. What business did federation--a kind of Jewish United Way--have going into the newspaper business? It was a charitable organization, a vital, effective fundraiser not only for Israel but also for dozens of needy organizations within the local community. Even if federation honestly believed that the Dallas Jewish community needed a better newspaper, why should it allocate donor dollars to help a private enterprise generate a profit? How could this new paper, billed by the federation as an independent voice, critically report on the federation when the paper owed its very existence to the organization? Could any Jewish newspaper, for that matter, truly operate independently when it attempted to serve both the community and the truth?

When I phone Jimmy Wisch for an interview, Rene, his wife (also his managing editor, co-publisher, and staff writer), takes the call in their Fort Worth office:

"Mrs. Wisch, my name is Mark Donald, and I am a writer with the Dallas Observer, and I read your husband's article about the newspaper war, and I would like to do a story for my...."

"Is Ann Donald your mother?"

"Yes," I say, instantly reduced to adolescence.

"So, how is she?" She spoke with a deep, scratchy voice. East Coast accent.

"Fine, fine. Is your husband there?"

"Yes, I'm sure he would like to speak with you."

She puts me on hold, but only for a beat.

"Jimmy Wisch." He sounds just like her. Tough, throaty.

I begin my spiel again, telling him that I think this is a story of general interest--how this same Jewish newspaper battle has been fought in major cities across the country, and wondering why he thinks the federation is trying to run him out of business.

"Are you Martin Donald's boy?" he asks.

This is going to be harder than I thought. "Yes. I'd like to come over and interview you."

"It's a classic David and Goliath story."

"That sounds great."

"Not to me!" he shouts.

"How about tomorrow? Are you free?"

"Tomorrow is bad. We go to press on our Rosh Hashana issue tomorrow."

"You publish for the high holidays?"

"Fifty-four years, every week. I never missed an issue."

"Well, Thursday then. That way I can tell my editor right off if the story is a short news piece or a longer feature."

"Listen," he tells me. "I've been in the newspaper business for nearly 60 years. I am 84 years old. I've had seven bypasses. My wife has had three cancer surgeries. Trust me: It's a feature."

Inside a dilapidated gray brick building south of downtown Fort Worth sits an irascible old man whose light blue eyes dance as he relates his adventures in Jewish journalism. That the editor of the Texas Jewish Post could have traveled to Russia with Nixon, gotten in a fistfight with Russian commissars over the plight of Soviet Jews, journeyed to Israel 31 times, and interviewed five U.S. presidents, all on the press credentials of a paper that has never had more than 6,000 subscribers, seems unbelievable. But among the piles of notes, photos, and books stacked haphazardly in his musty office are press clippings bearing witness to these events. And if you don't believe what you read, white-haired Jimmy Wisch radiates a charming, grandfatherly gruffness that makes you eager to interpret his hyperbole as truth.
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