By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I lived through the deep Depression in Brooklyn," he says. "I should say, I starved through it--not eating for two, three weeks at a time, living off cold tea. It made my heart and mind always be for the people."
Wisch followed his family to Fort Worth in the late 1930s, but only came up with the idea of starting a Jewish newspaper during the war when he handled morale problems aboard an Army troop transport ship. In 1947, he and his new bride, Rene, bought out a Jewish monthly that was only a few issues old and converted it into a weekly. From a spare bedroom in their apartment, his family (including his mother and brother) ran the paper.
"It was our first child," says Rene, though five more would follow. "I would be back working at the paper within a week after I gave birth."
The Texas Jewish Post would serve both Dallas and the much smaller Jewish community in Fort Worth, but it was here that Wisch had the most trouble gaining a following. "You have to understand the influences in Dallas," he says, sprinkling his speech with Yiddish phrases. "At the time, the federation's machers [big shots] were greatly affected by the American Council for Judaism, which was predicated on the idea that Jews should be Americans first and Jews second." The council believed that there was no better weapon against anti-Semitism than fierce allegiance to this country.
"When I arrived in Dallas in the '70s, I saw the last remnants of an era which was typical for Southern Jewish communities," explains Mark Briskman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "To work behind the scenes, to keep a low profile, and not to draw attention to the community."
Because its members didn't want to be disloyal to this country, there was less support for the foundation of Israel in this community. Judaism wasn't considered a people or a nation as much as it was considered a religion to be practiced in synagogue.
"The worst thing some of the federation leaders could see in their eyes was the postman bringing them a newspaper that says Texas Jewish Post and overtly identifies them with Judaism," Wisch claims. "But I fought this attitude for years and years. This clique just didn't want a Jewish newspaper in this town."
It may be that federation leaders found his personality as bombastic as his newspaper. "Jimmy clashed with federation because he wanted things his way," says real estate developer Bob Beer, who served on the federation board beginning in the early '50s. "If a federation charity had a fundraiser, it was generally understood that Jimmy wouldn't publicize it unless you bought an ad in his paper."
But Wisch has had his supporters, particularly among Jewish journalists who elected him president of the American Jewish Press Association in 1969.
"He is definitely one of my mentors," says Bob Cohn, editor and publisher of the St. Louis Jewish Light. "He filed some memorable stories, and it's easy to underestimate the guy. He has the street smarts of a Jewish kid from Brooklyn and the don't-tread-on-me backbone of a true Texan." But Wisch is definitely old school, part of a dwindling group of independent mom-and-pop Jewish newspapers. "There was a certain Old World charm about these papers," Cohn says, "a certain haimishness [warmth] that was lost by my generation."
Cohn was part of this new breed of Jewish journalists (often the sons and daughters of the moms and pops) who had learned their craft in the general media and came to prominence in the early '60s. Embarrassed by the poor quality of the Jewish press, which tended to focus on feel-good community stories and articles endorsing Israeli politics, they sought to upgrade the professionalism of the Jewish newspapers they ran. The Baltimore Jewish Times, Detroit Jewish News, and Washington Jewish Week became known for their snappy layouts, solid reporting, and artful graphics.
But even for this next generation of editors and publishers, there remained an inherent duality in their mission. As journalists they had an obligation to the truth. That meant not shying from controversy that might put the Jewish community in a bad light--even if it stoked the embers of anti-Semitism. As Jewish journalists, they had an obligation to promote community and continuity, and that meant making Jewish life appear attractive. Is it good for the Jews? Will it be a shanda far de goyim (a scandal in the eyes of the Gentiles)? Did it violate the 11th commandment in American Jewish life: Thou shalt not air thy dirty laundry in public? These concerns, though less pronounced over time, were factored into a delicate editorial balance that created its own brand of self-censorship.
"I have lived, breathed, and worked for the advancement of my community," Wisch says. "I have never written about scandals involving people, their divorces, rabbis having affairs--you would be surprised at what we get. But we don't go in for that. I look at it as a heartless thing."
Complicating the duality problem was the fact that beginning in the late '50s, federations across the country began entering the newspaper business, either publishing newspapers directly or subsidizing them indirectly. Publishers of privately owned papers accused federations of trying to take control of the Jewish press in order to enhance fundraising. The encroachment became so pervasive that the American Jewish Press Association adopted a resolution in 1977 declaring that if a viable Jewish newspaper was already serving a community, federations were discouraged from establishing a competing publication in that community. In Los Angeles and New York, bitter newspaper wars broke out between independents and deep-pocket federation papers--protracted battles over subscribers and advertisers that continue to be fought today.