Black and white with small, cramped lettering running down the side of the page. It hits a break and disappears in the white expanse of empty space. Larger font, then a sea of sentences swimming together. A photo, maybe. Gray, blurry, captioned. What am I? Ha’Am in 1972, the year of my inception.
In contrast to the drastically more modern Ha’Am of 2012, equipped with full-page color, a website, and an iPhone application, Ha’Am’s first issue in April of 1972 seems like a plebeian counterpart. Not so. Behind the yellowing pages of Ha’Am’s original publication lurks the story of a struggle for identity, voice, and recognition in a post civil rights era world. In celebration of Ha’Am’s 40th year of publication, we will delve into the intrigue that brought about the first Jewish newspaper in Los Angeles, tracing its effect on Jewish Bruin culture today.
Initially, when students applied to create a Jewish newspaper at UCLA (on the heels of Nommo, the African-American newspaper in 1969, and La Gente, the Latino newspaper in 1971), the Communications Board denied the request on the basis that Jews were not an ethnic minority group.
Ha’Am’s first editorial board (comprised of Sheryl Baron, Bruce Kobritz, Yossi Dror, Jill Lewis, Zev Yaroslavsky, Eddie Tabash, Neil Eigler, and Tom Birns) had the following to say on the subject: “We realized that we were most certainly not a self-defined entity when the University had to request a legal judgment as to whether or not Jews were an ethnic group. We were not even allowed the common courtesy of self-definition — the society (read “the University”) assumed the power to judge who and what we are. Although we laughed at the ludicrousness of this attitude, the sense of powerlessness we felt was, in reality, most painful.”
The editorial board expressed their contempt for the Communications Board’s insistence on racially categorizing Jews, and not including them within the “minority” designation, despite the fact that Jews comprise less than one percent of the world’s population.
They continued, rightly pointing out, “the University learned that it had better adhere consistently to decisions that were initially made for the purpose of maintaining whatever modicum of liberal ideology this institution retains. The fulfillment of one group’s needs must lead to the fulfillment of the needs of all groups.”
The board scathingly retorted, “How naïve to think that Jewish students would continue to kiss tuchuses while the utterly epithetical images of ‘rich Jewish businessmen’ and the infiltration of University media by Jews were constantly invoked by Comm Board members.”
Reflecting upon the political atmosphere at UCLA during the 1970s, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Executive Director of Hillel at UCLA, recalled that aside from the issue that Jews were not perceived as a minority because of their prominent social standing, “in those years, there was of course always the perception that Jews are a religious community, and they weren’t giving newspapers to religious groups.”
Ha’Am’s struggle for establishment accompanied a larger fight for the recognition of Jewish students on campus.
The editorial board observed an upsurge in a collective Jewish consciousness: “when the Communications Board denied the Jewish newspaper, it is unlikely that they expected response from a Jewish coalition, they more probably expected to be lobbied by influential Jewish individuals.”
However, as Rabbi Chaim remembers, the 1970s marked the birth of the Jewish Student Union, the on-campus arm of the Jewish community, while Hillel functioned as the off-campus, religiously affiliated center. The JSU served as a uniting force between Jewish student groups, lobbying UCLA to fund Jewish organizations.
“In effect, it was an outcome of the 60s, when there was a growth of student activism in reaction to the Vietnam War and an affirmation of ethnic identity,” Rabbi Chaim recalls. “All of a sudden, we began to have blacks organizing and calling for black power, which was in some ways a reaction to the civil rights movement.”
He continues after a pause, sitting back in his chair in front of a massive wall-to-wall-to-floor-to-ceiling-to-table-top book collection. “All of this gave rise to the expression of pent up feelings and resentment about the fact that we’d been suppressed in America; as Hispanics we’d been suppressed, blacks had been suppressed, and later on it sort of spread to other groups.”
During this period of change, the 1972-1973 academic year marked the first time that UCLA considered religious observance while creating the school calendar and subsequent scheduling. In other words, for the first time, there were no Shabbat exams, and even though fall registration began on Yom Kippur, students were allowed to enroll by mail, bypassing the conflict.
At this point, all changes were still highly provisional, and Ha’Am writer Phil Metson incited “Jewish students [to] organize as a group and maintain constant contact with the Office of Academic Services to prevent the reinstatement of Shabbat finals and other scheduling conflicts.”
Also in 1972, on March 10th, the College of Letters and Science at UCLA granted formal approval for the Jewish Studies Major, effective that upcoming fall quarter. Starting in 1972, Jewish Studies was an interdisciplinary major housed in the Department of Near Eastern Languages until, in 1994, Provost Brian Copenhaver of the UCLA College of Letters and Science founded the Center for Jewish Studies in the Humanities Division, still active today.
Caught up in the excitement of innovation and recognition, the founders of Ha’Am saw themselves as part of an express movement to claim their own sense of Jewish identities, citing that “The Public Jew has emerged.”
So, long story short, in 1972, UCLA became the first major American university to fund a Jewish newspaper.
But there’s always more behind the initial narrative.
Rabbi Chaim fondly remembers some of the founding faces of Ha’Am, classifying them as “edgy people. They were not your cut and dry Jewish students. They were characters. Zev Yaroslavsky was a very interesting example of a guy who said ‘we’re going to make a difference.’ He represented the student struggle for soviet Jewry, that Ha’Am will be a voice for the oppressed. It was about we have something to say that we need to say to the community. We want to be heard.”
There was a spirit of innovation alive in the air, including Hillel’s Jewish Organizing Project, Israeli dancing, classes, as well as arts, engagement, and outreach projects. Even Eli Wiesel came to speak, becoming Rabbi Chaim’s close friend.
“There was a deep excitement about the possibility of owning aspects of Judaism and deepening their involvement in ways in which I don’t see today. I think that American Jews are more assimilated today,” Rabbi Chaim admitted, tilting his head and eyebrows up slightly. (Although he recognizes that there are more Jewish students today who are involved in Hillel than ever before, and that Hillel, and being Jewish on campus, has become more popular.)
He attributes the flourishing of Jewish life largely to the aftermath of the 60s.
“Young Americans were claiming America had betrayed its principles, and we want to reassert the principles of America. They were saying ‘our parents sold us a bill of goods, they told us to go to college but they didn’t teach us how to be Jewish. We’re going to learn how to be Jewish.’”
The Bayit was a center of Jewish creativity, an enclave of Jewishness where Jews who wanted to create an alternate havurah lived.
“I came to Hillel,” Rabbi Chaim recalls, smiling from the corners of his mouth, “because there was the sense that the university was the place where a new type of Judaism was going to immerge that was going to provide meaning for the future.”
The founders of Ha’Am promised their readers that they “will almost never find homogeneity in our pages; it is more likely that you will find the most divergent viewpoints, the largest ideological schisms. We plan to make your search for the ‘true meaning’ of ‘Jewish’ an exceedingly puzzling and difficult one.”
Today’s Ha’Am presents the same challenge to writers, contributors, Jews, students, and all readers alike. Although saturated in influences of a different age and tasked with transporting different ideological burdens, we are still the original Ha’Am. The nation.