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TEN YEARS AFTER THE WALL Growing Jewish media chronicle the renaissance in Central Europe

WARSAW, Sept. 22 (JTA) – “I”m a big believer in Lenin”s maxim that a newspaper is a great collective organizer,” says Konstanty Gebert, editor of Poland”s glossy Jewish monthly, Midrasz. “We”re trying to get this Jewish community together again,” he says. “There is no one single Jewish institution in Poland today to which all Jews can relate without antagonism, without problems. I”d like Midrasz to be such an ”institution.” ” With high-tech graphics and a mix of local and foreign current events, feature stories, essays, literature, religious commentary and practical information, Midrasz is one of the most prominent of a new crop of Jewish publications and other information outlets in Central Europe that have appeared since the fall of communism. These new – or in some cases revamped – magazines, newspapers, newsletters and bulletins are the fruits of post-Communist press freedoms and of new efforts at Jewish revival. These publications also serve as arenas in which the deep, internal debates that accompany the revival are aired. In addition, Jews and Jewish organizations in the region have increasingly gone online with Web sites, news groups and other networks. In some places Jews have also gained access to radio and television broadcasts. “There is so much information,” says a Jewish student in Slovakia, “that it can give the impression that the emerging Jewish communities are stronger and more important than they really are.” Under communism, the Jewish media are, for the most part, tightly muzzled organs of state-approved official Jewish communal organizations. Jewish history, culture and the Holocaust were, for the most part, off-limits in the mainstream media, too. It was only in underground “samizdat” publications that Jewish issues could be tackled in a critical, in-depth manner. “The changes of 1989 brought about a democratization of the Jewish press,” says Edward Serotta, a photographer who has documented Jewish life in Central Europe since the mid-1980s and currently directs the Vienna-based Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation. “Younger writers, some of them well-known samizdat figures, who had had no chance of directly addressing a Jewish audience, looked for and found financial support from a variety of international foundations and then started up Jewish journals, quarterlies and monthlies. The landscape has now changed radically. There are a variety of publications that act, in essence, as forums for Jews to discuss identity, religion, nationality, relations with Israel and the rest of world Jewry.” The post-Communist Jewish media include independent publications, Jewish community organs and bulletins published by a wide range of Jewish organizations. Increasingly they face the same practical problems and challenges as those faced by Western Jewish publications: how to find funding; how to increase circulation; how to upgrade professional standards; how to secure advertising; how to balance community service and institutional backing with editorial integrity. Funding problems in particular make the life spans of the new publications unclear. Some publications have staked out editorial positions that have not proved attractive to their target audience. Most, too, are not run or written by professional journalists. One of the things that sets Midrasz apart is that its editor, Gebert, is a veteran reporter and writer. Midrasz, which has a monthly circulation of 3,000, was launched in 1997 with a generous grant from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which supports Jewish education and youth activities in Poland and other Central European countries. Though only a few thousand Jews are formal members of Polish Jewish communal organizations, some 10,000 to 15,000 or more Jews are estimated to live in Poland, and thousands have reclaimed Jewish roots in the past decade. Since Midrasz has had difficulty selling advertising so far, funds from the Lauder foundation are essential for the magazine”s survival. “It is not clear as to whether there is a lingering reluctance on the part of businesses to be identified with a Jewish milieu, or whether they think it is not worth the effort because of such a small, elite readership,” says editorial staff member Agnieszka Nowakowska. She said even the Israeli airline El Al refused to place an ad because they already controlled the direct flights to the Israeli market. In June, Midrasz launched a book club that it hopes will generate income. “The real problem is that we are underadvertised. People don”t know about us,” Gebert says. “But we don”t have money for advertising, so it is sort of a vicious circle.” Budapest”s Szombat (Sabbath), founded in 1989, comes out 10 times a year and is published by the private Federation to Maintain Jewish Culture in Hungary. Szombat”s press run is only 1,700 copies, and the publication is in continual financial crisis: It frequently lacks funds for color printing and must print its covers in black and white. Principal funding comes from state sources, including the Culture Ministry, and independent foundations. Like Midrasz, Szombat features a mix of foreign and domestic news, features and commentary, but it has been less successful finding a role as a respected Jewish voice amid Hungary”s relatively large and highly assimilated Jewish community. As many as 100,000 Jews are believed to live in Hungary, though only about 20,000 have contact with Jewish institutions. The Jewish communal organization publishes its own organ, Uj Elet, and numerous clubs and other Jewish groups publish their own newsletters and bulletins. Szombat”s deliberate gadfly attitude, often highly critical of official Jewish community policy and personalities, has alienated some readers, drawn criticism from community leaders and contributed to marginalizing the magazine. “Everyone has tried to hide from the questions of what kind of Jewishness do we need to build after the Holocaust and communism,” says editor in chief Gabor Szanto, an essayist and author. “So we try to make ourselves an alternative forum. “But very few of our readers try to respond to our articles if they are critical of the leadership,” Szanto adds. “It”s a taboo to criticize them. It”s forbidden to criticize other Jews, because, so they think, the ”goys” could use this against the Jews.” Szanto says Szombat”s focus is also seen as too narrow – too Jewish – by most prominent Jewish intellectuals, who prefer to write for the mainstream media. “There are a lot of places where one can publish articles on Jewish topics,” he said. “We have to fight to get good writers to contribute. There are few who want to publish in a hardcore Jewish paper.” Another independent Jewish publication, however, the quarterly Mult es Jovo (Past and Future), has had less trouble attracting prominent intellectual figures. This is mainly because the publication, also founded in 1989, presents itself as an intellectual and cultural journal dealing with broad themes and ideas rather than with concrete, day-to-day issues. “Current politics and the so-called struggle against anti-Semitism are strictly forbidden in the pages of the magazine,” says editor Janos Kobanyai, a writer and sociologist. Prague”s Jewish monthly, Ros Chodes, faces different challenges. It is the official organ of the Jewish community, rather than an independent publication, and thus reflects the positions of the community leadership. Indeed, its editor in chief is Jiri Danicek, president of the Prague Jewish community. The direct heir to Vestnik (Bulletin), the Jewish community organ published throughout the Communist period, its name was changed to Ros Chodes in 1990 to symbolize the new, democratic conditions following the “Velvet Revolution.” The editorial content has been expanded, writing has become more lively, and the design has been upgraded and modernized, but still, Ros Chodes emphasizes straightforward news and information, including birth and death notices and community activities. Articles touch on a wide range of issues, including Jewish identity, nationalism and property restitution, but the tone is non-polemical, and articles are not critical of community policy, institutions or leaders. “Problems are reflected, but not directly,” says editorial staff member Alice Marxova. “Differences of opinion are expressed in interviews with individuals and also in the letters to the editor column.” In all their variety, the new Jewish media provide important windows onto the difficult transitions that emerging post-Communist Jewish communities are undergoing. “One thing that demonstrates the ”vitality” of Jewish life today is the fact that there is a young generation, of whatever number, that is wrestling with the same questions about Jewish identity that are debated here today,” says Rabbi Andrew Baker, European affairs director of the American Jewish Committee. This is why, he said, the AJCommittee has published English-language selections from Midrasz and Szombat. “We see these things reflected in the new magazines that are being published in Central and Eastern Europe,” he said. “By providing an opportunity for the English reader to encounter them, people can judge for themselves.””