In 1987, newly married and out of work, I applied for a job at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “the global news service of the Jewish people.” My timing was excellent: Mark Joffe, who had edited a few of my freelance articles when he worked for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, had just been named editor at JTA and had an opening. Mark brought me in as a New York correspondent, which mostly meant covering the alphabet soup of Jewish communal agencies. If you consider New York the capital of American-Jewish life, I was hired to cover the White House, Congress, and the courts.
JTA’s offices were just off Times Square, which was in the early stages of its transformation from tawdry crossroads to urban Disneyland. Throughout the day, we’d hear the dull boom of demolition, and fine dust would waft down from the ceiling and onto our typewriters — yes, typewriters. We reporters banged away at IBM Selectrics and handed our “hard copy” to a typist who sat at the lone computer terminal. She chain-smoked filter-less Camel cigarettes, while the rewrite man kept a brown cigarillo smoldering in the corner of his mouth. I’d come home after a day chatting up Jewish officials feeling like I had just emerged from a coal mine.
Within a few months Mark announced we were moving, and we ended up in new offices on Seventh Avenue, near 29th Street. There was carpeting, bright new cubicles, and, best of all, PCs on all our desks. I don’t remember if there was a no-smoking policy when we moved in, but it didn’t take long — I remember Mark fretted over how the rewrite man would take the news (with a shrug, it turned out).
This wasn’t exactly the digital age, not yet. JTA still put out a daily publication that we mailed to subscribers. It was printed in the back room by union guys who arrived as the rest of us were finishing our work days. Our clients were mainly weekly Jewish newspapers around the country, but the bulletins allowed us the illusion that we were a daily news service. A terrible procrastinator, I learned to write to a tight deadline.
I also learned the weirdly parochial mindset of any special-interest publication. One of my colleagues was our specialist in covering global disasters — which meant trying to identify the Jews who died in tornados or airplane crashes, and weeping as she took down the names. I still remember this 1999 headline: “Two Turkish Jews Killed in Quake.” Remember, some 17,000 people died in that earthquake. (I darkly suggested a headline if we didn’t find any Jews: “Big Quake Narrowly Misses Israel.”)
The occasion for this little trip down memory lane is the launch of the JTA digital archive, a searchable database of articles reaching back to the 1920s (archive.jta.org). It’s both amazing and chilling to read these first drafts of Jewish history, from Jewish-Arab clashes in Palestine, through the growing Nazi menace in Europe and the realization of the worst, through Israel’s struggle for independence and the decades of war and accomplishment that would follow.
JTA has also packaged the articles around a few major themes, including Soviet Jewry, Jews and Civil Rights, and Women. In an essay on JTA’s coverage of women, Sue Fishkoff notes the familiar milestones — women rabbis, groundbreaking politicians, the emergence of abortion rights as a Jewish issue — as well as the revealing fact that the JTA stopped using the word “Jewess” around 1970.
I had fun looking up “New Jersey,” finding links to a KKK rally planned for Newark in 1985, and this tidbit from a June 1923 report on a steamship carrying a group of American Zionists who intended to settle in Palestine: “The steamer also carries a shipment of 150 leg horn chickens and hens, the gift of the Jewish farmers of New Jersey to the Palestine Experiment Station at Tel-Aviv, for breeding purposes.”
You’ll forgive me if I keep searching my own by-line. I barely remember most of the articles I wrote, and the archive is sort of a personal wayback machine. The articles hold up as bare-bones reporting on the days’ major events, although they also suggest I spent too much time anchored to my desk on Seventh Avenue. My coverage of the Soviet Jewry movement strikes me as particularly shallow. The major policy themes are there — glasnost, the Jackson-Vanik amendment. What’s missing are the people. (For that, I suggest you read The Free World, a new novel by David Bezmozgis about the Russian “transmigrants” stuck in Italy as they awaited visas to the United States and other countries.)
But that was my failing, not JTA’s. I only got serious about Jewish life after college, and JTA was my combination yeshiva, synagogue, and graduate program. Every article I researched was an education — in kashrut (“Illinois Firm Alleged to Be Distributing Non-kosher Poultry”), in Jewish law (“No Jewish Consensus on Whether to Include Condoms in AIDS Education”), in interfaith relations (“Pope John Paul II May Meet with Waldheim in Austria”).
Now that education is there for the taking. All you need is a PC.