I see him now in my mind’s eye. He is sitting at his desk in his office at The Jewish Press, a Gemara open before him, other scholarly tomes on the side, engaged in what he loved best: learning Torah.
An appointment to see the publisher of The Jewish Press – which this week celebrates its 63rd anniversary as a national publication – probably took many people by surprise. No matter the purpose of the meeting, it started off with a d’var Torah by the publisher. If the person was learned in Torah, a lively give and take ensued. If the person wasn’t so learned – even if the person wasn’t Jewish – he was nonetheless treated to a Bible story.
That was my father, Rabbi Sholom Klass (whose 23rd yahrzeit we mark on Yud Shvat), the founder and publisher of The Jewish Press.
But it wasn’t always so simple.
Sholom Klass grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. His father was a tailor and his mother and grandmother ran a grocery store. His grandfather, Rabbi Yaakov Epstein, was a Torah scholar who implanted a love of learning in young Sholom, who sat by his side mesmerized by his teachings.
As a student at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, Sholom studied under Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and eventually came under the influence of Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz. After high school, he had to learn at night and work during the day.
These were the Depression years and his family needed all possible help. Sholom got a job working as a reporter on a small local newssheet and an excitement for this kind of work was born within him.
When his family moved to Brighton Beach, Sholom became a handball champion, bringing in much needed funds by winning tournaments. But on Shabbos he could be found in the Young Israel of Brighton Beach, giving a Gemara shiur to men much older than his 24 years. (He would lead that shiur for more than five decades.)
And it was at the Young Israel that he met my mother, Irene Schreiber. She and her girlfriends were discussing what they hoped to find in a mate. All the girls wanted handsome and prosperous. My mother wanted a Torah scholar.
“In fact,” she said to her friends as she pointed to Sholom, “I want to marry him.” They were married in 1940 and in addition to a Torah scholar, she got a tall and handsome man with bright blue eyes.
With the financial help of his father-in-law, Raphael Schreiber, Sholom realized his dream of owning his own newspaper. Grandfather bought a few linotype machines and the Oceanside News was born – a few pages of local news for the Coney Island, Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach communities.
Sholom and his brothers put the paper together and he and my Mom gave it out door to door.
By the time I was a child, Dad had expanded, launching the Brooklyn Weekly. The type would be set at his office and then brought to a printer. As a young girl I enjoyed going to his shop and having linotype operators print my name out on a metal slug. I particularly enjoyed the stories Arnie Fine would tell me. He had recently come to work for my father, writing many of the articles in the newspaper.
The days were long and the work was hard. Dad worked day and night to make a living. His brothers Albie and Labie and his brother-in-law, Harry Rosenthal, worked alongside him. Many a morning as I was getting ready for school, Dad would come home to daven and then back to work he went. I don’t know when he slept or ate, but he never missed his prayers.
Shabbos was the highlight of the week. That is when my sister Hindy and I had his undivided attention. We sat at the Shabbos table for hours as Dad discussed the parsha and told us stories from the Midrash and tales of the Gaonim. When we finally went off to bed, he took out his precious Gemaras and learned long into the night.
Those were the years when families all lived in one big house, and so it was with us. On the main floor were my parents, Hindy and me. My paternal grandparents lived on the second floor with my Uncle Labie and Aunt Rivie. When Aunt Rivie married Harry Rosenthal, the new couple continued to live upstairs. When their son Josh was born, he was like a little brother to me. I was a teenager when they all moved out and I felt bereft.
In the attic were two rooms where my maternal grandfather and Mom’s sister, Aunt Sylvia, lived.
Mom and Dad took care of everyone and they didn’t see it as a burden. They were so proud they could fulfill the mitzvah of honoring their parents and caring for their families.
For Dad, the same ideal applied to hiring people at the newspaper. He brought in people from the Young Israel. When a friend lost a job and couldn’t find other work, Dad would create a job for him. Even when it was suggested to him that some of those people were perhaps not as productive as they should be, Dad refused to fire them. He was afraid they wouldn’t find other employment. He just worked harder to pick up the slack, and from the time I was a teenager I would go the office to help out.
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The Brooklyn Weekly evolved into the Brooklyn Daily and by now Dad had his own printing press. He continued to work extremely hard, but his dream was not complete. What he really wanted was a newspaper with Jewish content – a newspaper with which he could make a difference in the Jewish world. To that end he had begun putting out a small local weekly called The Jewish Press, but his big chance came in 1960.
The Yiddish newspapers that had once played such an important role in the Jewish community were, by the late 1950s, either diminished or defunct. A number of rabbis from the Agudas HaRabbonim, led by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Simcha Elberg, called Dad to a meeting and asked him if he would fill the void by publishing a religiously-oriented Yiddish newspaper for Jews across the country.
I remember his discussion with my mother when he came home from that meeting. He recognized this was the opportunity he had dreamed of but said, “I won’t do it in Yiddish. I will publish a weekly newspaper in English that everyone in America will be able to read.”
Mom was swept along with his excitement. She told him to be sure to include in the pages of the newspaper the tales of the Midrash and the Gaonim that he was still telling us each Shabbos.
It was a huge undertaking, but he was not alone. With Mom, my grandfather, and my uncles at his side and the promise of support from his alma mater, Torah Vodaath, he announced, as the lead editorial in the first issue of the reconstituted publication put it, the “emergence of the former New York regional Jewish Press” as “the first national Orthodox English-Jewish weekly in the United States.”
That first issue was dated January 29, 1960 and contained 16 pages. A single copy cost a nickel; a one-year subscription $2.50.
Dad hired Rabbi Chaim Uri Lipshitz from Torah Vodaath to help with content and circulation. Arnie Fine, still with Dad from those very lean early years, soon started his “I Remember When” column. Dad wrote the “Tales of the Gaonim” and “Midrash and Talmud” columns, as Mom had suggested.
He also started a column of Questions and Answers on halachic issues. This became a highly popular feature. He once told me he’d answered many thousands of questions over the years. Dad carefully researched every question and listed the sources for each opinion, answering with the generally accepted point of view.
He favored the lenient approach in halacha, as it says, “koach d’hetera adif” – if a heter is permissible it is preferable.
It was Mom who brought some of the paper’s most popular columnists to The Jewish Press. During a summer at the Pioneer Country Club Mom met the newly married Esther Jungreis. After they spoke for some time, Mom suggested she write a column for The Jewish Press. The young rebbetzin wasn’t quite sure she could do this, but with her husband’s gentle encouragement, she agreed to try.
She started writing that column in the early 1960s and was still going strong almost until the year of her passing, writing for us without fail, for more than 50 years.
It was also at the Pioneer that Mom met Dr. Morris and Shirley Mandel. Mom never went anywhere without The Jewish Press in her bag. She introduced the Mandels to the paper and it didn’t take much convincing for them to agree to write weekly columns, his focusing on psychology and hers on nutrition.
And Mom discovered a young rabbi named Meir Kahane, whose weekly articles and columns would be a mainstay of the paper until his murder in 1990.
In keeping with his desire to help Jews all over the country learn more about their heritage, Dad added more Torah columnists.
Throughout the years, wherever I’ve traveled, I’ve met people who tell me they became religious through the pages of The Jewish Press. Others, who came from small communities devoid of a large Orthodox presence, have told me that as children they waited by their rural mailbox on Thursdays for The Jewish Press. What they learned from the paper was worth more to them than the teachings of the tutors their parents had engaged.
* * * * *
Almost from the beginning, a visit to The Jewish Press became a must for politicians seeking election. And when issues arose that threatened the Orthodox community, there was now a voice to fight back.
Over the years there were several attempts to outlaw shechita. Each time a new effort reared its head, The Jewish Press took a strong editorial position and worked with politicians and other public officials to beat it down.
Blue laws were another nemesis, and with the help of The Jewish Press, Sabbath observers were eventually allowed to keep their business open on Sundays.
The Jewish Press fought off attacks on yeshivas, championed the right of men to wear yarmulkes in the workplace, worked for legislation to limit autopsies on Orthodox Jews and helped Sabbath observers overcome job discrimination.
The New York State Division of Kosher Law Enforcement was instituted thanks in large part to The Jewish Press. The paper raised the issue of Soviet Jewry and kept at it years before it became a popular cause. More recently The Jewish Press was instrumental in the passage of the New York State Silver Get Law. Dad was personally involved in freeing a number of agunot.
For many years The Jewish Press was the lone English-language newspaper fighting for Torah Jewry. And it was the example and success of The Jewish Press that inspired others to publish English-language newspapers catering to religious readers.
Dad was a staunch supporter of Israel. He leaned to the right politically and was particularly happy when he had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Menachem Begin. My persuasive father even got him to write a column for The Jewish Press.
(Another columnist was Ronald Reagan. After Reagan was elected president, he invited Dad to meet with him at the White House. Dad brought along a copy of The Jewish Press that contained an article my mother had written about Nancy Reagan.)
After the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, Dad devoted hundreds of articles and editorials to the folly of that policy. It pained him deeply to see Israel go down what he perceived – correctly, it turned out – such a ruinous path.
* * * * *
As The Jewish Press continued to grow, Dad’s life settled into a pattern. He would spend the first part of his day in his study at home immersed in learning and researching answers to the halachic questions that continued to pour in. At 3 p.m. he would leave for the office where he would work late into the night.
In due time Dad published three volumes of his Questions and Answers and one each of Tales of the Gaonim and Tales from the Midrash. Throughout those years he continued to give his Shabbos Gemara shiur at the Young Israel of Brighton Beach.
As The Jewish Press grew, so did our family. I married and gave my parents their first grandchildren. My sister Hindy married Jerry Greenwald and they too gave my parents the nachas of grandchildren.
Oh, how my father loved to sit with his grandsons and learn with them. And he was a stickler for chapter, page and verse. “Where is it written?” – avu shtayt? – he would challenge them. I saw my own boys carefully memorize sources when they went to learn with him.
Whenever his granddaughters came into his house his face lit up and his eyes shone with love. All the grandchildren basked in the love of their grandparents and wanted to make them proud.
Most of my children live in Israel and Dad was very proud of that. Most of my sister’s children are working at The Jewish Press. All of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren are shomrei mitzvos and all are carrying on his legacy of living a life of Torah and helping the Jewish people.
23 years have passed since Dad’s death. We at The Jewish Press have worked hard to maintain the traditions he set forth. We continue to be a voice for Torah Jewry and on behalf of Israel. Those who remember the paper from its beginnings know that while many things have changed, many others have remained the same.
The 63rd anniversary of the paper’s becoming the first truly national Orthodox periodical is a good time to thank our loyal readers, columnists, advertisers and all those who work behind the scenes. You’ve helped make The Jewish Press the nation’s largest independent Jewish weekly. We look forward to the next many years, with the help of G-d and your continued support.
I picture my father now, at his table in the Yeshiva Shel Maalah (the heavenly yeshiva), learning Torah with his grandfather, his father, his brothers and his many friends. And when he looks down upon us, I hope he is proud and filled with nachas.