Do you recall the sensation of opening a letter (not a bill or fundraising letter)? There is something very appealing about holding an old-fashioned handwritten letter in one’s hands. The experience of opening up the envelope, unfolding the letter, feeling the texture of the page, reading the words—written in the writer’s own handwriting—engages our senses in a way that e-mail and texts can’t.
When I first came on board as chairman of Jewish Action some fourteen years ago, we would receive handwritten letters from time to time. Nowadays, of course, most of our “Letters to the Editor” come in via e-mail (email@example.com) or the web site (https://jewishaction.com/contact-us/). And I readily admit: perusing the Letters to the Editor is one of my favorite “jobs” as chairman. Reading the feedback from readers from different parts of the country—and indeed, the world—and from all walks of life, gives me as well as the editorial staff insight into what our readers are thinking and feeling about a particular issue, whether it’s homeschooling or shul Kiddush clubs or the ongoing affordability issues facing most Orthodox families today. From the serious issues (childhood obesity; half-Shabbos) to the scholarly (halachah and reproductive medicine) to the more lighthearted (the rise of the Orthodox comedian), we love hearing the thoughts, impressions and reactions of our readers.
Not every letter can make it into the print version, of course. We are selective due to space constraints and more significantly, because we try to ensure that the letters we publish are substantive and leave our readers with a new or fresh idea. A longstanding policy of ours is not to publish anonymous letters—unless there is a truly compelling reason to do so (a letter writer involved in a bitter divorce discusses the challenges, for example). We feel that letter writers (who must submit their full name and address) must be willing to stand by their thoughts and not hide behind the cloak of anonymity.
But our Letters to the Editor section is more than just a window into what contemporary Orthodox Jews are thinking. It is also a historical record for future generations. Unfortunately, Orthodox Jews are notoriously bad at keeping records. In a 2012 Jewish Action article entitled “In Search of American Jewish History,” historian Zev Eleff quoted Yaakov Jacobs, editor of the OU’s Jewish Life magazine, who bemoaned the Orthodox Jewish community’s tendency to disregard its own history. Mr. Jacobs wrote: “American Orthodoxy has no sense of history. Records are not kept; documents go astray; historic figures who make significant contributions to the rebirth of Orthodoxy . . . are quickly forgotten.”
Mr. Jacobs himself seemed to have kept meticulous records (we still have copies of Jewish Life, the predecessor to Jewish Action, dating back to the 1940s). Following in his footsteps, we try to take history seriously as well—at least our own history. At the OU’s downtown Manhattan headquarters, a large file cabinet situated next to the Jewish Action office contains hard copies of the magazine going back to fall 1985, our inaugural issue. (Currently our online issues only go back to the year 2000—some articles from issues prior to 2000 are online as well but not complete magazines. One of our goals is to make all of the issues available online, but it is a huge—and expensive—undertaking.) Occasionally, we get requests from researchers and historians who want to come browse our archives. And it’s not surprising why they come: if you randomly read the Letters to the Editor section, you get a real sense of what Orthodox Jews thought and cared about in the eighties, the nineties, in 2000 and in 2019. How did the Orthodox Jewish community react to the fall of the Soviet Union? To 9/11? To the Disengagement from Gaza? To Hurricane Sandy? To the Recession of 2008? One need but look through the Letters section of Jewish Action to find out.
Letters have always offered historians a wonderful window into any given age, a personal and colorful perspective on the past. And despite the fact that letters to the editor today are no longer written in longhand, do not arrive via snail mail and are, for the most part, more informal and written more hastily, they still provide valuable insight into who our readers are and what they are thinking. And no doubt, one day they, too, will be cherished by future historians of American Jewish life. So thank you again for your comments, thoughts and ideas. They count!
Gerald M. Schreck is chairman of the Jewish Action Committee.