Marc S. Klein is trying to save the letter “j.”
In September, Klein, the editor of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, decided to give his 107-year-old newspaper a makeover: The tabloid-sized journal was turned into a glossy magazine; humor columns were added; features were expanded, and hard-news items were toned down. And — in the makeover spirit — the Jewish Bulletin also decided to change its name: It is now called “j.” magazine.
A handful of Holocaust survivors were instantly horrified.
Polly Bergtraun, a child survivor of the Holocaust, fired off an indignant e-mail to the editor. “What ‘j’ means to me and all other survivors of the Nazi regime and their occupation, is that this letter on our passports, identification documents and stars meant that we were Jews and doomed for destruction.”
Some readers didn’t send in letters, but nonetheless expressed their outrage to each other. “First off I think it’s stupid, just a ‘j,’” said Jeannette Ringold, who heads the Bay Area Hidden Children Group, a group of about 25 child survivors. “It’s just awkward…. Are they embarrassed to say Jewish?” And Ringold said that while j. magazine was a relatively minor topic of conversation at group meetings, many were upset. “It’s very uncomfortable when you really know the history, and when you’ve lived it,” Ringold said. “It made me feel terrible that they had so little sense.”
“It’s been a pretty big brouhaha,” said Leslie Kane, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Northern California. Although Kane admitted that neither she nor the Holocaust Center had gotten more than one complaint, she has been watching the sparring between survivors and j. in the letters page of the magazine.
The new name was first publicized when the board of the Jewish Bulletin sent out a press release to Jewish agencies throughout northern California along with a prototype of the new magazine. “I thought there was something odd about it — something that made me mildly uncomfortable, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was,” said Kane.
A few weeks after the announcement, when the first issue of the magazine came into her office, many of the people who worked at the Holocaust Center said to Kane, “Doesn’t it look like what the Nazis would stamp on those passports?” referring to the gigantic lowercase “j” on the cover.
Even people who didn’t think that the Jewish Bulletin was necessarily wrong to adopt the name “j.” said that they felt a tinge of discomfort when they saw the first issue.
“I haven’t followed it that closely,” said Eva Primack, 68. “I am a survivor myself and I remember very vividly [that the letter ‘j’] gives off vibrations and memories as it was stamped in our passports.” Though Primack said she believed there was no intention to be insensitive, she was instantly reminded of her childhood under the Nazis when she saw the magazine.
Of course, not everybody was incensed by the change.
The magazine received many letters of support. “As a Holocaust survivor I lived under the Hitler regime,” said one of the letter writers, Max Drimmer of Burlingame, Calif. “The letter ‘j’ was in our identification papers. However that was 65 years ago.”
According to Klein, since the magazine was launched, j. has quadrupled the number of subscription requests they get each week.
“We knew we had to reach a younger audience,” he told the Forward.
“Every Jewish newspaper in the country is experiencing a loss in readers,” Klein said. The Jewish Bulletin had felt the loss of readers acutely, and Klein and his redesign committee worked with focus groups to revamp the journal and gear it towards younger readers. “There were 300 or 400 names suggested” for the new magazine, Klein said. “We didn’t want to be a Jewish Week or a Jewish Times or a Jewish Observer…What turns [young people] off is the word ‘Jewish’ in bold type…. This layout [was intended to look] like W magazine or Y magazine.”
But even before j. started getting letters, Klein suspected that some might associate the magazine with the Nazi stamp. Klein asked a Jewish Bulletin board member and Holocaust survivor, William Lowenberg, if it was insensitive to use the name. Lowenberg told Klein it was not.
“The aim was not to be provocative,” Klein said. “Never ever. The only thing it provokes is some survivors. For the younger readers — and by younger I mean from 50 down — no one has questioned the ‘j.’ ”