Looking back: The St. Louis Jewish Light in the 1970s

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Perhaps more than anything else, the “Decade of Disco” was defined by the effects of upheaval abroad and the fallout of social revolution at home.

In many ways, the 1970s were a period of recalibration and adjustment to new realities on both fronts. The era opened with the winding down of America’s divisive and disastrous involvement in Southeast Asia while the Mideast saw a tense march towards a new conflict. Yet the decade ended on a hopeful note with the signing of a treaty that yielded recognition of Israel and the biggest hope for peace to date. Meanwhile, domestically, the roiling cultural changes of the 1960s began to harden into more established norms, led largely by a new role for women in both the Jewish and general communities.

Conflict between Israel         and her neighbors

Many of the St. Louis Jewish Light’s front pages seemed to have been dominated by international tension between the Jewish State and her neighbors. The edition after a peaceful shofar-adorned front page celebrating the arrival of 5734, the cover of the Light greeted the coming of a less welcome arrival – Egyptian tanks. “ISRAELI COUNTERTHRUSTS POUND ARAB POSITIONS” screamed the Oct. 10, 1973 headline above a hand-drawn graphic that illustrated armed action in the Sinai and Golan Heights.

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Decrying the “blasphemous barbarity” of the Arab aggressors, the Light condemned the “sickening spectacle of needless loss of thousands of lives.”

“How many times must Israel be forced to fight for its very life?” read that issue’s editorial. “Why must the small democracy with the word ‘Shalom’ as its way of greeting be compelled to spill the blood of its people on the field of battle?”

The following issue covered a local rally attended by 6,000 in support of the cause. Headlined “ISRAEL’S SURVIVAL AT STAKE!” the edition included an especially chilling full page of poetry from Israeli children. The piece was culled from “Childhood Under Fire,” which compiled prose by youngsters written during the 1967 Six-Day War.

The work is often both heartbreaking and chilling with children describing their own experiences or telling about relatives on the front lines. A dark vision of what it is like to grow up under the threat of violence, most revealed pain, fear and a stark cynicism that seemed odd for a group who should have been too young to know it.

“Peace is pleasant, innocent quiet,” wrote one 9-year-old. “Peace is fruit or a flower in a stream.”

Her feelings about war, however, were different.

“It ruins cities and villages,” she wrote. “It murders without end/It sucks the blood of the brave.”

“The skies are black and the sun is gone,” she concluded.

“It’s not the dove that will bring peace,” penned a 12-year-old. “And God will not/But the soldiers perhaps.”

“Only the soldiers, they/Will bring us life,” he finished.

A six-year-old at a kibbutz was most chilling.

“One of our people was killed but I don’t want to say who,” he wrote. “It’s somebody’s daddy.”

Interestingly, while the expected amount of wartime outrage was directed at the Arabs and the United Nations, some anger also hit at institutions close to home. The Jewish Light ran a particularly scathing editorial cartoon lampooning the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s famous Weatherbird in an Arab keffiyeh due to the latter paper’s editorial opinion, which observed that Egypt and Syria were attempting to take back territory that had been lost in the previous war. The Post called it “understandable” the two nations would wish to “recoup their 1967 losses.”

“I repeat this is from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and not Pravda!” wrote one incredulous Light reader. “How simple minded do they think their readers are?”

Ire at home

Wars directly involving the United States also saw coverage. A letter from early that year excoriated the U.S. government as it looked to conclude its military engagement in the troubled nation.

“All decent humans want the return of ‘our boys,’ active soldiers and prisoners of war,” wrote the irate Light reader. “But pray tell, what makes the life of a prisoner of war more valuable than the soldier on the fighting front who still is considered expendable by the President while he continues haggling for a supposed ‘peace with honor.’”

“History will undoubtedly verify that honor was not an ingredient in our illegal and immoral war in Indochina,” she wrote.

An editorial later that month spoke of the work by Henry Kissinger to get a deal done and end the slaughter.

“The challenge now is for America as well as Indochina to chart its own destiny,” the Light wrote. “The end of the Vietnam War should enable the United States to re-order its priorities in order to rebuild not only Southeast Asia, but America itself.”

Rise of Women

Yet the battlefield wasn’t the only area where advances were taking place. Throughout the 1970s, women were moving to assume new roles in society including in Judaism where the tide was felt strongly. The first female rabbi in the Reform movement was ordained in 1972 and three years later the story took a local turn. A June 1975 issue of the Jewish Light announced the investiture of Barbara Ostfeld Herman, a St. Louis native, as the first female cantor in Judaism.

An editorial in the next issue saw the paper opine positively on the development.

“The issue of the right of women to answer the call to serve their faith as officially ordained clergy has become a painfully divisive issue in other faith groups,” it read. “It is gratifying that official Jewish seminaries have found it possible to ordain female rabbis and cantors, who by precept and example will prove that they are fully capable of fulfilling their spiritual duties.”

The sports field wasn’t immune to change either. The same month saw an article in the Light detailing the increased presence of girls on Little League teams. The piece focused on Tina Raskas and Jackie Kodner, two youngsters who secured spots on squads with the Olivette Athletic Association.

Tina admitted she took a fair amount of teasing – until she hit a grand slam.

“They forget I’m  a girl when I’m doing good,” said the second-grader. “Then they call me ‘Super T’.”

Of course, not everybody was on board with the way society was reshaping itself. In early 1973, Midge Decter, an ardent opponent of women’s liberation spoke at Temple Israel. Decter decried the new social mores that saw skyrocketing divorce rates and viewed sex as the “mutual exchange of comforts and gratifications.”

“I regard myself as a true feminist,” she told the newspaper. “I feel that all a woman needs is the freedom to make her life and herself as she sees fit. I believe, unlike the women’s movement, that given the opportunity, women can and will do so.”

A letter from the same year also leveled criticism at the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, noting that only a strong family unit had sustained the Jewish people for so many centuries.

“Jewish law, in its great wisdom, recognizes the fact that a Jewish woman best serves her God and her country by serving her children and family,” it concluded.

In April, the Light came out with its own opinion.

“Judaism has always respected the role of women as full partner in all aspects of life,” it said, noting the presence of a female prime minister in Israel. “The Equal Rights Amendment is entirely consistent with these important Jewish principles.”

Yet old attitudes persisted, even in the Light’s pages – sometimes in odd ways. A 1973 quarter page ad for a brand of Scotch whiskey proclaimed the benefits of the concave grip on its half-gallon bottle by noting it was “so easy to handle, even the little lady can lift it.”

Road to peace

That year, issues of foreign affairs might have moved some to seek a stiff drink. A mix of terrorism and diplomacy in the aftermath of the war remained in the news for much of the decade, sometimes with an intensely personal touch. A 1978 open letter to Palestinian insurgents reprinted in the Light from author Cynthia Ozick was one such example. The piece detailed her cousin Imri, a 14-year-old clarinet player who was shot in the throat during an attack. She also described the rest of his family, including a grandfather who loved to read the English classics in his garden and a grandmother who wrapped the fruit of her pear tree with paperbags.

“Your guns cough in brutal eyeblink blasts and shatter human bones,” she wrote angrily. “Your friends, by stealth and ambush, murdered Imri. You are terribly proud of this, and crow it over the air waves. No matter. Civilization is more tenacious than the death you bring. Paperbag trees and Keats in a garden near an airport, and the long, long voice of the flute, and the singing clarinets – these are the soldiers you will have to defeat. If you can.”

Some of the symbolism used in Jewish Federation campaigns during the turbulent era even drew ire including the use of a yellow star in promotional materials. The mailings were linked to a major television series on the Holocaust.

“If the intent of the Federation is indeed to shock St. Louis Jewry into opening its pocketbook,” wrote one offended Holocaust survivor in May of the same year, “perhaps the use of solicitors dressed in SS uniforms would be much more effective.”

But by decade’s end, a distinctly more positive tone had taken hold.

“PEACE” declared a massive headline in March of 1979.

“The sun was bright, the air was brisk and a strong wind furled the three flags of Egypt, Israel and the United States as the three leaders were given a standing ovation by more than 1,600 dignitaries and guests on the north lawn of the White House…” wrote Light editor Bob Cohn, admitting he wept during the event. “We realized that we were present at a moment of historical significance…”

It was the opening to a massive 48-page issue that included the text of the treaty and a full-page ad from the Jewish Federation emblazoned with a dove. The following month, a Light editorial lauded the Egyptian leader for his courage.

“…President Sadat has literally placed his life on the line in his efforts to advance the cause of peace,” it said.

Those words would prove tragically prophetic. Sadat was murdered in a hail of bullets less than three years later.

Impeachment, Roe v. Wade and other homeland controversies

It wasn’t all foreign affairs. Domestic news also earned its fair share of ink during the decade.

“The word ‘impeachment,’ which at one time was unthinkable in the 20th century, is now accepted as a ‘foregone conclusion’ by President Richard M. Nixon,” the Light opined in an August 1974 editorial. “His conviction and removal or resignation from office must now be considered at least possible. On purely human terms, it is a tragedy to witness the destruction of a political career which included a number of principled, creative and courageous acts along with some of the most grievous errors ever admitted by anAmerican chief of state.”

However, the Light noted that American democracy had met the great test and passed with flying colors.

“The Republic still stands,” it concluded.

 The famous 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the U.S. prompted as much debate then as it does today.

“There’s no doubt that having an abortion is a very grave moral decision. And no one is more aware of the gravity of the decision than the woman who has to make it,” said local attorney Frank Susman who was chief counsel for Missouri cases over the issue. “Therefore, she should make it for herself and none of us should be or are in a position to make it for her.”

Rabbi Alvan D. Rubin of Temple Israel, a plaintiff in one of the state cases, also backed the controversial move saying Reform Judaism viewed the Supreme Court decision “with great favor.”

Rabbi Bernard Lipnick of B’nai Amoona said that Conservatives recognized the fetus as alive and that a good reason is required for an abortion but did not view the practice as murder.

“Until birth, the fetus is not considered a human being, but it is life,” he said. “The mother, both life and person, takes preference where conflict arises between her life and that of the fetus.”

Meanwhile, Rabbi Simcha Krauss of Young Israel said terminating a pregnancy is not permitted under Jewish Law. “The minute men start slicing life, which Orthodox Judaism views as absolute, they are taking a relative stand and the next step would be euthanasia,” he said. “The line from abortion to medical murder is short and quite direct.”

Yet abortion wasn’t the only area where local Jewish spiritual leaders weighed in on issues of controversial import. A letter to the Post-Dispatch by Rabbi Jerome Grollman of United Hebrew Congregation expressed disagreement with the Israeli government over a variety of issues related to the Palestinians and elicited an outpouring of anger from Jewish readers.

Grollman fired back in the pages of the Light.

“Neither is it necessary to be abusive – in this or any other newspaper. If I am without understanding, so too is Abba Eban whose views I substantially reflect,” he wrote in a 1978 piece defending his remarks. “Let facts and reason, not name-calling speak for themselves.”

Other changes were brewing around the world that would have local impacts as well. An increasing number of stories were appearing in the Light about the situation of Jews in the Soviet Union and more and more, those Jews were being allowed to emigrate. A November 1973 issue noted the arrival of the first recent Russian Jewish immigrants in St. Louis County under the terms of a resettlement program. The Kobylevskys, an Odessa couple, were greeted at the airport by individuals from Jewish Family and Children’s Service and the Jewish Center for the Aged.

Meanwhile, the era wasn’t short on prognostication. A March 1975 issue contained an article entitled “Rabbis predict major changes in Judaism by 2000.”

In a Congregation Shaare Emeth panel discussion, Rabbi Joseph Rosenbloom of Temple Emanuel noted that he foresaw Reform and Conservative Judaism growing closer together.

“If the economic situation continues for a few more years, we will see more and more Reform-Conservative mergers, and more examples of Conservative congregations hiring Reform rabbis,” he said.

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, director of the Midwest Region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, felt the religion would polarize.

“In 25 years we will split into two Judaisms – Orthodoxy, which believes in the revelation at Sinai, and progressive Judaism which does not,” he said. “The more traditional among the Conservatives will become Orthodox, and the less traditional will become progressive.”