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The Way We Were

Merle-200 Editor Merle Guttmann busy at work ... as imagined by illustrator Denis Shifrin

 200 issues on, we look back at earlier issues of ESRA magazine.

Some things change; others remain the same.The very first issue of ESRA magazine (then called, rather awkwardly, the Newsletter of the English-Speaking Residents, Herzliya and Kfar Shmaryahu) had on the face of it, very little in common with today's sleek, professional product. Yet look deeper, and much remains the same.

What has characterized the magazine throughout its 40 years has been the liveliness and color of its articles, from the very first issue until today. That is due to the one common thread weaving through all 200 issues – our exceptional editor Merle Guttmann, who has been the heart and soul of the magazine from the beginning, and has made it what it was and is.

Naïve, perhaps, yet full of hope and enthusiasm, our first issue back in 1979 showed what an eager group of volunteers we had (and still have). The very first article explains why ESRA came into being: to ease the integration of our landsmen into Israeli society, to create a rich English speaking cultural life, and to help ourselves become part of the country by helping others.

Issue 1 had a rough-and-ready, hand-crafted look. Typed by hand and then printed, it had but 12 pages, with some articles that today seem quaint. Who doesn't have a cellphone today? Back then, things were different. In an article on "No telephone – a social disaster", Sylvia Navon noted angrily that she had been waiting seven years for her phone to be installed. And our very first advertisement, for the Safari Steak House (remember the monkey?) noted that the average meal cost $4.50. Presumably the ad bore fruit, because the owners continued to be faithful advertisers for many years until the restaurant's demise.

In some ways, reading the magazine today is like looking back at Israel's history. In the 1980s, our readers were encouraged to write letters to Refuseniks in Russia; later, at the time of the great aliyah from the former Soviet Union around 1990, ESRA members eagerly took part in welcoming and helping them through befriending, tutoring, fundraising, music concerts featuring Russian artists and much more.

Towards the end of 1990, the Gulf War loomed. An article on chemical warfare agents managed to terrify readers (did we need this?). There was also an article on preparing for war and yet another gevalt piece speculating on what happens if children go missing in a disaster. During the war, publication was deferred because there was no advertising, but afterwards, a spate of articles described how the Gulf War had affected people.

Another major trauma occurred in November 1995, when Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. The cover of the magazine following this event featured an Israeli flag, and Merle's editorial dealt with the rabble-rousing atmosphere that had preceded the assassination. "The uncontrolled brutal verbal and crowd behavior shock and shame us," she wrote. In another article, Shimon Sheves pondered over the fact that "Israel is not the same after Rabin's death as it was before. We will learn to be and to act tolerantly, to respect each others' rights and opinions, working towards making Israel a country of human dignity and tolerance." More than 20 years later, one can only see that aim as a work in progress.

In 1997, Alan Dershowitz made a historical prediction: anti-Semitism is dying, because Jews are assimilating so fast that in 100 years they will no longer exist, and neither will anti-Semitism. No, it's not, wrote Maccabi Dean, responding to Dershowitz. He huffily suggested that Dershowitz must be in a mental decline. Dean was right; anti-Semitism shows no sign of fading away any time soon and neither do the Jews.

An idea of the runaway inflation of the 80s, before devaluation, could be seen in the price of a ticket for a Supper Quiz – 8,000 shekels. There was also a reminder of the levy on air tickets and the fact that you could only take $800 in foreign currency abroad on trips.

Part of the Safari Steak House ad which appeared in the very first issue of the ESRA Newsletter

Less dramatically, the passing of history can be seen in the artifacts mentioned in our pages. Today, we have cable and Netflix. Then, in Issue 6, a black and white television, which was all there was, was offered for sale for 5,000 lira. In 1984, a Consumer Column dealt with the question of whether we should buy computers, and if so, which one (16K? with a joystick?). A writer in her late 70s proudly told about her experiences learning to use her computer.

Our magazine did not always find favor, as some readers did not hesitate to point out. One letter writer wrote (in the "You can't please everyone" department): "The topic has no relevance, the writing has no humor and the conclusion is casually superior. This is a far cry from the sort of material one should print. Taking cheap pot shots is encouraging no one's aliyah."

Of course many more praised the magazine in glowing terms, as well as the spirit of the ESRA members, as at this event in 1980: "The speaker failed to appear, but the group rose to the occasion and told their own stories."

Sometimes, though, the critics had a point. An article on intermarriage referred to a son living in Japan as probably having "slit-eyed children." The editors evidently missed that one. Oho! That aroused the ire of many readers, who called it a racist comment. The rather lame reply that this was the opinion of the writer, not the magazine, was also criticized – "a cop out."

It is true that sensibilities were rather different from what they are today. We referred to "retarded youth"; today we would use the term "developmentally disadvantaged", speak of Ethiopians instead of Falashas, and retirement homes rather than old age homes.

Design changes in our title piece reflect various typographical styles over the last 40 years

There was plenty of controversy, which the magazine did not shy away from. The magazine wrestled with issues such as whether we should we sell our mailing list (no) or publish political ads before an election (only general articles on what the parties stand for). An article on butcher shops listed one that sold pork, which was deemed by many readers to be beyond the pale.

Provocative articles included stories on a single woman who had a baby without a partner, which in 1984 was quite unusual, on how to improve one's sex life, on surrogate motherhood, and on the modus operandi of a sex therapist. In 1993, an article by a parent of a gay child movingly described her change of feelings from "unhappy beyond words" to acceptance and understanding.

Medicine has been a favorite topic through the years. Alternative medicine was boosted by some and considered quackery by others, though ESRA published it all without editorializing. Perhaps we should have in some cases, such as the claim that a certain oil helps in schizophrenia and that arthritis sufferers could be helped by a physician in Switzerland who gives "special injections."

One reader scathingly described her unpleasant experience at a local hospital in stark terms. "My instructions are, if there is a choice between death or the hospital in-patients, I will take the first." This was followed by an outraged response from former patients who said that on the contrary, the service had been great.

Perhaps the wackiest belief touted in an article was in "physical mortality", or learning to live forever. Members of this belief system were convinced that all you need to live on and on is to just decide to do so. True, one woman had actually died during a meeting, but that was only because "she did not choose to live."

Over the years, there have been plenty of articles on weight loss, though they seem to be out of fashion these days. Channi Hurwitz made fun of them: "A lady who runs a diet clinic claims that by grasping the upper lip for ten minutes before each meal, the result would be a diminished appetite. I figured that one of two things could happen. Either one would stop eating too much, or begin to resemble a duck."

But along with the controversies were hundreds more articles on a myriad of topics. Some were useful, such as help on choosing retirement homes, synagogues, health insurance schemes, legal advice, public transport services, financial benefits for senior citizens and much, much more. Others were personal stories: single people looking for partners, stories of the Holocaust, of wars, of life in Israel in earlier times, of how and why our readers came on aliyah. Sometimes they were amusing. Among the articles on how life in Israel differs from that in the Diaspora was this comment: "I'll never forget the look on my mother's face when my five-year-old son publicly answered nature's call in a centrally located flowerbed in Disney World!"

There was mention of tours, lectures, literary competitions, volunteer opportunities, recommended service people, travel pieces, weddings, arrivals and deaths. The whole of life seemed encapsulated in the pages of our magazine.

And the magazine grew.

In 1980, the newsletter acquired a slightly more professional cover, based on the ESRA logo. How was it prepared for delivery? Volunteers fished slips out of a bowl, pressed them on sponges and stuck the addresses on the envelopes and then folded and stuffed envelopes. "We now mimeograph the master list, cut it up and glue it onto envelopes," a volunteer explained. "Anyone with a better idea is kindly invited to submit it."

By 1983, the mailing list included 1,600 families and the area covered increased. For a time, we had a Hebrew page, but it didn't last. The magazine was now 44 pages and there were 60 volunteer postmen. The Jubilee Issue was published in 1989. Wow! Full color cover – even the Safari ad – and 68 pages, distributed to 2,800 families by 80 postmen and women. Alas, the color didn't last at that time. In July, 1992, though, we returned to a color cover, with a photo of Merle receiving the President's Award for Volunteering.

New columns were introduced from time to time, on law, animals, travel, consumer affairs, a children's corner. Some lasted; others didn't. In an article, writer Linda Silverstone recollected some of the interesting people she had been sent to interview: a unicyclist; someone who taught her to shoot at the newly opened Olympic shooting range in Herzliya ("When the gun went bang, I nearly fainted"); and a health club instructor, in an article cleverly titled "Stretch and Kvetch."

The number of advertisements grew, even though, as one ad salesperson commented, "It's hard to get ads," and noted that she/he had experienced "nastiness, impatience and plain rudeness."

In 1995, ESRA celebrated 15 years and the magazine became larger in size, with new color, logo format and style. But every time the magazine changed its appearance slightly, readers weighed in. Some loved the innovations. "Stunning", "superb", "beautiful layout", "most professional - a quantum jump, which has taken you to a different league", were some of the compliments. On the other hand, the larger magazine was also termed "inconvenient to carry around" and "hard to stick in mail boxes." Merle wrote, "Changes are hard to make and hard to accept, but I do believe that ESRA has to move forward and lead the way."

There were now 134 distributors, in addition to hundreds of copies sent to outlying areas, on subscription and distributed to depots. Altogether 6,000 copies were printed. By the 50th issue, the magazine featured 68 pages and was distributed to 2,800 families.

One woman complained of withdrawal symptoms because she hadn't received her magazine. She hadn't paid her membership dues, it turned out, but it was delivered to her anyway, on the principle that the magazine should be made available to all English speakers without requiring a subscription.

Even the "Donations" columns sometimes told a story. One couple donated to ESRA "in lieu of Pesach gifts to their staff," which was very nice for ESRA, but one wonders what the staff thought.

A "Why I Stay in Israel" essay competition drew 58 entries. Some were funny – "Do I stay here because I still have so much plastic tape and soda left from the Gulf War? Is it because I haven't paid my Television Tax yet?" Others were moving: "Being an Israeli is like being married; you take it for better or for worse until death parts us."

The magazine had become part of people's lives. Readers reported that they waited for it to be distributed, because, as one reader wrote, "It makes you feel as though you belong to a big family, the ESRA family."

As Merle wrote in an editorial for the 100th issue, "What has energized me all the years is the belief that we are together enriching the lives of our immigrants and the others we help in the community."

And now, I will jump 20 years ahead to our current magazines. Totally professional in appearance, thanks to designer Anthony Green, the magazine now has 108 pages in full color. It is featured online on the web too, and read all over the world. Some 5,800 copies are printed and distributed, mostly still by 315 volunteer postmen and women. Four hundred and twenty- two (422) volunteers are involved in the writing, publication and delivery of the magazine, ESRA's largest volunteer project.

At 40 years, the magazine may be sleeker, but it is still the same enthusiastic, provocative, lively and compulsively readable publication it always has been. Along with its army of readers, we can only wish its editors and staff Yeshear Koach, and a future as successful as the past.

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