T here isn’t a contemporary writer it seems who wasn’t influenced — in most cases directly — by Rabbi Nisson Wolpin. The Jewish Observer was the breeding ground for the foremost names in Jewish literature and thought.

I never really made it though I tried.

I submitted a piece in defense of those who get drunk on Purim an attempt to reveal the glory inherent in a very misunderstood mitzvah. He called the pay phone in my kollel and thanked me for the handwritten faxed submission encouraging me to write more. He told me how much he enjoyed the piece but explained that the members of his editorial board weren’t the “I got mamesh stoned this Purim” types and wouldn’t appreciate the position or approach. (I thought maybe if he’d print it they would become that type.)

Over the years I enjoyed other conversations with him. I never grew close enough to be a talmid like many of my colleagues but certainly was an admirer and so I read and reread each of the beautiful tributes published after his passing.

Along with paying respect to Reb Nisson these tributes share a common undertone — they mourned not just the printed words but the actual Judaism of his publication. Visit the online Jewish Observer archives (agudathisrael.org/jo) and you’ll understand what they mean. There’s an entire world there — of intellectual stimulation straightforward inspiration and authentic Yiddishkeit. It’s not just text but also subtext; not just the articles but the ads as well. They speak of where we were holding back then. And it was a different world.

My informal data showed that the most prominent advertisers were purveyors of recorded Torah — lectures and seforim — but even the ads for more “mundane” items spoke to the readers’ confidence rather than insecurity.

My personal favorite ad was “Begin Thinking Milwaukee?” (Eventually I did going to spend a Shabbos there on behalf of Mishpacha magazine and leaving with real envy of those who live in that very beautiful community.)

Then as now there were advertisements for real-estate projects in Israel. Only difference was that while today’s are for apartments with sweeping views of the skyline those were for karka underground so it didn’t make much difference if they were perfectly situated between the great chassidic courts and the shopping in Geula.

There was always Haolam cheese. None of their marketing folks told them about the brilliant ads of a decade later when we would learn that Shavuos and cheesecake are essentially one and the same and that food can be so good one might ostensibly cry over it. The line they went with: “Not Just a Cheese a Tradition” was much more suited to the time because the people reading the magazine cared deeply about tradition; cheese not as much.

My journey through the archives wasn’t just a good read but a trip down memory lane as well. I’m old enough to remember when Eytan Kobre was just a “lawyer living in Queens” and Yonoson Rosenblum was Jonathan.

So I preface what I’m about to say by reiterating: A crown has fallen. In my childhood home as in so many others the monthly arrival of the JO was an event and we devoured it. Reb Nisson and his magazine gave us hashkafah itself the oxygen of Yiddishkeit.

But it’s easy to read the flow of lament and conclude as some writers did that contemporary chareidi magazines are a poor hollow imitation at best.

There is an elephant peeking out from the corner of virtually every one of those tributes — the ironic note that the JO was a victim of its own success. It created the market educated the consumers inspired them to want more quality Torah literature — and when the goals were reached there was no more room left for the JO father of the industry.

It’s made to sound like a cruel twist of fate the teacher forced out by the pupils.

But really it isn’t like that.

I’ve heard the resounding applause at meetings when the call inevitably comes to reinstate the JO the claim we need a vibrant hashkafah magazine that is not run as a business and thus not beholden to the whims or demands of any one demographic.

It’s true. Wouldn’t it be nice.

But consider: Rabbi Wolpin ran a magazine with dignity and elegance at a time when people were dignified and elegant. “The rosh yeshivah said ” and “the Rebbe said ” were reason enough to listen. A mouthpiece for gedolim can only have influence if the people respect the words of gedolim.

In 2017 — an era of leaked tapes forged letters and “it depends who asked the question and who opened the door” — the mouthpiece itself is that much weaker.

Rabbi Wolpin crafted forceful defense of the Torah position on issues of the day clear and convincing against threats of the Reform and Conservative movements the venom of Shulamit Aloni and Tommy Lapid.

But what would he have done when the threats are of a different sort when hashkafah is being undermined not by them but by us? When the battle isn’t for ideas but for emotions; when Yiddishe instincts and basic Jewish pride are under assault? When heimishe erliche Yidden walk into Minchah after a day of being sent videos that appeal to every sense except intellect which (not chas v’shalom on purpose I just thought it was funny how that guy was shaking lulav like so intense his face all red so I videoed it I wasn’t making fun) convey a message that the lifestyle we lead is somehow lacking? When “daas Torah” belongs to whomever has the energy and inclination to send out a WhatsApp message instructing listeners to light a candle or do whatever mitzvah as a zechus for whomever — and even if the prophet is anonymous the message itself is virtually assured of going viral forwarded from group to group because why not it didn’t have any nivul peh?

Today’s magazines can never compromise on the actual message — never forfeit substance for style — but style too is a goal. That’s a steady challenge to respect the readers as intelligent people while still not producing a magazine that’s remote and academic. To find ways to package meaning and depth in attractive wrapping.

It might just be that a monthly black-and-white magazine — whatever treasures it may have contained — would not have drawn in readers of a new generation or presented a dynamic engaging stimulating counter-read to the smorgasbord of cotton candy that too many of us consume. When the enemies were intellectual both defense and offense meant presenting a smarter more compelling better-crafted argument but in the era of clickbait you need a few other tools as well: color humor emotion and a great layout. (A brain doesn’t hurt. We still have a few of those on staff behind the larger offices where the graphics staff work in comfort.)

To paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen (remember when that was considered political debate-stage tension?) Mishpacha magazine is no Jewish Observer. Not by a long shot. None of us can say that we do the same thing Rabbi Wolpin once did. But what the JO did for several generations Mishpacha and others like it are doing for ours. Rabbi Wolpin was not a victim of his own success. In fact he enjoyed the ultimate success. He created pupils who didn’t just emulate him but accepted the gifts he gave them — precision polish and confidence to speak truth as transmitted by people of truth — and figured out how to adapt those gifts to changing generations.

Reb Nisson famously gave up his menahel position at Ohr Yisroel when Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky told him that his new job as editor wouldn’t mean he was leaving chinuch; he was simply shifting to educating adults.

He and his magazine are still teaching us.

Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 661. Yisroel Besser may be contacted directly at besser@mishpacha.com.