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Shmate, the Little Jewish Rag That Could

In 1980s Oakland, a small Jewish magazine was doing something all its own

Alix Wall
June 10, 2022
Courtesy Roger Colten
Courtesy Roger Colten
Courtesy Roger Colten
Courtesy Roger Colten

We Jews don’t call ourselves the people of the book for nothing. But we just as easily could be called people of the periodical. No sooner did Jews arrive in America than we founded magazines, journals, newspapers. Some were establishment organs of local federations; others were Yiddish and socialist (or anarchist, or communist); others were neoconservative. And since the 1960s, there has been another kind of product, influenced by the alternative and underground press, often left-leaning, but with a Jewish twist.

Some of these alt-Jewy publications became well known, like Response, which was founded in 1967 and ran at least 30 years, and Tikkun, founded in 1986 and still going. Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, ran for 21 years, from 1990 to 2011, and Lilith has run quarterly since 1976. A radical Jewish group in Chicago founded a magazine called Chutzpah in 1972. There was also something called Jewish Socialist, but details about that are harder to find. And they all stand in the lineage of Jewish Currents, founded in 1946, relaunched in 2018, and newly popular in recent years.

Living in the Bay Area, and active in Jewish circles for decades, I thought I knew from the lefty Jewish press. But it turns out there was another such magazine, published in my own backyard, that I had never heard of until just this year. Now that I’ve skimmed a bunch of issues, I can say with certainty that it’s the only publication in the Jewish media-verse that could have run a 15-page interview with Jewish porn star Nina Hartley that not only included her sexual proclivities and her unconventional relationship status (she was in what now could be called a throuple, where all three partners, in this case, two women and one man, were involved with each other) but had her expounding about her views as a feminist, a socialist, and what she thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There could also be only one publication that published the editorial suggestions a typesetter inserted into the text, noting that they were part of the “participatory enterprise.”

That magazine was Shmate, and it ran quarterly, give or take, from 1982 to 1990. When the stars aligned, and the editor had both enough suitable material and money to pay for printing, an issue came out. That editor was one Steve Fankuchen, 78, known universally as “Fanny,” and now living in a city that, when I tracked him down—after much mysterious email tag, then a call from his burner phone—he wouldn’t let me name. He prefers to just say he lives in “flyover America.”

Fanny founded “the rag,” as he still calls it, from his tiny apartment in Oakland, California (though it had a Berkeley P.O. box)—a 10-minute walk from where I now live, but which was a very different place in the 1980s—when he was a single father. His goal, he told me, was to deal with antisemitism from a leftist perspective. “But the best thing I ever did was ignore my original intent,” he said. “I went where interesting things showed up, and didn’t force it into any mold. I’m proud to say that the magazine was nothing like what I intended. It was a combination of something that dealt with leftist antisemitism and life’s absurdities.”

In addition to the issue with a pornography theme, Shmate published an early issue, in 1982, on the theme of gay and lesbian Jews. “The Jewish community was not acknowledging that there were gay Jews,” Fanny said, “and I felt we can’t keep it in the closet as a community.” Other issues focused on Jewish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War; the Roma; the second generation after the Holocaust; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Jewish humor; and American intervention in Nicaragua.

Given that newspapers were often called “rags” in those days, Fanny chose the name Shmate (“rag,” in Yiddish), mainly since Chutzpah was already taken by another rag. “I got more hate mail over the name than anything else,” he said. “People called me disgusting and a self-hating Jew.”

Its readers were vocal and wrote letters, most of which were published; some issues have pages (and pages) of letters, like the one by Eric Breitbart that begins, “I like [issue #6], though I haven’t read all of it—a real mishmash of erudition and funk.” At its height, Shmate had about 350 subscribers, although Fanny estimates a print run being around 2,000 copies. “I had subscribers in 17 to 20 states, and four to five countries,” he said. “If someone didn’t pay to renew, I never cut them off. That’s not the tradition I come from.”

He not only was the sole editor and publisher, but he schlepped copies to the printer and then to local bookstores himself. Occasionally, one friend helped stick labels on, as did his child—whom he would not let me name—while another friend sometimes helped with typesetting. He published a lot of the submissions he got; he didn’t have the money to pay contributors, and he gave his authors total control over their own words.

As he tells it, Fanny grew up on Long Island; he hasn’t lived there in decades but the accent doesn’t lie. He landed in the Bay Area after attending Cornell University in fits and starts, and coming close to graduating, but dropping out in 1966 before taking a degree. When asked why, he said, “I got tired of looking at the sun go down behind Cayuga Lake and wondering where it was going.” He said he was tired of hearing the names of all these places on the radio, realizing there was a huge world out there that he wasn’t seeing. Suddenly, he couldn’t take one more minute in small town Ithaca.

Rabbi Mark Bloom, spiritual leader of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, where Fanny was a member once he reached the Bay Area, described him as “a bit of a Forrest Gump type, in that he touched a lot of the political and social movements that were really active in the ’60s and ’70s.” And how. Before Fanny came to California, hitchhiking across the country to get here, he said, he took part in both the May ’68 student protests in France and, a few months later, was in Prague during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He claims to have been at both Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and at the Altamont music festival, and he dropped several times that he has an FBI file, which he was able to prove to my satisfaction, and told me some stuff off-the-record as to why. When I suggested that perhaps some of his stories might be embellished, he told me he was too lazy to do that. He is a wonderful raconteur, and funny as hell, but every time I needed to call him to fact-check something, I knew I had to carve out time in my schedule; there is no such thing, I learned, as a five-minute conversation with Fanny.

Fanny volunteered, he said, as a tenants’ union organizer and as a medic at the Berkeley Free Clinic, “a radical, do-it-yourself health collective that has been providing dental and medical care, peer counseling, and community referrals since 1969,” according to its website.

“I see a need, I try to fill it,” he said. It’s fair to say that he has never held a conventional job; he called himself “a master of nonspending,” and has gotten by mostly on odd jobs and the barter system.

Fanny considers himself “absolutely not religious,” he said, but he attended minyan twice a week at the Conservative shul, where he was also a youth group adviser for seven years. Bloom recalled the time he jokingly ran for shul president, when it was clear he didn’t want the role. His rabbi called him “a hippie with a strong libertarian streak, who doesn’t trust the government”; to which Fanny countered, “I’m an equal opportunity misfit, both and neither are right.” His political consciousness came from his father, whose example, Fanny said, taught him “to skip the labels and think for yourself.”

Shmate, too, was born out of him trying to fulfill a need; he recognized there was nothing else like it out there. In the early 1980s, he convened a group to plan the first issue. But by the time it was published, he was the only one still interested. In 1985, he told a writer for The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California that when this group got together, rather than publish a magazine, “They all wanted to resolve what it meant to be Jewish, all those questions. I see no reason for waiting for the Messiah to get work done, so I just went ahead.”

Many Shmate contributors were Fanny’s friends, or they came through word of mouth, and some had their only byline in Shmate. But others were famous, like Noam Chomsky and former Village Voice film critic (and now Tablet contributor) J. Hoberman.

Shmate’s demise came when Fanny was simply burned out; he never managed to get the funding he needed to grow, or attract others who wanted to help keep it running. Larry Bush, who was assistant editor of Jewish Currents when Shmate debuted, said that while he was trying to create a much-needed generational shift at his magazine, he viewed Shmate as the voice of a new generation. “Shmate had a flippancy and sense of humor while probing serious things,” Bush said. “I was probably the defender of it to my elders as an important enterprise, as it was creating a new energy for progressive Jewish consciousness and life … Fanny awakened me to the fact that I wasn’t of the generation I was working with,” he said.

Perhaps most important, Bush says, was the way Shmate regularly featured women among its contributors at a time when Bush’s plea to add a woman columnist was falling on deaf ears at Jewish Currents. When Shmate did its LGBT-themed issue in 1982, it “forced us to reckon with our own homophobia and recognize LGBT (though we didn’t call it that then) rights as a political and humanistic issue,” Bush said.

Fanny doesn’t think in terms of a legacy; he says he’s just as proud of Shmate as he is of being a youth group adviser. But he did say he was oddly flattered that someone came asking about something he did over half his lifetime ago. His one regret is that he was never able to convene its readers and contributors, whom he saw as an eclectic bunch, with a sensibility, and openness, all their own. “With something like Better Homes and Gardens, you’re inviting that in as an old friend because it’s going to be familiar,” Fanny said. “With Shmate, you never knew what it was going to be, because I never knew. So, it was a very unusual group of people who’d be interested in something like that.”

In 1990, Fanny wrote a 10-page, single-spaced letter that served as the last issue, explaining why he was throwing in the towel, or shmate, as the case may be.

“It’s tempting to write a retrospective of what I think Shmate has accomplished, its strengths, its weaknesses,” Fanny wrote. “But, that’s a temptation easy to resist. First, I’m lazy and hate to write. Second, I’ve always believed a magazine should speak for itself. Pronounecements [sic] from editors and publishers usually amount to a self-serving bunch of crap. You folks know what you did and did not get out of the rag. It seems to me that it is at least patronizing and probably downright insulting to have someone tell you what a magazine means or should mean to you.”

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J., the Jewish News of Northern California, as well as a longtime writer in the Jewish media-verse and regularly contributes to Vows in The New York Times, and Bay Area publications. She is the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals, and is writer/producer of The Lonely Child, a documentary-in-progress.