There’s a famed expression that journalism is the “first rough draft of history.” For Donald H. Harrison, it’s much more than a rough draft.
While Harrison spent the first phase of his journalistic career in mainstream media (including The Associated Press), his return to journalism after he spent time in public relations brought him to several Jewish publications in San Diego — culminating in the website he founded and still edits today, the San Diego Jewish World. Now, his treasure trove of Jewish-themed reporting is featured in the newly published book, “Schlepping and Schmoozing Through San Diego County (Volume 1: City of San Diego).”
Spanning three-plus decades, Harrison’s articles prove the insightfulness of the Jewish World site’s tagline, “There is a Jewish story everywhere.” Indeed, “Schlepping and Schmoozing” uncovers Jewish stories in unexpected places like the Comic-Con comic book convention, the Salk Institute (of polio vaccine discoverer Dr. Jonas Salk), the airport, the library, and even Sea World, where Harrison’s research bucks the popular notion that the biblical prophet Jonah was swallowed by a whale. (According to his investigation, it was more likely a great white shark).
Even most Jewish residents of the San Diego area are unaware of the region’s rich Jewish history, reflects Harrison, whose determination to find a Jewish story everywhere shines through on every page. For a relatively new San Diegan like myself, it’s an important affirmation that yes, there are Jewish stories to be found outside of the well-known Jewish population centers where I formerly lived, such as New York and Los Angeles. Who knew that San Diego had a “Zion Avenue” and a “Mount Rebbe?” At least I didn’t, before reading this book.
At the same time, Harrison’s undying curiosity enables him to find stories in the context of seemingly routine Jewish events where others wouldn’t necessarily find a unique story. For instance, his musings over fish and ducks being “the beneficiaries of the bread to which Jews symbolically transfer our sins” for the pre-Yom Kippur Tashlich ritual lead him to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, where a biophysicist deems his question an “open inquiry.”
Bridging past and present, Harrison’s reporting also brings him to the U.S.-Mexico border — first for former Anti-Defamation League (ADL) national director Abe Foxman’s visit there in December 1996, and then this year to cover the efforts of two women who provide food and other supplies to migrant families. In 1996, Foxman told Harrison that the border found its way onto the ADL’s agenda because “bigotry, racism, and discrimination” had entered the debate over immigration policy — a statement which proves prophetic 23 years later when it comes to the Jewish community’s substantial interest in that issue.
From Foxman to Salk to Andrew Viterbi, the latter who discovered the formula that is imprinted on cell phone chips worldwide, Harrison’s interviews within the book prove that there aren’t only Jewish stories in San Diego, but also high-profile Jewish stories. His interview with Salk — originally published in the San Diego Jewish Press Heritage in July 1995, two weeks after the scientist’s death — recounts Salk’s encounters with anti-Semitism when the idea of constructing the Salk Institute was in the works. According to Salk, one local resident demanded to know “how many Hebrews” he would be bringing to the area.
And these days, if you mention the words “San Diego” to the average consumer of Jewish news, what likely comes to mind is also related to anti-Semitism — namely, April’s shooting in the nearby city of Poway at a Chabad center. Poway finds itself not in this book, but rather in Volume 2 of Harrison’s series, which covers the San Diego area’s suburban cities and towns.
Yet for this reader, powerful symbolism lies in how the stories from Volume 1 of “Schlepping and Schmoozing” end at March 2019, just one month before the Poway shooting. Although this past year’s synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway understandably thrusted those Jewish communities into the national spotlight, the tragedies don’t define the communities where they occurred. More broadly, the trials and tribulations of Jewish history shouldn’t overshadow the thoughtful everyday events like those chronicled in Harrison’s stories.
In that way, Jewish journalism is more than a “rough draft” of Jewish history. By finding a Jewish story “everywhere,” like Harrison does, we can appreciate our history while it continues to unfold in every moment.