A Chat With Former NYT's Religion Correspondent Ari Goldman
I speak by phone 1/8/03 with Journalism Professor Ari Goldman of the Columbia School of Journalism. A longtime religion writer for the New York Times, Goldman published two books on Jewish life - The Search For God At Harvard and Jewish Practice.
Luke: "I loved Stephen Fried's book. I think there is a lack of fascinating Jewish journalism like he has done. And that's what I wanted to explore."
Ari: "Ok. I've just finished the book too. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a brilliant piece of reporting. He really gets into people's lives and tells about a community in crisis. It's an exciting book to read. My one criticism of it is that he hurts a lot of people along the way. While it's good journalism, it's not always good from an ethical point of view. I know some of the people he writes about and a lot of people are going to have to live down a bad sermon, a slip of the tongue, some other embarrassing moment in their life. It's fair game if you're writing about politicians but I don't know that rabbis are politicians in the same way."
Luke: "You sympathize with the critics and the Perry Ranks?"
Ari: "Yes. I read the article in the Forward. I've heard some of the criticism. I think the same good reporting could've been done while protecting people. One of the people interviewed for the book was blindsided by the final product, saying, 'He told me he was writing a profile of Gerald Wolpe and instead...'"
Luke: "Rabbi Ackerman?"
Ari: "No. That chapter Waiting For Ackerman is one of my favorite chapters. He's a good writer and a fine reporter and I'm impressed how much he learned about the observant Conservative community."
Luke chuckles: "Which is very small."
Ari: "It is small. But he's knowledgeable. I like the way he relates this to his own life and his father's death and the kaddish. I think it's a successful book, I just feel bad for some of the people who get caught up in the story and who are really bit players, not major figures, and are suddenly thrust into the limelight in sometimes embarrassing positions."
Luke: "If you ever do any good journalism, you are going to be hurting people's feelings right, left and center."
Ari: "I don't think that's necessary. I think you could tell the same story and manage to protect people's dignity."
Luke: "Is that something you were concerned with when you were working for the New York Times?"
Ari: "Of course. I write books and I'm conscious of that when I write, the effect of what I say could damage someone's reputation, could embarrass them. Lately I've been writing a lot of obituaries for the New York Times. What's great about that is that you are only embarrassing dead people."
[Luke finds little embarrassing in American obituaries. They tend to be much tamer and more dull than their British counterparts. Fewer stories about crazy things done while drunk, etc.]
Ari: "You worry a little bit about the survivors but in an obituary you can say nice things. In every other kind of journalism, they press you to find something bad to say.
"I teach journalism."
Luke: "You teach preserving human dignity."
Ari: "Let's say a student is writing a profile. And I'll say, 'Go talk to a critic. Go show this guy's failings.' These profiles aren't believable unless you can see the human frailty. In my journalism, I don't shy away from being critical. You do it for balance and when it's relevant, but there's a sense in [Fried's] book that a lot of this is just gossip. Here's some juicy gossip."
Luke moans: "It's delicious dish."
Ari: "It is delicious dish. The whole Leonid Feldman..."
Luke explodes: "Oh, I loved that. Yummy!"
Ari: "There was nothing new in there. It was all in the Palm Beach Post."
Luke: "I never knew of it. I was like, wow! This is great!"
Ari: "But it was irrelevant to Har Zion."
Luke: "But it was fun as hell to read. I was telling my friends at my Orthodox shul and it just confirmed all our worst suspicions about the Conservative movement. I told my rabbi friend at shul and he loved it because he hates the Conservative movement."
Ari: "You should give the movement its dignity too. This basketball game with the rabbis after shul on shabbos. It's not the Judaism I grew up with.
"Now let's get to your premise. Is there a dearth of good Jewish journalism?"
Luke: "This sort of dish."
Ari: "I don't know. Look at Gary Rosenblatt and the Baruch Lanner story."
Luke: "The Orthodox rabbi molesting kids at NCSY [National Council of Synagogue Youth]. That was a rare story. Normally Jewish journalists are lapdogs."
Ari: "Yes. That was courageous. Did that story hurt people? Absolutely. There's an example of a case that was necessary. Yes he hurt people and yes he got people fired and he got somebody who ended up in jail. You can make a good argument that that needed to be told. Whether Perry Rank is bald and where he wears his yarmulke on his head. It was a good story but it could've been told anonymously."
Luke: "But it would've lost its punch."
Ari: "In some regards but I don't think it would've been totally denuded. Also, there's the problem of Stephen Fried. I like him. I know him. I had breakfast with him two weeks ago before I read the book. He gets into the mind of the selection committee. This is what they were thinking. Number one, he wasn't even in the room. He got this from his sources. Was that the most outstanding characteristic [of Perry Rank]? His preaching on Bob Dylan and his crooked yarmulke? It seems gratuitous.
"I like [Fried] and I like what he did but I wouldn't paint him as the paradigm of reporting in the Jewish community. I don't know that we need more reporting like that. We need more examination of issues that make us uncomfortable - dissent on the Israel question, the question of gays in the synagogue and pulpit, intermarriage. I think there are tough questions to explore but gossip is not one of them."
Luke: "You sound like the admonition that great people talk about ideas and lower people talk about people."
Ari: "Right. I don't want to sound haughty."
Luke: "It's ok to sound haughty. Orthodox Judaism is a haughty religion. This book for me is one of the few things I read in Jewish journalism that comports with how I experience my religion. This has got all the love and hate and angst and human frailty that I experience when I go to shul and I never read that in the Jewish press. All these Federation papers, the softballing product of fundraising organizations. They seem to have all the journalists in their pocket and does not reflect the love and rage and hatred I experience when I go to shul. This is one of the few books where I could say, 'Ahhh, this is human, warts and all. This is Phillip Roth.' I have to go to fiction to find the Jewish life I experience. I know Phillip Roth got his head handed to him in the sixties by the Jewish community. Is there something about Jewish communal life that stifles good writing about Jewish communal life? You just say lashon hara and you shut everybody up."
Ari: "There's stuff worth exposing and then there's stuff better left anonymous. You should question at every turn, do I need to embarrass this person? Is it worth it?"
Luke: "Would you criteria be different if your subject were a non-Jew?"
Ari: "That's an interesting question. If you look at Fried's earlier books, he's written about the fashion and pharmaceutical industries. He's bringing the skills that he developed writing secular books to the Jewish story and applying the same standards. To an extent, I think that's fair and admirable. We should be able to withstand that kind of grownup journalism.
"I'm not against [Fried's] book as a whole. Rabbi [Gerald] Wolpe went in with his eyes open. Jacob Herber cooperated."
Luke: "Poor man."
Ari: "Those central characters, you had to use their names. But whether Ackerman's wife's mother got cheated out of a house because of a selfish congregation, I don't know. I hear that people [in that allegedly selfish congregation] are saying, 'How embarrassing!' When he starts getting into the cousin's mother's uncle's son... He opens up the pot with all the garbage in it and flings it around."
Luke: "How did you feel about him going into synagogue and taking notes and evaluating whether the rabbi gave a good sermon or not?"
Ari: "If you want to get to the sleazy line, when Herber catches him taking notes, he says, 'You can't do that. It's wrong.' He comes on Rosh Hashanah with a tape recorder [in his tallit bag]... Here's a guy who opens up to you and is honest and is your friend. He's screwing him left and right."
Luke: "That's what journalists do. That's quintessential journalism, it just so happens to take place in our sacred spaces. If it was any other goyishe situation, we'd say, 'Wow, look at [Fried's] spunk.' But he's violating God's Law."
Ari: "I'm uncomfortable with a lot of that. He successfully captures [Rabbi Gerald] Wolpe, the congregation's inability to replace a leader of that magnitude, the only one they know. It's an impossible task. Nobody can replace that kind of leader who's developed relationships with people at life cycle events over the generations. There's some powerful stuff in there."
Luke: "Where do you find compelling writing on Jewish life as lived as you experienced it?"
Ari, ten second pause: "I could start with my own books."
Luke: "You got some stiff criticism for your memoir, The Search For God At Harvard."
Ari: "I did go outside the bounds [of Orthodox Judaism]. I was criticized by the Orthodox community and embarrassed some people. I'm not so holy here. I just wonder about the limits of it.
"Sam Freedman in Jew vs Jew applies the same sort of journalistic techniques that he learned in writing about schools and politics and the black church. Sam and I work together. I know his method. Before he publishes a book, he shows it to the people he wrote about. If he did a chapter on Luke Ford, he would run it by you and say, 'You're not my censor, I want to make sure that I got this right. I want to make sure that I'm not hurting you. I want to make sure I didn't do anything under false pretences.' Now, that's not common journalistic practice."
Luke: "You're right that's not common journalistic practice. We wouldn't do that with the goyim."
Ari: "But he did it with the goyim. He did it on his church book and on his education book. Not for approval, but he didn't want to say something in book form that was inaccurate."
Luke: "Fried checked his facts. They hold up. He just went for the same details in synagogue that he'd use in the fashion industry."
Ari: "I think you put it well. This is our sacred space. I think it has to be treated a little more respectfully. I think the tape recorder is a good example of violating a trust.
"I teach my students that when you do an interview or write an article, you go into a relationship with someone. You trust that they are giving you good information. They trust you that you will be accurate, fair and kind, and not trash them and get something over at their expense. I think he does that. I read it to the last page but it left me feeling guilty. I didn't want to see all these people humiliated but it is so much fun."
Luke: "So many of the rabbi I know are control freaks and used to controlling not only their own shul but with their image generally and I found this book refreshing that they had to deal with the same type of scrutiny as any other public figure. Do you think rabbis are public figures and accountable to the same sort of scrutiny we'd give other public figures?"
Ari: "Yes, I think rabbis are public figures. Once you take that job, you live a public life. I've participated here on academic searches to bring in new professors and new deans and new presidents of the university. Confidentiality of that process is sacred. Ninety nine out of 100 people you talk to are not going to get the job and that they are looking for a job could hurt them in their current position. You have to be sensitive in who you are talking to about who's good at the interview and who's bad... For all this to be made public, I'm not sure of the benefit of saying that this rabbi couldn't say a d'var Torah (teach a passage from the Bible) off the cuff or this rabbi was having a bad day.
"I don't think anything would've been lost if he had protected a few people. I say that with a lot of admiration for him as a journalist but I think that maybe it is time for him to turn his attention away from the Jewish community. Maybe the Catholic Church could use a Stephen Fried."
Luke: "Where does this concern for not hurting people come from? Is it primarily a Jewish thing or an American thing? I know British and Australian journalists don't have that compunction."
Ari: "In my life, and I've hurt people, it comes out of my Jewish education. In our secular society, it comes more out of our libel laws. You don't want to get sued. For me, it's an ethical issue. I remember years ago, I wrote an article about a major Reform Jewish leader. In the eighties, there was a lot of discussion about denominations getting along better. There were Orthodox and Reform rabbis talking. I did an article about the difficulties of bridging the gap.
"I quoted a Reform rabbi who made an off-the-cuff comment to me after dinner one night. I didn't have my notebook out. He said to me, 'I'd give up eating lobster if sometimes they didn't wear a yarmulke.' I wrote this news analysis and then my kicker quote was from this rabbi. A few days later, I get a note from the Reform rabbi and all it says is, 'Ari, how could you?' He was indignant. No rabbi wants to be known as the lobster-eating rabbi in the New York Times. Did I really need to name him? Could I have fudged it? Could I have said something else? I was young. I don't think he really ate lobster."
Luke: "That's a delicious quote. I love it."
Ari: "I can tell which side of the debate you're on. Every journalist has to ask, is it worth the laugh for someone's reputation. What did he really mean? Rabbi Herber talks too much about the [New York] Islanders [hockey team]. I don't know."
Luke: "Were you prepared for the hostility you got for your memoir from the Orthodox community?"
Ari: "Yes, I think I was prepared for it. I'm a product of that community and I know how vicious it can be. What surprised me even more was the sympathy and support I got. Many Orthodox Jews said [to me], 'I cut corners too. I don't talk about it. But behind closed doors, I do the things you did and you were courageous for making them public and struggling with them.'"
Luke: "People put tremendous effort in the Orthodox community into maintaining appearances."
Ari: "I felt that if I was going to be a journalist and write honestly about other people, I would have to apply the same standard to myself. I don't know that Stephen Fried did that."
Luke: "Apply the same scrutiny to himself? He doesn't reveal anything too embarrassing about himself."
Ari: "I'm not sure he applied the same level of scrutiny to himself that he does to everyone else. He emerges one-dimensional as a character in his return to Judaism. He left it for 20 years. What was that like? How honest is he in now saying I'm back, I'm a member of the club, I can judge everyone else. I think he needed to acknowledge that he left the club and he's not quite in the position to judge these rabbis who, flawed as they are, are in positions because of their scholarship and talent and their ability to work with people. You have to apply that critical standard to yourself as well as to the people you write about and he doesn't seem to be terribly self-critical."
Luke: "What did you think of Paul Wilkes' book And They Shall Be My People?"
Ari: "That book's a little too soft, a little too loving, a little too positive. Wilkes is somebody I know and admire. I use his other book, the one on the priest, in my teaching. I remember there was a problem with his wife..."
Luke: "She was bitter about the community monopolizing her husband's time and energy."
Ari: "I don't remember it being anywhere near as juicy as this one."
Luke: "And Paul still got his head handed to him by the Conservative rabbis. Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum and his wife were very hurt by it. There's no pleasing these people [Conservative rabbis, apparently, with anything other than adulation]. That Wilkes book was softball. It was gentle, loving, positive about Rabbi Rosenbaum yet he won't give me an interview about it. He was wounded by the book and his wife is angry about it and JTS shunned Wilkes."
Ari: "I remember him speaking over at JTS."
Luke: "And he was slotted in to 12-minutes over lunch and no one wanted to listen to him and they dissed him and they want nothing to do with him, is his impression. And I thought he wrote a love poem. I loved the book and thought it was similar to Fried's."
Ari: "Fried picks a much more interesting time in a rabbi's life. This transition time. The other is just a profile."
Luke: "Fried says that because Wilkes is not Jewish..."
Ari: "It insulates [Wilkes] from the kind of criticism that Fried's vulnerable to. In a way, [Fried] took advantage of Wolpe's relationship with his family. I admire what Fried did but something made me uneasy about reading this book."
Luke: "Does one need to be Jewish to capture the dynamics of Jewish life?"
Ari: "I don't think so. It would be wrong for me to say that because I've written a lot about the Catholic Church. It takes a while to get that insider-feel."
Luke: "Wilkes felt like he got a negative reaction from many Jews that he Wilkes, as a non-Jew, would dare to write about such things?"
Ari: "I certainly don't feel that way."
Luke: "Did you get accused of lashon hara with your memoir?"
Ari: "Not really, more in my journalism writing for the [New York] Times. I didn't name names in my memoir. I see lashon hara as directed more towards an individual.
"I don't mean to sound haughty, but the person who the most lashon hara is told about in my memoir is myself. I talk about having premarital sex, eating non-kosher food and desecrating the shabbos. I'm the victim."
Luke: "Isn't there a prohibition against that as well? You're not supposed to lashon hara yourself."
Ari: "I've never heard of that."
I have and I've been convicted of it.
Ari: "I violate a lot of other laws. Mares eyin. When people see you doing something and then conclude it's OK If Ari Goldman can eat trafe... I'm setting a bad example. I was certainly accused of setting a bad example. Who am I to bend the laws with using a pencil on shabbos?"
Luke: "They are not so upset that you did it but that you admitted it publicly."
"I don't think Fried does the kind of soul-searching and self-criticism necessary before you go attack others. I'll keep saying this. I like him. He's a friend of mine. But something made me uneasy about that book."
Luke: "Is part of the reason you quit the Times because of the hassle you got in shul about the paper?"
Ari: "Yes, it was a major reason. I had to answer not only for my sins but for the whole New York Times. It wasn't just, 'I didn't like your article', it was, 'I didn't like Tom Friedman's article.' I had to answer for the whole newspaper as well as criticisms of what I wrote, or why didn't I write, or could I come and write about this? That got to me after a while."
Luke: "Oh yeah, I understand. It's hard in Orthodox Jewish life to step outside the circle and just be a responsible journalist, particularly with Jewish issues. The community exerts tremendous pressure on you. Your second book was much more gentle than your first."
Ari: "There too I bend the rules a bit and talk about different approaches to halacha (Jewish Law) and the different ways people practice, as if everything they do is kosher. I got some criticism for that. The worst thing for any author is to be ignored and I didn't get attacked enough [for that book]. I should've been sharper.
"It's been almost ten years since I left, and people still come up to me and say, 'That New York Times.' There's no escape."
A Chat With Jewish Exponent Editor Johnathan Tobin
I chat by phone with Philadelphia Jewish Exponent editor Johnathan Tobin 1/7/03.
The Exponent is a widely-respected weekly owned by the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia, a secular fundraising organization.
Tobin doesn't like talking about Stephen Fried or his new book, believing he has already said everything he has to say on the topic in his review 8/7/02. So I enlarged the discussion to the state of Jewish journalism today.
In my heart of hearts, I wondered if Tobin's boss, the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia, had ordered him to slam the book as bad for the Jews. Tobin ended up calling it inconsequential. If the book was consequential, then Tobin had ignored a big story, for his paper had published nothing on Har Zion synagogue's search for a replacement for its powerful rabbi Gerald Wolpe.
My take is that Fried's book is absorbing and delicious, a welcome respite from traditionally dull American Jewish journalism.
Luke: "How is the 2002 book [The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader] being received in your circles?"
Johnathan: "It's often the case when something has been puffed into a controversial incident, the farther you get away from it, the more fascinating it seems. Rabbinic turnover is a common thing. What was amazing about the book to me is that it takes a subject that is so boring that it is almost fascinating.
"It was promoted heavily in the Philadelphia region. His magazine [Philadelphia Magazine, where Fried was once editor but is no longer with the magazine] featured it and everybody saw that. Certainly people at the synagogue weren't too thrilled. As is usually the case, the people who blabbed the most felt different once their quotes were in print."
Luke: "Is it the talking thing in Philadelphia Jewish life?"
Johnathan laughs: "Oh no. I'm sure that is Steve Fried's dearest wish. The book is what it is. I didn't get much negative feedback about what I wrote [8/7/02] except from him and his publisher. I'm not in the business of feuds and nonsense."
Tobin would not elaborate. "The book publishing industry is not that different from the rest of the world. If you get a major publisher behind you and have an air of seriousness and good intention, you're not likely to get anybody challenging it. There is a reluctance in this world to call a bad book a bad book."
Luke: "And this is a bad book?"
Tobin: "In my opinion, it is. I had many rabbis come to me and say, 'You hit that one on the nail.' They were unimpressed as well. If he gets it into paperback, there's subsequent news there. I wouldn't blame Steve Fried but a rabbi he admired and I do as well, Rabbi [Jacob] Herber's [situation] was certainly exacerbated by all the blabbing in that book and the focus it put on him."
Luke: "Where is Rabbi Herber today?"
Tobin: "He's out of a job."
Luke: "You guys didn't write about it except in the review of the book."
Tobin: "We will when do the roundup of all the rabbis coming and going, as we normally do as an annual thing. You want to turn that into hot stuff? I could give you six other synagogues in our region where there is rabbinic turnover. For the little community that's involved, it's a big deal. For the Jewish community as a whole, all right, let us know who's coming and who's going. Is that hot news? It's a monograph."
Luke: "Is this book bad for the Jews?"
Tobin: "Only if they were forced to read it. Please don't inflate this into anything beyond what it is. It's a book. It's more about Steve Fried than it is about anything else. If you're really bowled over by his air of seriousness, then..."
Luke: "All the other reviewers were bowled over. What do you think of them?"
Tobin laughs: "I think they're wrong. Listen, I hope Steve Fried does well with it. I dare say it will probably be on the remainder shelves inside of a year. Frankly, his literary agent must be like the guy who got [baseball player] Alex Rodriguez $252 million if he got an advance to do a book about rabbinic turnover.
"It's not bad for the Jews. It's just a boring book."
Luke: "He presents in the prologue that his book fills a gaping hole in narrative Jewish journalism and implicitly you and your peers are responsible for this."
Tobin laughs: "Oh gosh. Then I guess he's performed a great service for the Jewish people. If he believes that, then fine. He's a Jewish hero. I'm not going to add to anything I say. I'm not going to detract from anything I wrote."
Luke: "Isn't there a point here? That there's a lack of hard-hitting journalism in Jewish papers?"
Tobin: "There are many arguments about the things we cover and don't cover. I'll stand our newspaper up against any of the local alternatives. I'm not worried about the comparison. Jewish newspapers have been called 'weaklies,' for good reason in many respects, but obsessing over the minutiae of the Conservative movement's rabbinic selection committees is not one of our really great gaps. We've got other things. There are big issues in the Jewish community. Steve trips over them occasionally in the course of that book. Just enough to let us know that he knows something about it but not enough to actually to do any good. I obviously don't think this is one of the great earthshaking issues that Jewish journalism has flubbed."
Luke: "I've got interviews coming up with Ari Goldman and Samuel Freedman."
Tobin laughs: "Oh good, they did the blurbs on the back [only Freedman did, though both are friends with Fried]. I wonder what they think?"
Luke: "That's why you're such a find. You're the only one..."
Tobin: "I wrote the piece. I don't want to get into any controversy. If Steve wants to milk it into something else to get somebody to buy the book, good for him."
Luke: "I found the book absorbing. I do find most Jewish newspapers boring."
Tobin: "So do I and I see more of them than you do."
Luke: "I do think there needs to be harder-hitting Jewish journalism. I thought Seth Lipsky did a good job with the Forward for a while."
Tobin: "But what does that have to do with this book? It's hard-hitting Jewish journalism? Come on. I've got to run. You can call me tomorrow."
We continue the conversation 1/8/03:
Luke: "What do you think is the state of Jewish journalism in America today?"
Tobin: "If you took a historical perspective on where Jewish journalism was 20 years ago compared to where it is now, it's much improved. There are a number of fairly good papers, say ten to twelve, around the country that are worth reading. I don't want to be quoted as to which ones. There are more good people in Jewish journalism. The glass is half full. Are there shortcomings? Sure. It's harder to get good people into Jewish journalism although it's a slow publishing market so people are more inclined to go into niche journalism than the big dailies.
"There are still constraints on the Jewish press whether they are 'independent' or owned by [Jewish] Federations [largest Jewish fundraising entities] to pull their punches on some issues. In the case of papers owned by the Federation, you don't report on your own publishers. That's true of Jewish papers and it's true of secular papers. Nobody at the New York Post reports about News Corp. Nobody at the Philadelphia Inquirer reports aggressively on Knight-Ridder Corp. That's throughout. It's more problematic with Jewish papers because Federations plays a large role in Jewish life. There's an expectation of a portion of our audience that is not used to seeing tough news coverage. I can give you plenty of examples from our own case where we've done stories on embezzlements in synagogues and crimes and people don't want to see that. People love to see negative news about somebody else, not themselves."
Luke: "Are you about the only non-liberal editing a Jewish paper?"
Tobin: "No. Gary Rosenblatt at the Jewish Week in New York is not your garden-variety liberal. He doesn't stake out consistent positions ideologically. He's there in the center and you never know where he is going to come down. Most Jewish journalists are left-wing. Most journalists are left-wing. Certainly journalists in Israel are almost uniformly hard left-wing. That doesn't bother me and it doesn't make me feel like I've got a great niche. I lost my credentials as a real right-winger any number of times because I've taken stands on issues they disagree with. I've taken shots at the right consistently when I think they're wrong. More consistently then when my colleagues on the left take shots at the left."
Luke: "Are you told what you can write about and not write about?"
Tobin: "No. My greatest worry when I first came here to Philadelphia in 1998, when I was editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. I was concerned about editorial independence. Would there be pressure about my columns? Nothing has happened. My board hasn't hassled me one bit about that. They got a known quantity when they hired me and I've delivered what I promised. When it comes to covering some news stories, you get pressure like any newspaper gets pressure. Could you please do this? Early in my tenure, when there was a different person running the Federation, we locked horns a couple of times. That isn't happening now.
"The people running the Jewish Federation in Philadelphia have bigger worries than the newspaper. They'd happily get out of the newspaper business if they could. Being a publisher involves different responsibilities than being a fundraiser. They're interested narischeit (foolishness). They're interested in getting somebody's picture in the paper and making sure in the Federation section that all their proper people get credit.
"The business of newspaper publishing does best when the publisher hires an editor and lets them do their job. If they like what he's doing, then everything's great. If they don't like what he's doing, then there are issues about editorial independence. If they don't have confidence in your judgment, they will be all over you and then there are the traditional publisher - editorial conflicts. I don't get a lot of flack along those lines.
"I've changed the paper a lot since I've gotten here and people are basically satisfied. We redesigned it, we reshuffled the deck in where things appear. I changed a lot of personnel. We cover more hard news, politics. The paper is harder and better to look at and it's got more of an attitude."
Tobin has been writing for Jewish newspaper for 15 years.
Luke: "Where are you on the religious spectrum?"
Tobin: "Me personally? I am a lifelong member of the Conservative movement. Unlike most members of the Conservative movement, I actually believe in Conservative Judaism."
Luke: "Do you believe in God?"
Tobin, surprised: "Do I believe in God? I have to tell you. I've been interviewed many times. This is the first time anyone has ever asked me if I believe in God. That's a very unJewish unAmerican thing to do because we never talk about God. Do I believe in God? Yes I believe in God. We get a paper out every week. How can I not believe in God?"
Luke: "Ari Goldman said that a major reason he left the New York Times as a religion writer was that he got so much tsures in shul from everyone coming over to him and telling him what to write and what not to write. Do you get a lot of tsures?"
Tobin: "Those of us in print journalism, as my wife who is a lawyer would explain, we are limited-use public figures, under the Times vs Sullivan libel laws as to who's a public figure and who's not. We're not television personalities. We don't get stopped at supermarkets wherever we go for autographs but to our reading public, we're a big deal. My picture appears in the paper every week with my column. For the 60,000 homes that get this paper, I got into their house every week and they feel entitled to call me by my first name and to let me know what they think wherever they are, whether it's in shul or at a New Year's Eve party or walking the dog, if you're an editor of a newspaper, you are fair game wherever you go. I'm sure that being the religion editor of the Times was, if anything worse. That goes with the territory.
"That's the business we're in. You want your byline on something. You want your name at the top of the masthead. You have to expect people to have an opinion. The greatest compliment you can get in this business is that people read you and take you seriously. Sometimes people go after you at moments that are not appropriate. I don't appreciate being [buttonholed] at shul Saturday morning. A lot of it is nice. They honestly have a question that I might have an answer to. If this makes your life miserable, then you are in the wrong business.
"If you work for the New York Times, the Jewish community has serious issues about the Times, whether it's Israel coverage... The history of the New York Times and the Jews, people are very sensitive. It's a powerful institution. Being the religion writer at the New York Times is like being the White House liaison to the Jewish community. Utterly thankless job. You don't get to make policy but you get all the flak. I can understand not wanting to do that."
Luke: "Do you ever write things because you don't want the tsures, even though you believe they are true and important?"
Tobin: "Not really. There are certain sacred cows in the Jewish community. I'm not even going to tell you... Those of us who work in the Jewish community know what they are and even if we respect and believe in them ourselves, we're sick of them. Sometimes we need a shabbat from the Jews. I'm fortunate that I get to say what I believe. I write about 50-columns a year. Sooner or later, you say everything.
"I used to say that one of the shibboleths that I would never take on was the issue of [anti-Semitic 19th Century German composer] Wagner and the Jewish community. I always said that would be my last column in Jewish journalism to take on some of the inconsistencies in the way we view that issue. But I wound up doing that one anyone and maybe nobody noticed. The earth did not come down on me.
"I can get deluged with mail because I push people's buttons and other people who have the same opinion will write something and not get the big response because they phrased it in such a way that it didn't push buttons."
Luke: "Who are the writers who capture Jewish life as you experience it?"
Tobin: "I don't know. Sam Freedman's book Jew vs Jew was very good."
Luke: "What did you think of Paul Wilkes' 1994 book And They Shall Be My People?"
Tobin: "I thought that it was interesting but not War and Peace. It was a monograph. There's a tendency in the Jewish community to Goded-up rabbis. Sportswriters like to say bout Godding-up athletes, turning them into Gods. There's a portion of the Jewish community that will be so flattered by any book that talks about the minutiae of Jewish life that they'll think it's great whether it is good or not."
Luke: "He got a lot of negative feedback from Jews who did thought it was chutzpah-dik of him a goy to write in detail about Jewish life."
Tobin: "I don't think that's a serious complaint. Some of the best writing on Jewish history has been by non-Jewish historians and some of the worst has been done by Jews. The same is true of journalism."
Luke: "A lot of people at the Rabbinical Assembly were unhappy with the book, Paul told me."
Tobin: "That's their union [of Conservative rabbis]. Interested parties are always looking to see how they look in the book. They might have felt that he was not sufficiently respectful of them.
"The best quote about Jews was when Edward Alexander said that 'Universalism is the particularism of the Jews.' That's true but we can be insular. Jewish communities can be like small towns and protective of their own wrongdoers and resentful of any scrutiny. That's the problem of journalism. All the problems of Jewish journalism are the problems of journalism per se. That's not news."
Luke: "It seems that many of these rabbis are unaccustomed to such scrutiny and not being able to control their own image."
Tobin chuckles: "Well, sure. Most people you cover, unless you're talking about politicians, movie stars or athletes, are not used to being covered. Most people are very happy to talk about themselves but very shocked to read it in print. Rabbis are second only to ballplayers in claiming that they were misquoted. The deal with rabbis is that many of them are Goded-up by their congregants and they are not used to any sort of scrutiny. And many of them are not worthy of deep scrutiny. They are just workaday people, not wonder-working rebbes. Outside of the Hasidic tradition, that is not the way we view our religious leaders.
"It's a rare congregation that doesn't have internal politics where the rabbis isn't at war with the synagogue president or some members of his board. In our readership area we have 150 synagogues with 150 little dramas. Most of them are not worthy of that much scrutiny. They are not that big a deal. Gee, some people at synagogues don't like each other? That is not news."
Luke: "How do you feel about people who like gossip?"
Tobin: "It's a rare person who doesn't. All journalism is really lashon hara. If you go by the Jewish traditions of the Chafetz Chaim, everything is lashon hara. You can find some friendly things in liturgy and in Torah that speak to the need of informing people. 'Don't place a stumbling block before the blind.' And the need to warn of wrongdoers. There's a rationale for journalism in Judaism but it's not an integral part of our historic traditions. Most of what passes for gossip in Jewish newspaper isn't really gossip, it's personal-mention columns. Who got what honor? We've got one, most newspapers have one. Some of them gussy it up by having some yenta write it. It's not really a society column in the historical sense of American newspapers. It's just personal mentions."
Luke: "Was it unethical of you to break the publishing deadline on Fried's book by publishing about it August 8, 2002, two weeks or so before it even hit the shelves?"
Tobin: "You've got to be kidding me. Three weeks before we ran our story and my review, lengthy excerpts from that book were published in Philadelphia Magazine. More people read excerpts of that book in Philadelphia magazine than will ever buy that book. For his sake, I hope he sells a zillion copies. Yeah right. To speak of any embargo in those circumstances is absurd. It was impractical anyway because they placed their release date the week before Rosh Hashanah. There was no way we were going to devote our Rosh Hashanah issue to a major piece about him or about that book or frankly to allow the Inquirer to scoop us because we would have to wait two weeks to do it. So, sorry, I don't buy that for a minute. That book was all over the place, not to mention that almost everybody in the Jewish community had a review copy.
"I've heard secondhand they were in high dungeon at his publishers about that, but, believe me, if I had said what a great book it was, they wouldn't have been unhappy."
Luke: "What did you think of Ari Goldman's book The Search For God At Harvard?"
Tobin: "It was interesting. He's another little Jewish media star. I don't want to get into it. I think it was fine. I don't think there was anything particularly revelatory going on there. He's a good writer."
Luke: "Would you say that Freedman's Jew vs Jew is the best book of its type?"
Tobin: "Probably. It spoke directly to a powerful issue within contemporary American Jewry. I think he approached it seriously and respectfully. I'm sure all the people he wrote about had a myriad of criticisms about it but I thought it was well done and a serious book, not a book pretending to be serious."
Stephen Fried - Johnathan Tobin (photo from Jewish Exponent)
I speak by phone with Fried 1/5/03. He's snowed-in at his Philadelphia home.
Luke: "How did your wife [novelist Diane Ayres] react to the book?"
Stephen, incredulous: "My wife?"
Stephen: "That's an interesting question. She edited it. She was reading it all along. She was very touched by it, I think."
Luke: "Did she put pressure on you to water it down so it wouldn't hurt you in the community?"
Stephen: "In the Jewish community?"
"I guess it's new for a journalist to go in and treat a congregation journalistically but this is generally what I do. I try to do investigative pieces for magazines and books in areas that haven't been subject to investigative reporting before. I found this in the fashion business. When I went in 15 years ago, they had never had a real [investigative] journalist come in and write about them. Ultimately, they appreciate that a writer took them so seriously. I found that in the pharmaceutical business. People are happy if you do your homework. Much of what they are used to reading is opinion, very angered opinion at times. So they're happy to see someone come in and do the interviews, the fact-checking, and take the thing as seriously as they do. It can be done.
"I would hope that my book will encourage people to start doing better journalism on religion. There's more to Catholicism than the priest-sex scandal and there's more to Judaism than arguments over Israel."
Luke: "Most Jewish newspapers make me want to hurl. They read like church bulletins."
Stephen: "They're usually owned by the Federation and the Federations want to make sure that no one gets insulted and stops giving. I don't blame them. They are house-organs for a fundraising organization. As far as house-organs go, they're pretty journalistic. They tend to ignore synagogue life because of the traditional church-state separation between Federation and synagogue. As to why there isn't more good journalism about Jews, I'm more likely to blame the journalists.
"It can be done. Sam Freedman's book, Jew vs Jew. The journalists we all admire who write about Jewish issues proves that it can be done."
Luke (trying to think of journalists he admires who write about Jewish issues): "Like who?"
Stephen: "[New York Times foreign affairs columnist] Tom Friedman when he writes about domestic issues. As an American-Jewish journalist, my interest is in American Jewish issues. I don't think there's a problem with coverage of Israel. The issue is does American-Jewish life get covered with the same kind of intensity and passion. It's appealing that when you write about Jews, Jews really respond. People in the pharmaceutical business were nowhere near as welcoming when I wrote my last book about the pharmaceutical industry. Between the book fairs, the invitations to synagogues, the emails, it's been like one big bar mitzvah."
Luke: "No one has tried to clobber you with, 'You're a self-hating Jew'?"
Stephen: "No. I haven't heard that once. I've heard complaints from rabbi who feel I was too open with their process. If anything, I could be accused of over-romanticizing synagogue life. 'Hey, when I go to synagogue, it's not this interesting and dramatic.' I've always been somebody, even when I was at my least amount of practice, who's always had great fascination and passion for my religion. I never strayed from it that far that I was against it. I've worked for self-hating Jews. There are a lot of self-hating Jews in the publishing business. I've had great arguments with editors and publishers who were more from that generation. Accusing people of being a self-hating Jew is more from the generation before me. I'm in my forties. That stereotype is more applicable to people who grew up in the post-WWII experience.
"People my age either opt out in a calm collected way or are still involved. How do you feel?"
Luke: "I'm 36 years old. I'm a convert to Judaism. I've created a lot of trouble for myself with my writing, getting thrown out of four Orthodox shuls. I'm sensitive to being kicked around, not that I didn't deserve it. I'm emotionally raw on this topic. I'm imagining to myself what would happen to me if I wrote anything like what you did. I feel like I'd have my head handed to me.
"When I told an Orthodox rabbi friend in shul yesterday about your book, he was thrilled by the story about Conservative Rabbi Leonid Feldman decking the synagogue president."
Stephen: "There isn't a rabbi in the world that doesn't love hearing that story."
From the Forward.com: "A lay person would learn a lot about the mechanisms of synagogue life, but I shudder at the tale-bearing in there," said Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, the religious leader at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J., a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly who is reviewing the book for The Jerusalem Report. "There is too large a stain on a very white, beautiful cloth."
Stephen: "I can't say that I'm looking forward to the review given what the guy said to the Forward although I am speaking at his shul next week. They're having a book fair next Sunday along with the woman who wrote the Sandy Koufax book. I wonder if he knows that I'm coming.
"Most of the rabbis who are named in the book are pleased with the book. We've heard back from almost all of them. I thought that if there were controversy about the book, it would've been about something else. That's ok. I'm glad people are reading it and arguing."
Luke: "I remember once asking a rabbi in your book a public question about the large number of Conservative rabbis who are atheists, like Harold Kushner and Harold Schulweis, and he shut me up by saying I was speaking lashon hara (Hebrew for gossip, wicked speech). That seems so indicative to me of control-freak rabbis who want to control dialogue. It's impossible to do real journalism because some of those affected will cry, 'lashon hara.'"
Stephen: "There will always be someone who will say that. If you're writing in a lay situation, it doesn't stop you from working. They can have that opinion. One person's lashon hara is another person's good writing. There are some rabbis who are telling people not to read my book. Their definition of lashon hara is that I named the people who applied for a job. In many synagogues, the candidates for the rabbinate are printed in the local synagogue review. I don't think the definition of lashon hara is when you print the name of somebody who did not get a job."
Luke: "They will call lashon hara any comment or information that makes someone look bad."
Stephen: "A lot of that information came from the people it's about. They understood that it was in the context of someone trying to write a book to capture what was important about synagogue life and being an American Jew. I don't think anyone could mistake the context of this book. Even the people who've criticized it, have criticized certain parts, and then said otherwise they really liked it. The guy who said he will be writing in the Jerusalem Report said if I hadn't named certain names, he would recommend the book. That's about four pages in the book that he's upset about.
"The issues of lashon hara and journalism need to be discussed. If calling something lashon hara is keeping people from doing good journalism because they don't want to be criticized by their rabbis, I don't think that's good. Judaism believes in the truth and that there can be separate points of view. That things can be argued out. It's not a dogmatic religion.
"People are willing to print the most outrageous things, the most uninformed things, the most one-sided things, when it comes to Israel, but if somebody prints something truthful about their own congregation they go nuts.
"By dealing with the rabbis themselves, the leadership themselves, the search committee themselves, I did the best I could to make sure people would not say lashon hara. This information came to me on the record because the clergy at the synagogue cooperated, the Rabbinical Assembly cooperated, the leaders cooperated, some members of the search committee cooperated and because some members of the community thought this was an interesting project. Truthful information that comes journalistically to a writer who interviewed somebody on the record, I don't see how that's lashon hara when it comes from the person it's about.
"I would like to see people generally in Jewish communities be less afraid of journalism. Journalism is a good thing. If it's unfair, it's not. A lot of things that happen in Jewish communities happen because of a lack of communication. Temple bulletins aren't great ways to communicate. Fiery emails aren't great ways to communicate. To me, every Jewish community should have a couple of good journalists that actually care and who are trying to figure out how to write about the most difficult sagas in the lives of these institutions. Everybody in town knows the stories anyway. They should at least know accurate versions of them because in many cases they are going to make decisions about their lives because of them.
"I've seen decisions in synagogue about rabbis, about the future of congregations, people withdrawing from congregations, when they didn't have the information to make the decision. Part of my goal for writing my book was to show how a congregation sticks together even through harsh difficult situations. This is a big intact powerful synagogue [Har Zion] that has survived many difficult times. That process is exciting. I think these institutions can take it. You're writing about stuff that they are already dealing with. The question is - if it's known to the public, will it be worse? In some cases yes, in some cases no. I look forward to the day when there's a more active Jewish press."
Luke: "How did Rabbi Gerald Wolpe react?"
Stephen: "He's been very supportive of the book from day one as has his son David. I get emails from him almost every day. There are things in the book that made him cringe because they are people's reactions to him but I think he feels he was part of something that was interesting to do and was positive. Even though it came out at a time when the synagogue was reconsidering whether it wanted to keep the rabbi it had chosen, that was counterbalanced by him hearing from dozens of people across the country who were able to reconnect with him because of the book. He's surprised by everything that's happened at the synagogue since he agreed to do this."
Luke: "I heard David talk about the book from the pulpit and he indicated the book was controversial and many of his peers were upset with it."
Stephen: "I heard that he said that. He hasn't said it to me. David and his father were the first ones to read it once it was finished. My interactions with them happened long before any of their colleagues had read the book.
"I didn't give it to the [Wolpes] for their comments. When it was done and on its way to press, I felt they should be the first persons to read it. They were both supportive. They both had wondered for a long time what the hell I could be doing, how I could get a book out of the things that I was talking to them about. I think all the people I was talking to wondered how I was going to get a book out of it. They were happy to help but they all thought about five people will read this.
"Rabbi [Michael] Monson, my teacher and one of the first persons involved [with this book], recently admitted to me that when I first came to him with the idea, he thought, 'Five people are going to read this book and I'm going to get mine for free.' They've been pleasantly surprised. I'm not surprised.
"People are interested in the life of the clergy. And the aspects of the book that deal with my own search for spirituality after my father's death, that's also a universal theme.
"David and his father were generous with their comments and open about the things they didn't love about the book. They've been terrific about it. I don't think they want to fight my fights for me but David was the first rabbi in the country to make sure that I was coming to his synagogue. Unfortunately, his synagogue had so many speakers he couldn't get me on the calendar until January. Sinai Temple was the first or second synagogue in the country to extend an invitation to me to come to speak. At the time, it was a bold thing to do. Now many dozens of synagogues have invited me."
Luke: "What's the latest on Rabbi Gerald Wolpe?"
Stephen: "He still runs the Finkelstein Institute at JTS. Since Rabbi [Jacob] Herber left Har Zion [the replacement for Rabbi Gerald Wolpe who resigned in October, 2002] and Jeff Blum, president of the synagogue, resigned at the same time."
Stephen: "You have to read the Afterword of the book in the paperback edition. It comes out in the fall. I'm just piecing it together myself. I wasn't covering it in real time as it was happening.
"It's common for synagogues that choose rabbis after someone has been there for 30 years, to either fire or not renew the contract of the rabbi they chose. The other large Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia that replaced its rabbi about the same time, didn't renew his contract either."
Luke: "How does Rabbi Jacob Herber feel about your book?"
Stephen: "I don't know. When it came out, he was embroiled in his own professional situation and I'm sure I was the least of his concerns."
Luke: "Have any of the principle characters in the book told you that they regret talking to you?"
Stephen: "No, although I can't say I've spoken to all of them. But whenever you are involved in a big journalistic project, the response of the sources and subjects changes over time. The year before my father died, I had written a long piece about him and about a fishing trip my brothers and I had taken with him. It came out and everybody loved it and he hated it because it read like his eulogy. He later came to like it. Sadly, it ended up being used at his eulogy. When someone writes about you in a long-form piece, your reaction to it changes over time.
"I have heard that the book became an issue in Jeff Blum's presidency of the synagogue, something he didn't expect or want to happen."
Luke: "Jeff and his wife Cindy gave you the scoop on what was going on in the search committee?"
Stephen: "The book makes it seem that way because they were the most open of many inside sources. I knew what was going on in the search committee from other members in addition to Cindy. Committees and synagogues are semi-permeable membranes. People weren't calling me after meetings saying, 'Here's what happened.' I would reconstruct things and then I would talk to them and they would tell me. You hear gossip in a synagogue from lots of people. You cover a synagogue like you'd cover anything else as a journalist, by talking to people at public events... People talk. I see nothing wrong with that. This is not a star chamber here. The search committee is there as representatives of the congregation. Anyone in the congregation should be able to know what is going on in those interviews. Secrecy can be dangerous for communities. In this case, if there had been less secrecy, there might've been more names tossed in and more people paying attention to different candidates. I'm not a big fan of secrecy."
Luke chuckles to himself.
Stephen: "Cindy and Jeff were not the only ones who helped me. When you're writing a book, there are structural issues. The fewer characters you have that you can delve in more richly, the better. If I had four or five more people on the search committee that you had to keep straight in your mind that wouldn't' help. There was another character from the search committee that I had to cut out of the book at the last minute for structural reasons."
Luke: "How did Rabbi Leonid Feldman react to your book?"
Stephen: "I haven't heard from him. Most of the stuff I wrote about him came from previously published material."
Luke: "Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer? You called him a flake and an egotist."
Stephen: "I hear from him a lot. He liked the book. We had several long email discussions about what egotism and flakery meant. Occasionally he will sign his emails to me, 'Love, the flakey egotist Moshe.' He's a smart funny guy and has been nothing but supportive. I only wish that we could be in the same city so we could play basketball.
"People are fascinated by the process of you turning them into a character in a book. A lot of these are public people who already see themselves as characters in books, they just assumed they would be their own books. You have people who are used to creating a certain world around themselves. Anything you interpret differently than they do they will make a big deal out of.
"I do see rabbis as heroic. I see the work of the synagogue as heroic. If I'm guilty of elevating the responsibilities of the synagogue president, cantor or rabbi, that's OK This book romanticizes what clergy do. It makes it seem more important than what these people feel in their day-to-day lives."
Luke: "Rabbi Ackerman?"
Stephen: "I have not spoken to him. I don't think he's all that thrilled. He did do the fact-checking for the book and everything that is in there about him, he verified. There are a couple of things he asked me to take out of the book and I did. People have told me he's upset. I heard an interesting story from the guy who is now the president of Rabbi Ackerman's synagogue. He came to one of my readings and said Rabbi Ackerman was upset with the book and that Rabbi Ackerman suggested to people that they shouldn't read it. The president told me, 'I've been telling people they should read it. I've told them that if they buy the book and they don't like it, I will buy it back from them. Fifteen members of the congregation have taken me up on my offer and no one has asked for their money back.'
"The things that the rabbi is going to be upset about in this book are inside-baseball sorts of things. I accurately portray a difficult point in his life. He wanted this job [as rabbi of Har Zion] and ended up turning it down because he had to choose between his family and his career. I don't think I was in any way unfair or insensitive in characterizing that because I could feel his pain."
Luke: "Rabbi Joel Meyers, head of the Rabbinical Assembly [the Conservative rabbis union]?"
Stephen: "I haven't spoken to him. Again, I don't take it as meaning anything. I saw him respond in the Forward."
Luke: "Yeah, he said he'd heard from 40-50 colleagues, all with negative things to say [about the book]."
Stephen: "I found that hard to believe because I know of a dozen people who have spoken to him with positive things to say. Look, a book like this is going to cause unrest in the Rabbinical Assembly for one big reason - because it accurately mirrors just how hard it is to be a rabbi. I swear that being a rabbi is the hardest job in America. There are some rabbis who are upset that some of the rabbis names are used. I'm not sure that they understand that 99% of the rabbis mentioned in the book were interviewed on the record in the book and had no issue with their names being used."
Luke: "When I read the Forward article about the complaints by rabbis about your book, I was furious. It represented how these guys are so protected in Jewish journalism generally that this is the first time they've had to deal with any real journalism. They've reacted angrily because for the first time they've been treated as the public figures that they are and they can't control their own image."
Stephen: "This debate about whether rabbis are public figures is happening among a small group of people. Rabbis are public figures. A better conversation I haven't seen raised is whether a sanctuary service is open to the public."
Luke: "Of course it is."
Stephen: "I think it is too but I would've been interested to see somebody raise the question of whether covering a bar mitzvah is cool.
"I think it depends on your journalistic ethics. If you go into a bar mitzvah and write about the excess of it without any real knowledge of what is going on, that's bad. A lot of people do that. I've read many stories over the years about congregations and bar mitzvahs that are written by people who really are self-hating Jews who go there and don't even know the people but are so upset because of the clothes and the cost of the catering. I don't care how much money people have. All the money in the world didn't help this congregation have an easier time picking a rabbi. And all the money in the world doesn't help you lead a more spiritual life. All the money in the world doesn't keep your Dad from dying."
Luke: "You haven't experienced a backlash of people saying, 'Oooh, I'm scared to have you here at my bar mitzvah.'"
Stephen: "I've lived my whole life with a certain number of people, just before saying something to me, saying, 'Oh geez, I don't know if I want to say that because I might see it in print somewhere,' starting with my mother. I've had more people say to me, 'Why don't you come write a book about my congregation?' than people say, 'Better not say that.'
"I try to make people understand when I'm working. If I'm going to write about something, I will go back to the person and say, 'Look, this happened in casual conversation but I want to write about it. How do you feel about that?' It rarely happens with me that people I actually interviewed step forward and say I did the wrong thing. I'm not somebody who sneaks around. I'm interested in doing the sort of projects that people cooperate with because you get a depth that you can't get any other way."
Luke: "Your book reminded me of They Shall Be My People by Paul Wilkes. [Wilkes spent one year with Jay Rosenbaum, the 42-year-old rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in an upper-middle-class community in Worcester, Massachusetts.]"
Stephen, taken aback: "OK."
Luke: "Did you read that book?"
Luke: "Didn't you see a lot of similarities?"
Stephen: "Not really, because the guy who wrote it wasn't Jewish. To me, the books are only similar because they're both set in a synagogue. He came to that book because he's a writer about religion and this was his next religion to write about. I came to this book because my Dad died and I began rediscovering my own religion and saw this as a way of doing journalism on that. The intents of the books are totally different."
Luke: "What's your critique of his book?"
Stephen: "That he picked a congregation where not much happened. And because he wasn't Jewish, there were parts of the book that struck me as 'Margaret Mead among the Jews.'"
Luke: "What do you mean?"
Stephen: "He was an outsider observing the mores, an anthropological study. He was only interested in writing a book about the life of a synagogue. A lot of my book is based on my own life and search as a Jew and my relationships with the people involved. They were different because I was a Jew coming back after mourning. A Christian journalist from The New Yorker is going to have a different way of doing things. I imagine he would be more likely to write a book like mine about his own religion.
"I remember the controversies about his book. People were amazed that his wife had spoken out so boldly."
Luke: "She was so bitter about the congregation."
Stephen: "[Paul Wilkes] is a religion writer and I'm not. I had different goals than he did. But if people read my book and want to know more about synagogue life, they would be well-served by reading his book or Kaddish [by Leon Wieseltier]."
Luke: "I found Kaddish impenetrable. He's a terrible writer."
Stephen: "I don't think he's a terrible writer. There are things in it that are wonderful and things in it that are difficult but I think it is an important book. I'd be lying if I said I read every word of it. His dad died about a month after mine. We started working on our projects about the same time. I was fascinated to see somebody do an exploration of Judaism in the aftermath of their father's death. I found it interesting to see where his mind went during minyan compared to where my mind went during minyan. Both these books grew out of the time you have during minyan sitting around thinking about things. He's read a lot more stuff than me and I've interviewed a lot more people than him."
Luke: "What did you think of Samuel Freedman's book Jew vs Jew?"
Stephen: "I liked it. It's much more about political issues between the Jewish denominations. Sam and I have become friendly. His book about the black church, Upon This Rock, is closer to the kind of project I did. Sam was the first person to agree to blurb my book. I'm teaching at Columbia now in part because of his support. Freedman blazed the trail for real journalism about Judaism and with Upon This Rock encouraged journalism about other religious organizations."
Luke: "Reading your book confirmed to me the lack of serious religiosity in Reform and Conservative Judaism. I thought, sheesh, this is so much about ego and politics and there's a lack of guarding the commandments."
Stephen: "I don't agree with you. If your belief system and Jewish denomination is different, it will be easy to say one group is less Jewish than another. I know many people in the Conservative and Reform movements who are into their Judaism in a serious spiritual way. I'd like to think that I'm one of them. I know many people who are modern Orthodox who would be open to the same kind of criticisms [from those to the religious right of them].
"I was on a panel in Seattle where they asked you to go through a checklist in front of the people just so they knew your level of practice - how many times do you go to synagogue? What your denomination is. Do you celebrate shabbos?
"I don't believe in religious checklists. If people go to synagogue, far be it from me to criticize their Judaism. Until you know what someone's religion means to them and how they connect to it... Suggesting that one movement or one person is more spiritual than another is a waste of time, and such comments usually come from bad information. American Jews are constantly inventing their relationship with their religion and most people around them don't know what they really do and what they really feel. It is easy for you to say all Reform people do not really have Jewish souls because I'm modern Orthodox. I'd say to you, do the reporting and come back and tell me whether it is true.
"I had to catch myself throughout the book because I'm Conservative and my characters would often make knee-jerk comments about the Reform movement. There are a few passing things I said about the Reform movement [in the book] that I will likely temper in the paperback because they betray a certain bias. The new generation of Reform Jews is not that different from the previous generation of Conservative Jews. Can we say as Jews, this person's practice is less valid than mine? I don't buy it."
Luke: "You don't think we can judge if some people's practices are less valid than others?"
Stephen: "No because mostly it comes from denominational bias. I don't believe in denominational bias. The denomination that I prefer and that I grew up in is Conservative Judaism [the middle path between Orthodox and Reform]. It behooves me to be respectful of the other streams of Judaism. We're all Jews. I don't believe in telling other people what they're supposed to do. I don't believe that is what the religion is about."
Luke: "Do you believe there are better and worse writers?"
Five second pause, the longest pause Stephen has taken on any of my questions.
Stephen: "That's an interesting question. Umm, uhh, of course. That's my taste."
Luke: "It's only your taste? There's no objective..."
Stephen: "I'm sure there's an objective excellent way of doing it to. There's a difference between being a writer and being Jewish."
Luke: "So you don't think there's excellence in being Jewish?"
Stephen laughs derisively: "Excellence? No."
Luke: "You can be excellent in playing the piano or in playing football or in almost anything, but when it comes to one's Jewish..."
Stephen: "Football is a good example. There's all kinds of excellence in football. There's kicking, passing, running, coaching, support... Some appreciated and some not. Some that lead to winning and some don't. That comparison I'll give you. If you want to use a tennis comparison, no. You don't compare Jews one up and have a match and then somebody can be the best."
Luke: "You don't think a Jew who is fully observant of Jewish Law and gives 10% of his income to charity is a better Jew than someone who goes to synagogue twice a year and gives one percent of his income [everything else being equal]?"
Stephen: "I don't judge people like that. I know some people who rarely go to synagogue who are fine, real Jews who would do anything for you. And I know Orthodox Jews who go to synagogue and follow all the rules and give more than 10% of their income and are loathsome. Those things that you laid out are not enough information for me. I think that kind of judgmentalism is dangerous in Judaism. I think it's important for all Jewish synagogues and all Jewish faiths to get people more involved but without judging. I've been guilty since my father died of proselytizing. When someone I know has had a death in their family, I proselytize them and ask that they understand that Judaism, like other religions, has mourning rituals that might have value for them. That they would mourn their loved ones without organized religion because they've had bad experiences with organized religion in their past, is sad. I wouldn't say that they are not as good a Jew as I am because they didn't [mourn in the Jewish way].
"These are life and death things. It's not some kind of a pissing contest to see who can keep more mitzvahs. I'm not against people being observant if they want to be observant. I'm not against people being unobservant. The first person who says to me that I don't go to shul enough, I don't think that's the deal. That's not my idea of what a powerful spiritual Judaism is about. There are going to be times in your life when you are going to want to be observant and there are going to be times in your life when you're not. People who are telling other people how they should worship, I thought there were prohibitions in Jewish Law against that?"
Stephen: "About being judgmental. Telling other people what to do."
Luke: "No. But there aren't any prohibitions in Jewish Law against being judgmental."
Stephen: "Well, there should be. You want to talk about lashon hara? Those are the things I find to be difficult gossip. That kind of thinking is dangerous. I understand there's a group dynamic in all the denominations to try to get people to be as observant as they can. You're modern Orthodox. There are hardcore Orthodox who say that what you do is worse than what I do because I don't claim to be Orthodox.
"I wish these denominational issues were more covered by the press. The handwringing over whether women had equal rights in Conservative Judaism was a fascinating counterpoint to the sexual revolution in America. The desire of the Reform movement to [ordain] homosexuals. The Conservative movement is still not sure."
Luke: "Do you have close friends who are Orthodox?"
Stephen: "Yeah, one of my close friends that I grew up with is Orthodox and lives in Israel. I've been friends with a lot of Ramahniks (attended the Conservative summer camps) who ended up modern Orthodox. I have friends who grew up Reform who are now Conservative. That to me is more 100-times shocking. Reform Judaism during the 1950s and 1960s was so unobservant [of Jewish Law]. The Reform movement is getting more Conservative. More and more Reform rabbis coming out of the seminary will not perform mixed-marriages. That was the reason many Jews left Conservative Judaism for Reform Judaism.
"It would be great if these things were catalogued and written about outside of the movements themselves. A non-Jewish journalist will think that you just ask a rabbi to learn what the law is. Because that's their understanding of Catholicism. I could interview 50 different rabbis and still not get every nuance of the differences in what American rabbis think about things."
Luke: "Did anyone give you a hard time on these seven words on page 93? 'In Judaism, belief in God is optional...'"
Stephen: "Those seven words have had more discussion than any other seven words in the book."
Luke: "I about had a heart attack when I read that."
Stephen: "I saw a sermon posted from an Anglican church last week in which those words were a jumping off point for his sermon. I've seen letters to the editor about those words.
"Most non-Jews don't understand that the concept of wrestling with belief in God is an important part of Judaism and you don't get excommunicated because you admit that you do it. Jews take that for granted. Most Christians would find that to be heresy."
Luke: "Any Orthodox Jew [by definition] would find that heretical."
Stephen: "Some would and some wouldn't.
"I had many readers, Jewish and Gentile alike, that found that Rabbi [Gerald] Wolpe was so open with his personal wrestling with belief in God to be shocking."
Luke: "Does Rabbi Gerald Wolpe believe in a personal God?"
Stephen: "I think he struggles with it more than his son David does."
Luke: "He was influenced by the founder Mordecai Kaplan, who was an atheist."
Stephen: "Kaplan wasn't an atheist."
Luke: "He believed that God was the force that made for righteousness, but not a personal God."
Stephen: "That's not atheism. I'm no expert but Kaplan would not have identified himself as an atheist. An Orthodox person might, but that's dismissive. Much of what Kaplan said [sociologically] has been thoroughly accepted into Judaism, including modern Orthodoxy [such as the bat mitzvah]."
Stephen and I have a long discussion about whether or not Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was an atheist.
Stephen: "Rabbi [Gerald] Wolpe is not a Godless man. He grew up wrestling with God in a different way than his son did after David stopped being a devout atheist and decided to be a rabbi. Having different views of God is all part of being Jewish. I don't have all the answers and neither does anybody else. The history of the religion is people asking good questions. Jews ask good questions. There are billions of answers in Judaism. You don't get thrown out of the religion if you bring up heretical concepts.
"The religion is about having the discussion. That's what the rabbis did [in the Talmud]. They debated. They argued. I assume that you're a convert from something less open-minded when having debates about theology."
Luke: "Orthodox Judaism is not open-minded."
Stephen: "Modern Orthodoxy is close to where most Conservative rabbis are. There are plenty of people who describe themselves as modern Orthodox who don't do anything either, which is fine. I don't think all the people who [only] come to Har Zion two times a year and fill up that auditorium are bad people.
"I think a lot of people have read my book and seen Judaism in a different more approachable way.
"Orthodox Judaism appears more vibrant now than it did 20 years ago. This is not a competition. If it ebbs and flows, it doesn't mean that one group is winning and one group is losing. That's American thinking transposed on to Judaism. That's not in our theology. This is not a race who can sign up more guys. Every rabbi in the country wants a higher percentage of his or her flock to be more observant and every other rabbi supports that rabbi's desire to have that be the case. The Torah invites everybody to learn from it and to read from it but you can't quantify how it's going.
"I came back to practicing Judaism when my Dad died and I just happened to come to the right synagogue where I liked the rabbis, where that I was pretty bad at minyaning didn't matter because I felt supported, and where I could ask stupid questions and nobody said, that's a stupid question. I could've easily ended up at another synagogue where that was not the case. If I had only gone to that Orthodox minyan I wrote about... The guy who ran that minyan was typically Orthodox, judgmental. I remember getting into a fight with him once about who was a Jew. He didn't believe that people converted by Conservative rabbis were Jewish. He represented what I hate about Judaism or any religion - people telling other people how to be religious. If that had been my main minyan, my experience would've been different. I might not have written a book about that."
Luke's thoughts on his interview with Stephen Fried:
* I'd never say something so stupid as that Reform Jews or any type of Jews don't have Jewish souls. I don't comment on people's level of spirituality or their relationship to God. I do believe there are demonstrable behavioral ways, such as the commandments, to judge how well someone lives up to Judaism, the only gauge of someone's excellence in Jewishness.
I suspect Stephen would never take as nonjudgmental approach to any writer working for him as he does for the ways Jews practice their religion.
Now one can be a bad Jew and a good person though you can't be a good Jew and a bad person, because a good Jew by definition treats other people properly.
* Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was an a-theist. He had no belief in a personal God. I'm right.
* As for the assertion that Judaism is all about asking questions and doesn't throw you out for heresy, that will come as news to the thousands of Jews over the years, such as Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya in the Talmud, Spinoza in 17th century Holland and those who believe in Jesus Christ, who've been thrown out of the Jewish people for bringing up heretical concepts. Try bringing up Jesus Christ as God and Messiah in shul and you will find yourself tossed out. There isn't nearly as much dogma in Judaism as in Christianity but Judaism still has some - belief in the oneness, eternality, omniscence and incorporeality of God, who gave the Torah and rewards and punishes in this world and the world to come.
Non-Orthodox forms of Judaism have almost no dogma and are far more intellectually open than fundamentalist religions, and perhaps more open than mainstream Protestantism.
* Relations between Conservative and Orthodox are probably worse in Los Angeles than anywhere in the country, thanks in part to Rabbi David Wolpe's controversy over the historicity of the Exodus.
Stephen's wife, novelist Diane Ayres, has a website www.othergirlsbook.com for her latest.
Stephen Fried will be in California at the end of January to discuss and sign his new book The New Rabbi (Bantam). On Tuesday, January 28, at 7 pm he will speak in Berkeley at Netivot Shalom, at the invitation of Rabbi Stuart L. Kelman
On Wednesday January 29 at 7:30 pm he will appear in Los Angeles at Sinai Temple, in a literary evening with Rabbi David Wolpe. (Wolpe and his father, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, are main characters in The New Rabbi.)
For information about the events: Netivot Shalom 1841 Berkeley Way Berkeley, CA 94703 (510) 549-9447
Sinai Temple 10400 Wilshire Boulevard Library Director Lisa Silverman: 310-481-3218
For press and bookstore inquiries: Chris Artis, Bantam Books, 212-782-9037 email@example.com
To schedule other synagogue events: Carolyn Hessel, Jewish Book Council, 212-532-4949 x 297 firstname.lastname@example.org
ROBERT SIEGEL, host of NPR: When a congregation takes on a new senior clergyman, it expresses a view of itself and a concept of leadership, not to mention a sense of what religion is all about. Different faiths and denominations hire their clergy in different ways. In Conservative Judaism, it is a congregational choice overseen by a national commission in New York. Journalist Stephen Fried followed that process at one Philadelphia synagogue, where the road from one senior rabbi to the next was anything but smooth. He tells the story in his book "The New Rabbi." Stephen Fried, first, the specifics: the congregation and the rabbi who retired from its pulpit.
Mr. STEPHEN FRIED (Journalist; Author, "The New Rabbi"): Har Zion is a large suburban congregation of about 1,400 families, quite wealthy, a lot of powerful big (Yiddish spoken) as they call him. And the rabbi who retired is named Gerald Wolpe, a brilliant sermonizer and sort of synagogue politician, who had been at the pulpit for 30 years.
SIEGEL: Why did they find it so difficult to fill his shoes?
Mr. FRIED: It's very common, not just in Conservative Judaism, in all Judaism, and I think in all religions, when you have to replace a clergyman who's been in the position for 10, 20, 30 years, you're talking about not just replacing a man, but changing generations within the house of worship. So many, many issues come up that are beyond the issue of replacing the clergyman. But, of course, they're not the same kind of people who were going into the clergy today. And my generation--I'm 44--are a lot more demanding, more consumer oriented about what they're looking for in clergy than our parents were, who were a little bit more in awe of their clergy just as they were their doctors and everybody else.
SIEGEL: Yeah. You make the observation in the book that the rabbi used to be more knowledgeable about everything and better educated than nearly everybody in his congregation. That's not true anymore.
Mr. FRIED: Well, it's an interesting dynamic. They used to joke that the best rabbi sermonized from The New York Times based on the idea that they had large immigrant communities who were first-generation entrepreneurs and were not necessarily reading The New York Times. One rabbi joked to me today, you know, `Many people in my congregation work for The New York Times or read The New York Times, so I can't go there.' So, yes, you have many people in congregations who have master's degrees, PhDs and that changes the dynamics of--the rabbi tends to be more knowledgeable about religious issues. The next generation of rabbis may be only learned in Judaism.
SIEGEL: I came away from your book very struck by the demands on a rabbi and I suppose on other clergymen. They're expected to be scholarly and magisterial, but compassionate with a great bedside manner, good with kids and senior citizens. And you write at one point, `A new rabbi is expected to have all the wisdom of the old rabbi, plus all of the energy that he expended acquiring that wisdom.'
Mr. FRIED: Yeah, I think people in congregations have no idea how much demand they put on their clergy, because they only see it in terms of what they personally ask for, and you can't imagine--I mean, sitting as I did as a journalist watching the rabbi work, to see just the sheer number of funerals, of people coming to them with the best or worst things that have happened in their lives. It's amazing that they can deal with it, plus the internal pressures. Even though the rabbi doesn't run a house of worship--the rabbi's like, you know, the leader in some way, but he can be fired. He's a guy who's hired and who can be fired.
SIEGEL: At the beginning of this book, you have a scene, which made me wonder what it's like to be a rabbi, of Gerald Wolpe conducting a bat mitzvah--the girl has turned 13 years old--and a big powerful, rich and splintered family carrying on very untowardly. It just seems an extraordinary moment for a rabbi to deal with.
Mr. FRIED: It was. And it was an extraordinary moment journalistically, too. Basically, what happened was this young girl kind of dissed her mother from the bima during her revered rabbi speech.
SIEGEL: That's the pulpit, the bima, right.
Mr. FRIED: Yes, from the pulpit. And basically, the mother got up and walked out, and her family got up and walked out with her. And they came back later and it was a very difficult day. And afterwards, Rabbi Wolpe was very open with me in talking both about the difficulty of this family, but it was quite fascinating to me just the difficulty of being in the clergy and dealing with splintered families, because these families--they're splintered--some of them have spoken to each other in years. But when they come into the house of worship for a rite of passage like a bat mitzvah, they want everything to be sort of normal, but it's not. And the negotiations going on behind the scenes in this bat mitzvah really were quite emotional and sometimes very painful.
SIEGEL: The job, ultimately, went to the young assistant rabbi.
Mr. FRIED: Yes.
SIEGEL: And that was a very controversial decision, because it violated national guidelines on who's eligible to apply for such a job.
Mr. FRIED: Yes. In the Conservative rabbinate, they have what they don't like to call a union, but it is a union. And the rules are that you can't be the rabbi of a very large congregation unless you've had 10 years experience or six years experience in that particular congregation. And usually what you want is to have experience at a smaller congregation so you can figure out what it is like to be a pulpit rabbi with, say, 200 families, then 500 families. Then you work your way up, because once you're at 1,400 families a lot of your life is damage control, just because the sheer volume of people who need your attention and the sheer number of people you have to impress when you sermonize. So the rules are there to protect the rabbis as much as the congregations, but when push comes to shove, people want what they want. And in this case, they had actually--part of the drama was they choose a rabbi--at the very last minute, he pulled out. And then they were left to try to figure out what to do. And then they spent another two years trying to figure out what to do, eventually elevating their assistant rabbi, who they had some problems with, but they also had, at that point, problems with the process. They needed to put a new rabbi in place. It's very difficult. It's very difficult to replace a longtime rabbi, and many times, people don't do it all that well.
SIEGEL: If, in the end, the selection of Jacob Herber, the assistant rabbi, as the rabbi reflects something about congregation Har Zion, what does it say about them?
Mr. FRIED: Well, since they're still sort of tussling over whether they made the right decision, I would say that right now it reflects their confusion and the difficulty of making this kind of decision. So I think that it's going to be five years before you can really answer that question.
SIEGEL: There's a great moment, though, when Jacob Herber, the assistant rabbi, has control on an interim basis. He hasn't yet been chosen for anything--an interim basis. And he has a policy decision to make about the wearing of the kipah, the wearing of the yarmulke, in the synagogue.
Mr. FRIED: Yes, it might seem like a small thing, which is he was raising the point about whether people should--men should cover their heads all the time when they're in the synagogue or just when they' re in the main sanctuary. But the issue really had to do with him trying to create his own sort of synagogue for himself. And part of what's interesting here is watching a young rabbi trying to develop as an executive, trying to figure out what decisions he can make to make a presence in the synagogue himself when he's in the shadow of this rabbi who's been there for 30 years. So he makes this his first stand that all men are going to have their heads covered. And A.M. Rosenthal comes in to speak--it's the first big event of the synagogue after...
The former editor of The New York Times, and they insist that people cover their heads. And this is for Rabbi Herber a big victory, because it means that he has, at a secular event in that congregation, had all the men cover their heads. And these decisions--look, these decisions about what rituals are important to us are being argued in the Conservative movement and Reform movement. People from my generation, 40s, as they come back into the religion are asking themselves: `Am I going to do the same exact stuff my parents did, or is my practice going to be different and more modernized or am I going to go back to something that my parents would have never done?' So these things you can really argue about them, to the wearing of kipah, who's going to be able to be married and bar and bat mitzvahed at the synagogue. There's a lot of questions that will really determine whether somebody wants to stay with their religion.
Luke and Jill and Cathy Sitting In A Tree Kissing
From LaExaminer.com: Luke Ford has posted extensive Q & A interviews with Jill Stewart and Catherine Seipp. Here's some Jill on working for the LA Times metro section during the Shelby Coffey era: "the City Desk, as a matter of routine, would take out the best quotes. The most controversial, hot-headed stuff, stuff they don't think the public could handle." Jill on her work making people mad: "I've never really felt any serious backlash. I don't really care if I piss people off. I like that it makes people talk, discuss and argue." On Richard Riordan: "He liked getting criticized. He enjoys the give and take of politics." Cathy, in a separate interview, dishes a little to Salon: "The only time I got mad when I was fired from some place was Salon because they never bothered to tell me. I only found out when a reader emailed me and said, 'They reorganized the whole look of the site. Are they keeping your column?' I called the sub-editor that I worked with and he said, 'Oh yeah, I was going to call you. We're dropping the column but you can still pitch us with stories.'" Cathy on Brill's Content: "That was the world's most boring magazine." and "The whole concept now [of a monthly magazine about the media] is dated now because blogs have taken fact-checking to a whole new level." And Cathy's favorite media writers: "Most of the ones who write specifically about the media are boring except for the New York Observer. I will say that boring old Tim Rutten is actually a good reporter and has worked himself up into some good columns. David Shaw's even more lame. I don't think they know what to do with him. He's got the Pulitzer. He's there. They've got to give him something to do. I like the bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, Matt Welch and Ken Layne. My favorite writers aren't necessarily writing about the media. Mark Steyn does a lot of great things."
Lloyd writes LaExaminer.com: "Reading and listening to these two is like being 16 again with the hottest, smartest, most kickass teacher in the whole school and you hang on every sentence. Ladies we're so grateful to have you. If only life were fair. Luke, you rule."