I make it a religious obligation to pray in shul several times a week,
if not several times a day. But much of the time, I'm bored out of my
mind. So, following the cues of my mentor Dennis
Prager, I always take a book on Judaism with me to shul, and frequently
finish several books a week while rattling off my prayers by rote. A poor
scribbler, I borrow most of my books from the Los Angeles Public Library.
Once or twice a month, I check www.lapl.org and order in to my branch
most of the new books on my religion.
I know that's not saying much. Most Jewish journalism is sanitized and
dull. All American Jewish newspapers (except the secular Forward) suck.
They're controlled by such powerful institutions as the Jewish Federations
and their idea of reporting is reprinting press releases. As Fried writes
in his prologue:
When I was a kid, my parents had a Jewish bookshelf. On it were three
kinds of books. There were, of course, prayer books and Bilbes: some
ours, some "accidentally" brought home from the synagogue and some-day
to be returned. There were handsomely bound scholarly or historic books,
most accepted as gifts and never read, except to look up something for
Hebrew school. And then there were novels, like The Chosen and the "Tuesday
the Rabbi" books and even Exodus - the pulpit fiction of the day, where
the struggle between religious life and real life was explored in language
that anyone could understand: the human drama of the intersection of
the divine and the secular, the battles between God and man and American
culture, the searches for spiritual awakening and the perfect bar mitzvah
To broach these same subjects in non-fiction, especially the emotional
and financial intricacies of American synagogue life, was considered
dangerous, "bad for the Jews." And, to this day, that's still basically
true. While Jewish bookshelves now teem with a new genre, spiritual
self-help and how-to books, there is still very little journalism on
the lives of American Jews as Jews. The scarcity is such that a recent
book on American rabbis actually resorted to using many examples drawn
from fiction - including quotes form fictitious rabbis - to illustrate
points that everyone knows to be true, but almost no one dares to write
down in narrative non-fiction.
On page 29, he writes:
My unusual request to observe the rabbi interviews and deliberations
[at Har Zion] seems to have aroused equal parts of fascination and suspicion.
Nobody says so, but it is clear that committee members are concerned
about what an unchecked journalist would write a Jewish institution.
All the other volunteer work they do is covered solely by the local
Jewish press [Jewish
Exponent], which is published by the local chapter of "Federation."
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is part of a massive nationwide
fund-raising network, a Jewish United Way, which takes great pains to
make sure possible donors are never caused great pain by its Jewish
media. Har Zion is one of the most charitable congregations in America,
and its members are accustomed to being lionized for their good works.
In fact, whenever the lay media cover anybody Jewish in anything but
a congratulatory way, there is much tongue clicking.
A friend who's worked in the Jewish press emails me June 17, 2004:
If you are really researching Jewish journalism, you should look up
Cohler, who now writes for the NY Daily News, I believe. He was
the great "stir the pot" investigative Jewish journalist in the 1980's
and '90's -- Washington Jewish Week, then NY Jewish Week, and some other
places -- who pissed off the establishment on a regular basis. Federation
types used to turn green at the mention of his name.
The basic problem in Jewish journalism, aside from Federation control
-- is needing to make a living. People hit their 30's and need to support
families. Therefore, they have to join the establishment papers -- as
editors if they want to make any kind of money, or move into better-paying
work. Or, if they are excellent journalists, like Larry, they break
out of the Jewish ghetto.
Or like the late Robert
Friedman, they write about Jewish issues for the Village Voice,
etc. I'm sure that someone like Steven is eventually going to stop being
young and hungry and move on to the mainstream. He's already gotten
stuff in New York Magazine. Before him, Jeff Goldberg climbed from the
Jerusalem Post to the Forward, to NY Magazine, to NY Times Magazine
to the New Yorker (where he just wrote about...Israel).
So you are left with few to no smart and talented people who, once
they get the contacts and have the experience, are willing to work indefinitely
in the trenches of being a reporter for a Jewish paper long-term. No
Seymour Hershes. Hey, if you are willing to live in your hovel indefinitely,
you're the man.
What's interesting is that there is occasionally some good critical
journalism about the American Jewish community going on -- by Israelis.
In Hebrew, of course, though some of it is now translated into English
by Ha'aretz and other places with web sites. The advantage is that they
are outsiders and not part of the community so they don't mind being
critical. The downside is that they often aren't inside enough to get
the stories, or to care deeply about them.
Here's one test I have for if Jewish journalism is any good. If a non-Jew
can pick it up and read it with interest. If you are telling a good story,
it's a good story, even if it is about Jews.
If few Jews who don't have to pick up a Jewish paper (because of their
commitment to Jewish life or their employment therein) do pick up a Jewish
paper, then, Jewish journalism, in the immortal words of Benyamin
Cohen of Jewsweek, "sucks."
Writers who fail to become sufficiently sensitive to taking direction
from Big Brother Federation, writers who fail to love Big Brother Federation
as they should, writers who refuse to take orders from fundraiser organizations
and their hacks, should be kept in bootcamps until the correct result
Those who refuse to act with proper deference to the Federation will
be moved to North Korean-style camps until they learn to love Big Brother
or die trying.
rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman writes 8/5/04: "Dear Mr. Ford: I do not
wish to be included in your book. If there is anything negative about
me or my family in your book you will hear from my attorney."
Professor David Myers writes: "The subject interests me. But I must
say that the fact that you mention in your website those who declined
to be interviewed--most likely, for a million and one reasons--prompts
me to decline. That strikes me as a bit of a low blow."
When I was asked to contribute to the article Lilith magazine
was preparing about Carlebach's alleged sexual misconduct, I refused,
asking why they would not publish articles about living rabbis who have
transgressed, who still transgress, rather than writing about a deceased
rabbi, about cases which cannot be investigated formally because the accused
rabbi is deceased. They chose not to write about living rabbis who are
accused of sexual misconduct. I had the same experience with Moment magazine.
I was told they would not publish anything "against" rabbis. An assistant
editor there told me that a rabbi who was regular contributor to the magazine
had effectively "killed" the article I submitted to them which she, and
possibly others there, wanted to see them publish. Further, in trying
to find a publisher for this book, several large publishing houses told
my agent that they "would not 'take on' the rabbinic establishment."
piece, a rage-filled lament for an Israeli society “already collapsing
like a cheap Jerusalem wedding hall,” first appeared in a major Israeli
daily, Yediot Ahronot, and, although shocking, joined the debate
that thunders continuously through the Israeli public arena. In the
U.S., however, it’s hard to imagine a Jewish newspaper other than the
English-language Forward even touching it. Not only is much of the Jewish
press in America lamely local — asking little more than the hard-hitting
question, Who was bar-mitzvahed this week? — but, for the most part,
their editorial line is filtered through one parochial prism: Is it
good for the Jews? Bankrolled by local Jewish federations, the community
weeklies lack the independence to report critically on the charities
and institutions that make up Jewish organizational life. Dissent or
even debate over Israeli policy is off limits. Like the American Jewish
establishment, these papers swung left-of-center during the Oslo peace
process in the 1990s and, for the three years since the start of the
current Intifada, have swung right, staunchly defending the policies
of Ariel Sharon.
Under two very different editors, as it happens, the Forward, during
both periods, has gone counterclockwise.
Of the prominent American Jewish publications, the Forward alone, now
in its thirteenth year, is truly independent. As a result, its op-ed
page is a rare and influential forum (albeit an elite one, read by no
more than 30,000) where the contentious ideological battles of the Jewish
world are duked out — pro-peace vs. anti-negotiation, Orthodox vs. Reform,
assimilationist vs. isolationist. And with the war on terror turning
any critic of Israel into a suspected traitor, it has not recoiled from
running pieces like Burg’s that undermine the image of communal unity
peddled by the American Jewish establishment.
On its news pages, meanwhile, the Forward covers the Jewish story as
a story, seriously and dispassionately.
Goldberg is fifty-four and has edited the paper for the last three
years. He is a compact and fidgety man who, with owlish glasses and
hair split down the middle, looks like a grown-up Harry Potter. He wants
the Forward, journalistically,
to “reinvent a language that has been lost for seventy years.” By this,
he means finding a way to look at anything, economics or dance, from
a uniquely Jewish perspective — but one that, rather than narrowing
the world, widens to include as much of it as possible.