Yesterdays News Tomorrow: Inside American Jewish Journalism

Glossary Jewish Sources For Journalistic Ethics New Jewish Times

My interviews, profiles and fun stuff include: Yosef Abramowitz Edward Alexander Michael Berenbaum Sally Berkovic James Besser Reuven Blau Stephen Bloom Andrew Silow-Carroll Shmuley Boteach Benyamin Cohen Debra Nussbaum Cohen Robert Cohn Ami Eden Rob Eshman Larry Cohler-Esses Frances Dinkelspiel Matt Dorf Ami Eden Charles Fenyvesi Eric Fingerhut Amnon Finkelstein Sue Fishkoff Samuel Freedman Stephen Fried Robert I. Friedman Heshy Fried Jonathan Friendly Neal Gabler Evan Gahr J.J. Goldberg Ari Goldman Yossi Klein Halevi Malcolm Hoenlein Wayne Hoffman Hollywood Jews Mickey Kaus Eve Kessler Michael Kinsley Amy Klein Marc S. Klein Lisa S. Lenkiewicz Gene Lichtenstein Jason Maoz Jonathan Mark Deborah Dash Moore Alana Newhouse Gustav Niebuhr Ori Nir Steve Rabinowitz Gary Rosenblatt Jennie Rothenberg Debra Rubin Neil Rubin Walter Ruby Douglas Rushkoff Jonathan Sarna Cathy Seipp Rabbi Avi Shafran Mark Silk Sheldon Teitelbaum Jonathan Tobin Tom Tugend David Twersky Teresa Watanabe Steven I. Weiss Leon Wieseltier Paul Wilkes Lauren Winner Yori Yanover Larry Yudelson

May 2004

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.

On Friday night, January 3, 2003, I picked up Stephen Fried's The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches For Its Leader. I was immediately mesmerized and I did not put the book down until I had finished it around midnight. It's the greatest work of Jewish journalism I've ever read.

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 caterer.

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 Larry 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."

(I know Gentile journalists in Los Angeles, such as Matt Welch and Kevin Roderick, who regularly read the Jewish Journal because they enjoy it.)

To further the cause of good Jewish journalism, I suggest that all those who write on anything remotely Jewish (including bloggers and novelists) be forced to take Khmer Rouge-style Federation bootcamps to sensitize themselves to "use Federation as a resource and seek out its perspective on important stories." Only then can we hope to follow in the footsteps of The Jewish Week.

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 is attained.

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.

I tried and failed to get interviews with the following persons: Joseph Aaron, rabbi David Ackerman, rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Peter Beinart, David Biale, Wolfe Blitzer, Aaron Cohen, Vincent Coppola, rabbi Elliot Dorff, rabbi Hillel Goldberg, Aron Hirt-Manheimer, Jeffrey Goldberg, Eric Greenberg, Lawrence Grossman, Sue Grossman, Yossi Klein Halevi, Aron Hirt-Manheimer, Malcolm Hoenlein, Lisa Hostein, Phil Jacobs, Gershon Jacobson, Mark Joffe, Debbie Kalb, Marvin Kalb, Amy Klein, Neal Kozodoy, Jerome Lippman, Seth Lipsky, Arthur Maguida, rabbi Joel Meyers, David Myers, rabbi Perry Netter, Martin Peretz, Naomi Pfefferman, rabbi Perry Rank, Ira Rifkin, Jay Rosen, Jonathan Rosen, rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, Hershel Shanks, Ira Stoll, Teresa Strasser, rabbi Brian Walt, rabbi Arthur Waskow, Teresa Watanabe, Julie Weiner, Lauren Winner, Leon Wieseltier, rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, and Nancy Zuckerbrod.

Reform 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."

Charlotte Schwab writes in her book Sex, Lies, and Rabbis: Breaking a Sacred Trust:

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."


From the Columbia Journalism Review, January/February 2004:

Burg’s 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.

A subscription to Hamodia promised a window onto an insular world. Does the Hasidic daily reflect its readers' lives or obscure them?