Yesterday's News Tomorrow: Inside American Jewish Journalism is the first book-length examination of contemporary American Jewish journalism.
“The history of Jewish journalism in the United States presents something of a challenge. Traditionally, historians like to recount the story of progress: development onward and upward from primitive origins to flourishing contemporary success. The history of Jewish journalism in the US, by contrast, represents, at least until recently, a story of marked decay.” —Dr. Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis University
“Jewish newspapers would be more compelling if Jewish readers wanted a more compelling paper. I can’t tell you how many times over the years that I’ve heard readers say, ‘I read your paper on Shabbat. I don’t want to be disturbed. I just want to read nice Jewish news. I don’t want things to make me angry.’ That makes our role that much more difficult.” —Marc S. Klein, editor of j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California
Here are two forewords too hot to be included in the print edition:
Chaim Amalek writes:
One of the advantage of writing under a pseudonym is that one can say pretty much whatever he damn well feels like saying without fear of the consequences of offending others. It takes a man with tefillim (read “balls,” for the unchurched amongst you) of steel to use his true Christian name to do otherwise and, as became clear to me years ago, Luke F-rd is that man.
Just consider this: here before you is a Jew who more than anything else in the world, craves acceptance by the Gedolim of American Jewish life, followed only at some remove by his desire for acceptance as a journalist among journalists. So what does he do? He writes a book that is guaranteed to piss off exactly these groups, and all for the greater good of each. How can you not respect that?
Likely the Gedolim of American Jewish life will not. I first became dimly aware of them when I was a yeshiva bachur (student at a Jewish Madrassa studying Midrash), working a day joy in Mendal Slutsky’s Coital Clothery on New York’s fabled Lower East Side. My job entailed drilling holes into the boards of wood then favored by the hyper-Orthodox as a means of introducing modesty into the marital bed. Less religious Jews favored mere cloth; the genius of my boss was in realizing that in the endless struggle to prove oneself more observant than the tzadik next door, Orthodox Jews would move past billowing cloth to more rigid, modest materials like plywood. For this to function, holes had to be drilled (and oh but their size was a contentious matter!), and I was the man with the surest means for drilling such holes into coital modesty shields.
But the work was, of course, nothing if not boring, so I started reading the old Jewish newspapers that were lying about. I began with The Jewish Press out of Brooklyn, and then graduated to the more mainstream papers based in Manhattan. They were all the same: worshipful of power, boring, afraid to tell the truth to the masses of generally ignorant Jews. Luke F-rd is none of these things. He tells it like it is no matter what the consequences. But don’t you take my word for it – turn the page, and see for yourself.
“Chaim Amalek” is a Jewish apostate living on the Upper West Side.
Ron Sullivan writes this Foreword:
While most of us don't like controversy, some of us must endure it. But then there are guys like Luke Ford who not only endure controversy, they thrive on it. And when it's not around, they'll stir it up.
As a writer, Luke specializes in controversy. He loves crime, sexual sin, corruption, cowardice, and human weakness in general.
I endure controversy. I don't love it. And I didn't love it when Luke pushed me about my alleged connections to the Mafia and what my Judaism means to me.
I'm a converted Jew - which, as with organized crime - I could care less about. When you get to be my age, 65, any faith is a given. I do business with both the righteous and the wicked.
So when Luke asked me to write something for his new book, I had no idea what to write. Most writers want "qualified" people to say something about their books that will help to sell more books. But after thinking about Luke some more, I realized that Luke really doesn't care if he sells his book or not.
Luke happens to be known by more people than I am these days; even though he's not liked much. I don't expect that many of the people in this book are going to like him either.
But I happen to like Luke Ford; and up until now, I didn't know why.
Now I know: Luke Ford doesn't care whether I like him or not. What's important to Luke Ford is that he likes the truth.
Obviously Luke has a system for writing books. Yesterday's News Tomorrow is structured just like The Producers. It begins with "What They Said," a series of quotations. Next, a couple of Luke's "friends" contribute Foreword essays. Then comes the body of the work: a whole bunch of interviews, in this case with Jewish journalists (I think).
I don't want to be mean but in accord with my new policy of being completely honest at all times, I would like to say something about the manner in which the book starts. Either Mr Ford thinks that he has so much credibility as a social commentator that he can afford a few jokes at his own expense, or he thinks that he has no credibility whatsoever and thus some nasty remarks can't possibly do him any damage.
A reader not familiar with the Luke Ford œuvre may wonder what he got for his $35.95 (hardcover), $25.95 (softcover) or $6 (eBook) after reading comments like: "I don't understand what you are doing here. Who's your publisher?" (Rabbi Shmuley Boteach), or "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” (Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman).
Such opening remarks don't inspire a lot of confidence in Mr Ford's stature as a player in the world of Jewish journalism. But they're not nearly as damning as Robert Avrech and Matt Welch's Forewords, which are brutal -- totally, absolutely, heartbreakingly brutal. Poor Mr Ford, I thought. These are your friends and yet they write terrible things about you, such as:
Betrayal fascinates Luke Ford. It’s his life. Luke betrayed his father, a prominent Seventh Day Adventist minister, when Luke converted to Judaism. Luke betrayed his second “father” when he sacrificed his friendship with Dennis Prager to work on an unauthorised biography of his hero. Luke betrayed Judaism when he became lukeford.com, the preeminent journalist covering LA’s sordid, mob-infested p___ industry. Luke betrayed his Orthodox synagogue when he lied about his work and told the rabbi that he was a “freelance journalist who writes about crime for a Japanese magazine.”
Then Matt Welch says:
I’ll never forget the first words Luke Ford ever spoke to me. “So Matt,” he said, shaking my hand. “What do you like to think about when you jack off?”
At this point I decided to put the book down and take a shower.
Upon picking up Yesterday's News Tomorrow, I learned that, according to Matt Welch, Mr Ford is, allegedly, a serial liar, a failed actor, a p___ freak, a borderline racist ...
Again: these are Mr Ford's friends. It's all so sad. I couldn't help myself. I started to cry.
Soon my tears of pain turned to tears of joy as I began reading all of Luke's Jewish journalism interviews. Yep, every single one. I didn't skip over any of them. Nope. Read 'em all. Unfortunately, I can't remember what they were about so I won't be able to summarise them here. But I do know that they are good, supergood. They are so moving that upon reading them -- all of them -- I felt like a bird had taken flight inside me (or something).
I'd love to chat about Luke's new book some more. It's good, supergood. All I can say is that it's probably one of the best books ever! I'd put it right up there with the Happy Hooker by Xaviera Hollander (the first book I read cover-to-cover) and the Bible, which I haven't read but I hear is good, supergood -- just like Yesterday's News Tomorrow.
Anyhoo, I have to run. I'm going to dinner with my mother. I think I'll tell her about my new job: I'm a freelance journalist who writes about crime for a Japanese magazine. Honest.
Dull and Mediocre
Ira Stoll is Managing Editor and Vice President of The New York Sun. He has served as Washington correspondent and Managing Editor of the Forward and as North American Editor of The Jerusalem Post.
He was one of the people I approached for an interview for my book but he could never be bothered to respond to me.
He writes in the June 2005 issue of Shma magazine, which is devoted to Jewish journalism:
Dull and mediocre are two words often used to describe Jewish journalism. The complaint is made repeatedly and recently in a self-published book by Luke Ford. Mr. Ford, the son of a Christian evangelist, is best known for a website that graphically chronicles the pornography industry. What standing he has as a critic of Jewish journalism is not exactly clear to me, but his book, Yesterday's News Tomorrow, (iUniverse, 2004) includes transcripts of interviews he conducted with the editor of The Jewish Week of New York, Gary Rosenblatt; with the editor of the Forward, J.J. Goldberg; with the editor of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Rob Eshman; with a professor of journalism at Columbia University, Ari Goldman; and with a few dozen other figures in the world of "Jewish journalism."
In defense of the Jewish journalists, it has to be said that much of American journalism is also dull and mediocre. And it is not only Jewish journalism that falls into the category of dull and mediocre; one of the complaints about American Jewish communal life -- from religious school classes to Shabbat services -- is that it is dull and mediocre.
What's more, as Jews in their second and third and fourth generations in American have integrated into the American mainstream, so have Jewish journalists and Jewish journalism. William Safire's regular interviews with Ariel Sharon for The New York Times op-ed page, often timed to appear on the eve of Jewish holidays, are good Jewish journalism, perhaps better than anything appearing in papers marketed exclusively to a Jewish audience. Jeffrey Goldberg's coverage in The New Yorker magazine of Islamic terrorists in South America and Jewish settlers in Gaza was important Jewish journalism, as is Jacob Gershman's coverage in The New York Sun of the furor over antisemitism in the Middle East studies department at Columbia University. I wrote a story for the Wall Street Journal about shenanigans at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Critics of Jewish journalism miss the point when they fail to take into account the fertile nature of this broader field.
In that context, is there still a place and a need for a Jewish press that is aimed primarily at a Jewish audience? Some of the bulletin board and internal discussion functions once carried out by that press can now be filled by email lists. Certain communities, such as the fervently Orthodox or ardently pro-Israel, will have needs that can be filled only by specialty publications like the daily newspaper Hamodia or the weekly Jewish Press of Brooklyn. Some stories on the internal battles of Jewish organizations are of so little interest to non-Jewish readers that were it not for Jewish publications, the news of the disputes might never be put on the record. But what good is Jewish journalism for non-Orthodox, non-professional, non-semi-professional Jews?
Some Jewish philanthropists and charities who also believe Jewish journalism is valuable subsidize Jewish newspapers and wire services. Sometimes the subsidies reduce the level of liveliness, aggressiveness, and independence. (Ford's book includes what he claims is a copy of an April 7, 1997 memo from leaders of the UJA-Federation of New York to the editor of The Jewish Week in which lay leaders propose "one UJA-Federation cover story per month in all editions" and stipulate that the "UJA-Federation will continue to make its donor list available to The Jewish Week for subscriptions so long as The Jewish Week provides UJA-Federation with the regular 'presence' it needs.") The argument in favor of the subsidies is the claim that in their absence Jewish journalism would die or decline in quality.
Most journalists, and even many publishers, aren't in it for the money; if they were, they'd have gone into far more lucrative fields. Most journalists I know are drawn to the work because they are interested in good stories. The story of the Jews and their God is one of the greatest in human history. It can't honestly be assessed as either dull or mediocre. My own faith is that some way or another it will inspire storytellers to do it justice, as it has now for thousands of years.