I call feisty Eve (EJ) Kessler, deputy managing editor of the Forward (about 25,000 subscriptions compared to 100,000 for the Orthodox Jewish Press), July 1, 2004. She's renown for her hard-hitting coverage of the religious Jewish scene during the 1990s. Now she's deputy managing editor and the national political correspondent and blogger.
"I didn't set out to be a journalist. I was in Zionist activism from the time I was a child. I went to Barnard College (women's college connected to Columbia), majoring in English. I graduated in 1982. I wanted to reconnect with my Judaism. I lived in Israel for most of 1985. I got in my head that I wanted to solve the Arab-Israel conflict. I went to the Columbia School of International Affairs for a masters. I wanted to be a policy analyst. I studied the Middle East and took courses in the journalism school. I graduated in 1989.
"The cold war ended. There were fewer jobs for policy analysts. I still had the question of what was I going to be when I grew up. My professors encouraged me to get a PhD. I wasn't interested in staying in academia because I was interested in getting married and starting a family. I knew I wanted to marry a Jew.
"I took a job as the editor of a magazine for an international Jewish women's organization, ORT.
"I was becoming more religious. I lived on the upper West Side. I was getting swept up in the whole religious revival. I wasn't becoming Orthodox as much as I was becoming Sabbath observant. I was hanging out with a bunch of single Jewish intellectuals in their late 20s, early 30s. Our social lives centered around these elaborate Sabbath lunches we would make at various people's homes. We'd shul hop."
"It was like Sex in the City."
"Right. It's a scene but it was centered around Jewish observance. It wasn't like I decided to be punctiliously Orthoprax. It was there that I met my husband. I had kids.
"The Forward was launched in 1990 in English by Seth Lipsky. Forward is a tradition in newspapering. It's 109 years old. In the 1920s, it was a Yiddish daily that reached a quarter of a million people, which was more than The New York Times at the time. Forward was what our grandparents read. It was part of a whole wave of Jewish working-class activism.
"I called up Jonathan Rosen and asked him if there was anything I could do for him. He assigned me a book to review. It was one of those fateful things that starts you on an intellectual journey. It was probably the single most life-changing piece I ever wrote. "The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism," by Tamar Frankiel.
"It's not that the book was so great. It was a middling book. But it started my writing about Judaism. I was practicing Judaism but I had never approached it from an intellectual vein. In theory I was editing a women's magazine, but it wasn't something that I was approaching consciously.
"I started reviewing books and writing about religion. I started writing about what my life was about.
"In 1996, I was living in Palo Alto, CA. I was the mother of two. They invited me to become a staff writer. I moved back to New York. They turned me into a full-time reporter."
"When did you get pulled off the religion beat?"
"That's a whole different story. I took myself off the religion beat. It's about what happened in 2000 when Lipsky and the Forward Association had their falling out. They hadn't yet hired a replacement. They asked me to be the acting editor. I'm the only female editor-in-chief the Forward has ever had. That's my footnote in history. I'm a footnote."
"When JJ came in, he needed me to edit the Op/Ed page. I felt like an era had closed. I started writing about politics."
"What do you think of the Forward's religion reporting since you left that beat?"
"It hasn't been as sustained in focus. Ami Eden is an excellent religion reporter but he did it only briefly. Now Steven [I. Weiss] has it as a beat. But he's just starting out."
"What were the principle obstacles you faced to doing good Jewish journalism when you were the reporter?"
"You can say this about the Jewish world generally. They're not used to be reported about critically. None of the Jewish institutions are. They don't like it. Because for the lay people, it is their avocation, something they do from their heart, they don't understand that someone would look at this and critique it in the same way that the Wall Street Journal would critique their finance company. The professionals who work in these institutions haven't had a whole lot of professional press scrutiny..."
"Because the Jewish press is so dull," I say.
"Yes. Because a large part of it is a kept press. It is not independent. Because it is sponsored by the Federation, it doesn't report critically about hardly any institutions.
"I was persona non grata for two years at the Jewish Theological Seminary. They declined to speak to me...for reporting on an [Ismar] Schorsch speech in the Midwest. I reported that some Conservative lay people didn't like speech. Nobody had ever seen anything like that."
"Is there any group that is more thin-skinned and control-freaked than the Conservative rabbinate?" I ask. "Look at how they went nuts over the book The New Rabbi."
"I'm not willing to say that any one institution is more paranoid or sensitive to criticism. They all are. When you have a response by any institution that's like that, it's because the institution is hunkered down in some way and in trouble. Confident institutions don't react that way. Ok? I don't want to say specifically about them.
"Lipsky used to publish all sorts of things that Federations and UJA didn't like. The various powers that be had all kinds of tiffs with him.
"In American life since the 1960s, elite institutions have taken a drubbing. There's been a questioning of authority across the board. It's not simply Judaism."
"What's your critique of The Jewish Week?" I ask.
"It waxes and wanes. It got better under Gary when he first took over. It was not a good paper under Phil Ritzenberg."
"Is it still a good paper?"
I feel like I'm pulling teeth.
"We used to compete directly with The Jewish Week under Seth because he was interested in the New York story. He was interested in the charitable and Federated story. He was interested in the power brokers, many of whom were aligned with The Jewish Week, which had Federation subsidy for a long time. We had a newspaper war. Seth believed that subsidy created an un-level playing field in the New York market. He editorialized against that practice. He competed with them as a business for advertising and journalistically.
[Luke says: The Forward is subsidized by its own foundation and I believe it loses millions of dollars every year.]
"I don't know that anyone was going to win that war. The Anglo-Jewish press is an undeveloped market. The Forward as a national Jewish newspaper is a dicey idea. You discover when you live outside of New York that all Judaism is local. People look to their local Jewish paper. They don't understand that there can be meta-discourse and not just JTA dispatches from Hungary, but a paper that talks about American Jewish life. That national market hasn't been established and it is hard to newspaper for a market that has not been established. Newspapering is a local craft.
"One reason I so enjoyed reporting from Palo Alto is that Jewish practices were so ad hoc. You had these Orthodox women who were basically synchretizing Californian New Age practice with Judaism and creating a new hybrid. It was interesting to go to a placenta planting ceremony in the backyard of an Orthodox synagogue."
"Do you find The Jewish Week a compelling read?"
"Graphically, it leaves something to be desired. I don't think its headlines are smart. It has some good reporters. The whole package could be updated."
"The quality of the writing?"
"The arts and books coverage?"
"I don't read them. Do you?"
"It's a horrible paper," I say. "Did Gary run out of steam years ago? Is there something about that institution that just sucks life out of you?"
I guess The Jewish Week has suffered from no longer competing directly with the Forward. Like everything else, newspapering improves with competition.
"Do you ever read the Jewish Journal?"
"Only when I have some reason, such as when I'm reporting about California."
"Unless you have to, you don't read it?"
"No. Why would I read it?"
"It's not a national product," says Eve. "It's not offering me anything."
"What are the most compelling reads in Jewish journalism?"
Eve sighs. "Oh God..."
"I don't read a lot of Jewish journalism anymore."
"You would if there were compelling reads out there."
"I 'spose. I don't read any Jewish magazines though I did when I had to report on the movements."
"What do you think of James David Besser's work?"
"He's a decent reporter."
"Do you remember when he last broke a story?"
"Look," says Eve testily. "My comment is that he's a decent reporter."
"Are there any book-length works of Jewish journalism that have really impressed you in the past few years?"
"Jewish journalism?" Her voice rises high. She's disbelieving what she's hearing. Impressive book length works of Jewish journalism? What am I? Meshugganah?
Long pause. Clarifying questions. Then, "There was really nothing I felt I had to read."
"Anyone on secular papers doing a bangup job on American Judaism?"
"Nope. Religion reporting in general in the elite papers sucks."
"It goes to the dullest reporters," I say.
"The paper that pays the most attention to religion in an inquisitive way is The Christian Science Monitor. The New York Times hasn't had any decent religion reporting in years, since Gus Niebuhr hasn't been around. Even he wasn't on fire. They have Laurie Goodstein on the beat, but she doesn't appear to be fulltime. She seems to know more about Catholicism than she she does about Judaism.
"When I was asking [Jewish religious leaders] close questions about what they were doing, they suddenly had to take a step back and think about it more. I felt like I was affecting them for the good. I felt like I was sharpening their thinking because suddenly they had to explain to someone who wasn't one of them."
"Did you find that rabbis like to gossip at least as much as any other group?"
"I don't know. I don't like to make sweeping statements. I like to stick to what I can report."
"What affect is the Internet and Jewish blogging having on Jewish journalism, if any?"
"Not too terribly much. Steven [I. Weiss] has this messianic idea of what blogging is going to do. I'm a little older than him. Many of his statements about blogging are just insupportable and arrogant. I was reading Protocols for a while. I'm interested in the questions they're asking. The process of the conversation. I blog. Have you noticed?"
"Oh. Whoops. On the Forward?"
"Yeah." Sigh. "We have three blogs at Forward."
"I have read it."
"There's Ami Eden, which is just like sitting around and shooting the breeze with Ami, who is an enormously entertaining..."
Wait a minute. You can call Ami Eden's blog many things but enormously entertaining is not one of them. "He just does a bunch of links," I protest. "He doesn't entertain on his blog."
"Right. It's a lot of quick takes. There's Steven's blog."
Eve drags out the word "blog" so that it sounds like "uggh."
[Eve later disagree with my interpretation of her sound: "I did not do this consciously and you're making too much of it."]
"My blog has been going on since the Fall of 2003. I have a lot of scooplets that can't wait for the weekly deadline. For a while, I pestered our overburdened production department to put up new links for me when I would have one of my scooplets. That was a big burden on them. We were searching for ways to post quickly that wouldn't involve the production department.
"The blog form forces you to blog. Because you have a blog, you become a blogger. I never set out to put up links to others folks' stuff. I set out to have a way of publishing my column daily for people who were heavily into the campaigns. But then, when you have a blog, you have to fill a blog. I've become a blogger like everyone else, putting up links and yaddee yaddee.
"I've enjoyed it. It allows me to bring other folks' stuff into the conversation. It allows me to comment on a lot of ephemera. It allows one to link to source material that you can't [put] in the paper. You can read the two paragraphs I write about the Bush speech and then I'll link to the speech on the Bush Web site. It harnesses the power of the Internet to broaden your reporting."
"What do you think of Jewsweek?"
"It's a little derivative of what we do. You can see that it's edited by someone who's Orthodox. It's the same thing as the Jewish World Review. People who are frum-from-birth and create publications like that, they put their mark on it."
"Have you discovered any undiscovered great talents in the blogosphere?"
"I don't get that far into the blogosphere. I'm reading political blogs more than I'm reading Jewish blogs. My husband complains that my Jewish practice has become attenuated since I'm not reporting so much on Judaism. I used to know everything because I was up on the rabbinic debates. That's not true anymore. A lot of the debates, frankly, haven't progressed that far in the four years that I haven't been reporting on them.
"The Forward under JJ has become much more oriented towards the diplomatic and Arab-Israel thing.
"Jewish journalism. We're a sleepy field. Within that sleepy field, the biggest significant new trend is that you do have three blogs up at Forward and a dedicated blogger [Steven I. Weiss] on staff here but we will make him into a reporter, I promise you."
Eve laughs. "It's taking time. Reporting and blogging are very different kinds of disciplines."
"How come there isn't more scene-by-scene construction and focus on status details and that kind of Wolfe-sian?"
"I don't know what that means."
"A scene is where you have a setting, and persons [in conflict]."
"You're talking about New Journalistic long pieces?"
"Stuff that makes you feel like you are right there in the moment where something is going on. Close attention to status details means [minding] the ways people try to distinguish themselves."
"The medium is the message. The function follows the form. The Forward is a broadsheet. It's not big. Articles in the Forward do not tend to be longer than 1500 words. It's difficult to do that kind of journalism in Forward because of what we are. We're not the Village Voice, which is a tabloid. We have traditional notions of what is a beat reporter. We're not New Journalists. We were hired to report the news. Better that we should do that well than try this other thing which is entertaining and wonderful when it is well done in the New Yorker or Esquire. It's more of a magazine form. It's not our enterprise.
"I've had almost every job you can have here. It's a small shop. It's like improvisational jazz. One time when I was features editor, someone wrote a personal essay. By and by, she mentions it was like giving blowjobs. It's part of my daily speech, so it totally flew by me and landed in the paper. Seth was like, 'BLOWJOBS?' He pulled up his glasses. 'Seth, I didn't notice.' It was so natural in the flow of the piece that it didn't register. We're a family newspaper. We're not supposed to say that.
"There is a virtue to being small and obscure because you have more freedom. We printed [cartoonist] Art Spiegleman's comment on in the shadow of the two towers [of the World Trade Center]. The New Yorker turned it down because they knew it would be full of outre stuff that would antagonize people. He gave us his comic. In one frame, it had George Bush holding a boxcutter to the neck of the American Eagle. We lost subscriptions because of this. There was a lot of wicked left-wing stuff that he drew. We were willing to do it.
"There's stuff I've said about American political figures because, who am I? I'm nobody. For instance, I wrote that the Hebrew spelling of Kerry - kuf, resh, yud - in the Talmud means an unwanted seminal emission."
"Anyone try to bribe you?"
Eve laughs. "We're so important that someone is going to want to bribe us? It's an absurd notion."
"Which practitioners of your craft do you admire the most?"
Long pause. "Look." A little frustrated. "I don't exempt myself when I say we're all kinda mediocre.
"I put my intellect in the service of my [Jewish] community, otherwise I'd be out there seeking to maximize my income. I'm connected with the Jewish story. Lipsky used to say it's the best story of the last 5,000 years.
"My colleagues are as dedicated to this story as I am. Some are more talented than others. We're all trying. Do we succeed as a group? No. I include myself in that group.
"I was once invited to a seminar on Jewish journalism at Brandeis. I told the assembled Federated paper types that we were mediocre because we are 'kept press' -- which I thought was the most obvious observation. I know they had the seminar a few more years but I never was invited back."
"How much status has your hard work gained you in Jewish life?"
"When I reported about the rabbinate, my husband used to say that I was like a minor Jewish celebrity because rabbis and Jewish academics were highly interested in what I was doing. We'd meet a rabbi at a bar mitzvah. I'd introduce myself and he'd be like [with awe], 'Oh, you're EJ Kessler?' My husband got an inflated idea of who I was. I had a following. I enjoyed that. I'm not sure that there is quite as large a group in the general Jewish community for my political stories although I get nice comments from political insiders. It's more important to me that my work be appreciated by other journalists than by [the hoi polloi]."
"Would you like to see American Jewish journalists get the same influence that their Israeli counterparts have?"
"It's not possible. Israel is a well-developed market for news."
"Have you been impressed by Israeli journalism on American Jewish life?"
"Nope." Without hesitation. "I don't think they have any insight into our community. They come at it with a bunch of Israeli prejudices. I don't think we have any insight into their community either.
"The subject I least enjoyed writing about was Jewish divorce. People would give me their divorce papers, which were filled with ugliness. Sometimes I would cry all night because of the pain in them."
I email Eve: "Do you think that American Judaism debates failure to progress in past four years is due in part to your not being there to report on them?"
She emails back: "I can't say there's been a total failure to progress. There hasn't. I don't want to exxagerate my role. The general principle is, the debate is less thoughtful and sharp when there's not sustained, expert press attention to prod it along -- whether it's me or somebody else. Debra Nussbaum Cohen was someone who reported on religion for many years, mostly for JTA. She also pulled back in the past four years, but because of family duties."