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A Chat With Jewish Exponent Editor Jonathan Tobin

I chat by phone with Philadelphia Jewish Exponent editor Jonathan Tobin 1/7/03. He's run the paper since December 1998.

The Exponent is a widely-respected weekly owned by the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia, a secular fundraising organization.

Tobin, the most right-wing editor of a Jewish weekly in the US, 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 encouraged him to slam the book as bad for the Jews. In my research, I found no evidence for this.

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 (who was eventually replaced by young assistant Rabbi Jacob Herber, who then resigned in November 2002).

It's been difficult for other reporters to cover this story because people at Har Zion and elsewhere have clammed up. Some of the people at Har Zion feel burned by Fried's book.

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jim Remsen wrote a meager 563-word story on Herber's resignation. You could tell he didn't get to speak to anybody.

My take is that Fried's book is absorbing and delicious, a welcome respite from traditionally dull American Jewish journalism.

Exponent reporter Brian Mono wrote a 8/7/02 cover story on the book, saying it was an important, while Tobin wrote that it was of limited appeal.

Tobin does credit Fried for his investigative reporting on a story (search for Wolpe's successor) that The Jewish Exponent tried and failed to land. During this time, the paper did crack a story on a Philly synagogue that fired a rabbi.

Luke: "How is the 2002 book [The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader] being received in your circles?"

Jonathan: "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?"

Jonathan 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 - Jonathan Tobin (photo from Jewish Exponent)

July 20, 2004

I email Jonathan: "I keep hearing about you dropping JJ Goldberg's column years ago because he criticized Mort Klein. Is that true? Was that the reason?"

JT: "Actually I was still at the Connecticut Jewish Ledger at the time of the big dustup between the Exponent and JJ. I ran the column there. As far as JJ being a victim of a political purge, you should remember that he has his current job specifically because another independent journalist -- Seth Lipsky -- lost that post because of his politics."

LF: "I also hear from those left of center that you read people in your community out of your paper if they are Peace Now types, such as Hilda Silverman (now at Harvard?)"

JT: "Not true. Actually, there was a blacklist of people who were considered personna non gratta by the Federation before I got here. One of the policy changes I instituted was to get rid of the black list. All those on it -- Arthur Waskow, Ted Mann, Ian Lustig were mentioned -- have since been published in our paper as well as having articles written about them. In the five years I've been editor, no one is out of bounds. I don't know Hilda Silverman and never heard of her being mentioned as someone who was banned in the old days.

"As for your writing a book about Jewish journalism, good luck. But, unlike many of the people who comment on it, I would hope you would thoroughly research your topic and read the newspapers rather than generalize about them."