Note: This is only part of a long, wideranging and rambling interview which, Larry wants noted, was less disjointed than it appears in this transcript.
I reach Larry Yudelson (born June 23, 1964) by telephone Sunday morning, July 4, 2004, at his West Virginia mountain hideout.
"I got the journalism bug early, with the elementary school paper. In high school [Chafetz Hayim yeshiva in Rochester], I was the NCSY newspaper editor and designer. In college, I went to Yeshiva University (on the secular side compared to my high school, though not compared to my upbringing) and worked on the school paper (Hamevaser) before graduating (with a degree in computer science) in 1985.
"Larry Cohler got me into Jewish journalism as a career. In 1984-85, he was at Long Island Jewish World, and I was picking up The Jewish Week and the Jewish World every weekend. He had a couple of outstanding articles on halachic issues. Rumors would fly around YU about various issues. He sat down and made phone calls. The most incredible article was about women's prayer groups. Rabbi Louis Bernstein, then head of the RCA, had asked the RIETS rosh yeshiva for a psak [legal ruling]. It was assur (forbidden). Larry called, spoke to them, and they were caught honestly saying what they thought, and they were caught being total fools. This is why they don't talk to the press anymore. One rebbe said, I don't need to speak to the women. I know their types. Just a mass generalization and mass ignorance. Nothing of surprise to anyone who goes to their classes but this was in public.
"His article wasn't just 500 words of 'he said it isn't ok, she said it is ok.' Larry put the whole thing together. It was fascinating to see what journalistic technique can do to halachic stories.
"Flipping forward to 2004 with this water issue in New York [Rav. Schachter has reportedly ruled that filters must be installed to strain out bugs], the blogs are doing it. But nobody is asking hard questions of the poskim [deciders of Jewish Law]. Poskim say they don't need to be asked hard questions. They need to answer why is this water different from Reb Moshe Feinstein's [leading decider of Jewish Law in the 20th Century] water? I'm waiting for Steven Weiss to ask people that but they don't want to speak to him. If they were the honest gedolei Torah [giants of Torah] that they claim to be, they would answer the question, but it's not an answerable question.
"Anyway, in college I was running with this crowd who wanted to become rabbis and high school principals. Twenty years later, they're all rabbis and high school principals. I wanted to make a mark on the Jewish community through journalism.
"At age 21, I decided to do an article about Jewish journalists. I called Larry Cohler and I asked him all these questions. Being a senior and lazy and under pressure, I didn't make any more phone calls. Then I get a phone call from Larry Cohler right after I graduate. He said he was on the board of the JSPS and they were interviewing for new editors. I go to the interview. I'm asked for my philosophy of Jewish journalism. I give him a whole spiel. Back on the street, I realize that I had almost word-for-word regurgitated what Larry had told me three months earlier. So, he liked it.
"Working at JSPS was a phenomenal education. I edited writers who were worse than I was. Editing people is a good way to learn how to edit yourself. Larry started assigning me freelance stories. I went to conferences of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. I got an education in American Judaism.
"One person who inspired me was Rifka Rosenwein. She wrote for The Wall Street Journal and did a wonderful center column piece on Coca Cola getting OU hashgacha (kosher certification) finally. She subsequently became my editor at JTA. She died in November 2003. She was in-and-out of Jewish journalism. She would be drawn to Jewish journalism because that was her community and those were the stories she wanted to tell, but bringing in outside experience in serious journalism.
"Then I did a year at The Long Island Jewish World. Jerry Lipman let people commit great journalism. He was an old school editor. Always screaming. I had nightmares for a few months after I stopped working there.
"I had to run away from this guy who was yelling at me every Tuesday night. I went to Israel and stayed for a couple of years and wrote for a consortium of Jewish papers. I was edited by Marty Pomeranz [editor of The Washington Jewish Week who was outed by his staff as a serial liar].
"I came back to America and a after a year of freelancing, got hired at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. I was one of their two New York reporters. Debra Nussbaum Cohen had seniority, so she got to cover religious issues. My beat was politics and organizations. She got God; I got Malcolm Hoenlein.
"In 1995, there was this new thing called the Internet. I got a job at the Jewish Communications Network. These two Israelis had some money and decided they were going to do an America Online network for the American Jewish community. In that wonderful way that Israelis have of thinking they understand American Jews, they decided that we would all pay $6 an hour to log on and get exclusive Jewish information and chat with other Jews.
"They hired Yori Yanover as editor. He brought me on board. We launched the website on erev Rosh Hashanah 1995. JCN18.com. Ultimately, people realized there was no revenue flow. It took a couple of years. After that, I did freelance webdesign and programming and caught some money off the AOL-Time-Warner gravy train. It was a wild time in the year 2000. Then I taught high school for a year. Now I'm working in the underbelly of a Jewish organization that means well and could do better."
"What's the good and bad of Jewish journalism?" I ask.
"There's a power to Jewish journalism. When you choose to write about something and push it forward, it makes a difference. You can try to move a community from one centered on fear to concerned with the content of Judaism. You can have ripple effects.
"The bad of Jewish journalism is that you don't have any editors who are pushing a story forward. If Eve Kessler is a deputy managing editor and Debra Nussbaum Cohen is spending more time with her family and there are stories that aren't getting written as a result, that's not an indictment of Debra or Eve. But these people have editors and it is the job of the editor to make sure that the story doesn't get lost. Jewish newspapers generally are not well edited. A great newspaper reflects a great editor.
"If I can sit around the table and come up with ten stories that nobody has written about, and you can come up with ten stories for the Jewish Journal that haven't been written, then that is the editor's fault.
"What's the mission of a newspaper? That was the problem with JTA. Was it a wire service or a publicity release or a way to get copy for the Northern California Jewish Bulletin or the Jewish Journal? News for Jews who hadn't read The New York Times. This was silly in 1995. In 2005, if you want to know The New York Times news, you'll read it online.
"When we cover Jewish organizations, is it our job to make people like Jewish organizations? Or is to help Jewish organizations do a better job spending their money."
"Neither," I say. "If you do either of those, you are not doing journalism."
"Not true. Journalism's job is to help the society."
"Whoa," I say. "Where does that come from? The job of a journalist is to report the news."
"There's a famous adage in the profession that the job of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
"What's the news? The easy news that John Kerry sneezed today? Everybody makes news. The way news works in America is that lots of little newspapers write little stories and The New York Times gathers them up and the most interesting of those show up in the nightly [network] news. There's a pyramid. Now you have Fox News with Republican talking points and stupid gossip.
"If someone sleeps with a rabbi, is that news? If someone commits a murder, is that news? Where is the line where something becomes 'news'?
"Journalism can definitely serve its community. It can create a community. Look at trade publications. Look at Printing Press Monthly. A monthly magazine for people who buy and sell high-end printing equipment. Jewish publications should be trade publications but they're not.
"Let's say I create a dream publication that goes to people who give more than $1,000 a year to the Jewish community. If I say Israel Bonds is bankrupt and is a waste of money, am I taking money out of the Jewish community? No. I'm having it go more effectively to the Jewish community. My loyalty is not to an organization but to the broader community.
"Are the day schools working effectively? Are people in Los Angeles happy with their day schools? How come The Los Angeles Times runs a better story on Jewish day schools [long piece on the Modern Orthodox Shalhevet school by Barry Siegel] than the Jewish Journal? Has there been any story in the Journal in the decade you've been reading it that tells you as much about any Jewish day school as that Times piece?"
"No," I say.
"The LA Jewish community spends, I don't know, maybe about $100 million a year on Jewish education? Let's say the average cost per kid in a day school is $10,000 a year. That's a tremendous amount of money. How much money does Hollywood make on the media domestic gross for a typical studio film? Forty million?
"My sister spends thousands of dollars a year on my niece's education (whatever amount gets negotiated between her, and her accountant and the financial aid committee of her day school). The Jewish Journal speaks nothing to her. Why don't they start covering the schools? How many parents in [LA Orthodox schools] like that their kid's class isn't coed in second grade? Where's the voice of the parents in the community? That should be the newspaper's job.
"Newspapers, instead of covering day schools, are covering institutions in the President's Conference, which is a 1950s model of a Jewish organization. I gave a pitch once to a Jewish editor to come on board as an education reporter. If it paid the mortgage, I'd be happy to do it. This is where most of the money in the Jewish community is being spent.
"I live in Teaneck, New Jersey. Our Bergen County Federation makes two or three million dollars a year and our local schools spend about five million dollars a year.
"Why isn't there a national newspaper about Jewish education?
"A lot of the stories that do get covered miss the point. When Rabbi David Wolpe gets up and [challenges the historicity of the Exodus] is only news in a he-said, she-said way. How does Conservative Judaism handle Biblical Criticism is a great story. You call Conservative rabbis and ask them how they deal with these things. What's the deep story behind what Rabbi Wolpe's saying. Do you do conventional he-said, she-said stories or do you do New Journalism and let the story speak for itself.
"I've written a damning profile of a guy I considered a nudnik and the guy said, 'wow, what a great story. You told it like it was.' I read the story and think the guy is nudnik, but if you like him, you really like the story.
"Tom Wolfe says this is America. Life magazine doesn't talk to me about these hot-rodders or these other subcultures. These are people who speak a language Time magazine can't comprehend. We need tools to do it.
"How well does somebody who reads the Jewish Journal know about the Persian or Israeli community in Los Angeles? Who's telling the Israelis about the Americans?
"If I were the editor of the Jewish Journal, I'd pitch the publisher to come out with several editions -- Orthodox, Persian, Israeli, and unaffiliated. We'll swap the best stories. Rather than trying to be all things to be all people.
"Bernie Weintraub covers Hollywood for The New York Times. His wife, Amy Pascal, is a studio executive. The unaffiliated Jew like Bernie doesn't want to read an umpteenth debate about the settlers in Gaza. Rabbi Dov Fischer [endlessly published in the Jewish Journal who Larry clashed with in his student newspaper days] has been writing the same things over and over again. That's not news. A baseball player such as Shawn Green (latest Jewish Journal cover story) is not news either. He has no interesting ideas. [University of Judaism Talmud professor] Aryeh Cohen has interesting ideas. Has he made the cover of the Jewish Journal?"
"No," I say.
"Jewish academia hasn't made its way into the Jewish newspapers. They're living off ideas that are decades old. David Twersky and JJ Goldberg had some new ideas in the 1960s. We had a couple of new ideas in the 1980s. I don't see any editor shouting at his reporters, 'hey, kid, give me a new idea.'
"I'd ask, could this story have been written ten years ago? If so, why do it now?
"Without a clear conception of who your communities are, and how you can keep all of your readers excited at least some of the time, you just end up with something that inoffensive and uniteresting. If you have a New York paper being edited by a Modern Orthodox Jew living in a Modern Orthodox community [Gary Rosenblatt of The Jewish Week] and has reported from a Modern Orthodox perspective, you are not going to be inside baseball enough to interest people in the Modern Orthodox community and it's not going to be interesting enough for people on the outside.
"Gary Rosenblatt doesn't know why he's doing it this way. Mark Joffe (editor of JTA) doesn't know why he's doing things this way. Seth Lipsky did something that was not done in any other Jewish newspaper. He had regular Thursday morning meetings after the paper came out. I sat in while I was being courted by him. I occasionally got these great job offers from him that required a change in location and a cut in pay.
"He would criticize the headlines and the stories and he was teaching his staff. He had people come in and commit good journalism under him and go on to commit great journalism. Philip Gourevitch. Jeffrey Goldberg.
"Elsewhere, there's not the self criticism and there's not a goal. Until you have a mandate to do great journalism, it's not going to happen. If the head of the Federation placed calls to editors at The LA Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, to get them to critique the Jewish Journal to make it better, they would do it. The magazines that I like are the ones that tell me something that I don't know. When was the last time you read something in a Jewish newspaper that you didn't already know?
"Everything Seth Lipsky would tell you would be a scoop, no matter how trivial. If Luke Ford brings me the first coverage of the important new Philip Roth novel coming out, that's news. I learned about this from you. Philip Roth has become the definitive Jewish novelist of the 20th Century.
"If you're writing for a paper with the idea of getting scoops, you will get things.
"The Jewish Week can't take ideas seriously. The story about bacteria in the New York water is probably most the important Jewish story so far in the 21st Century. The Jewish Week treats the story as a silly joke. They put it on page three with silly things where they called the Health Department for comment. It's a big story in the history of halacha in the 21st Century.
"The Jewish Week ought to be able to cover this story better The New York Times, which will cover the halacha and the science seriously."
"Who do you think is doing the best work in Jewish journalism?" I ask.
"I'm reading it less and less. I'm finding it harder to do more than leaf through the Jewish newspapers."
"They're hard to get through," I say.
"The only paper I find generally interesting is the Forward. The Arts section is worth looking at. Occasionally there's an interesting story in The Jewish Week. I was Jewish news junkie. Now I read about new technologies."
"How much do you think the Internet is influencing Jewish journalism?" I ask.
"It's changing the environment in ways that haven't been caught up with yet. The Jewish community hasn't taken advantage of it. Jewish newspapers haven't reacted to it. Andrew Silow-Carroll repackages Web logs on page three for his community. Web logs will always be read by a minority, but can serve a useful function in the news pyramid. Paul Krugman is a conduit for Web logs to get into The New York Times."
"Were you ever offered bribes?" I ask.
"I wish. If I were, I might've stayed there.
"I got some comment from Malcolm Hoenlein, when Larry Cohler was coming to The Jewish Week. He said I was the 'Good Larry' in Jewish journalism. It sent chills up my spine and made me feel dirty. It probably motivated me to write a nasty JTA anti-Presidents Conference article (how the Conference was silent on the Peace Process). You'd think it would've been a great publicity opportunity. Israel takes a chance for peace. The Presidents Conference in 1978 helped draw attention to when Israel was pulling out of Sinai. It did not do that when Israel was taking bigger chances for peace by pulling out of Bethlehem and the West Bank.
"There were occasional orders from on high at JTA. I got taken off a beat once when the head of the Council of Jewish Federations complained about a story.
"The closest I ever got to a bribe was that Chabad's PR guy Zalman Schmotkin who was kind enough to study the rebbe and Hasidus with me once a week for about a year. He gave me a lot of understanding of Chabad. Not one word of that ever turned into journalism.
"Running a story on gay marriage isn't going to change anyone's mind on anything unless you tell the stories of real people.
"Jews are not going to necessarily follow the ideology of their leaders. I remember a gay congregation (Beit Simcha Torah) wanted to march in the Salute to the Israel parade. The Orthodox didn't want them to and threatened to pull out. The Orthodox parents couldn't understand the big deal. The Orthodox leadership said, oh no. These are gays. They're violating Torah Law. The parents said, what about Reform temples? They're not violating Torah Law? You had ideology on high. If you ran the story with the ideology from the gays and the Orthodox, you had one story. When you spoke to real people, there's tolerance. Yes, they're going to hell, but they're going to go to hell anyway for not having a mehitza.
"The Jewish Week's story this week on the upper West Side. You have one factoid, two anecdotes, and one pop sociologist. Give me ten facts. I don't see the editor screaming at the cub reporter, 'what about this or that?'
"Ben Hecht was the best Jewish journalist of the 20th Century. He wrote The Front Page. He started off as a cub reporter for a Chicago paper. His job was to visit the homes of widows and orphans and steal the photo from the piano so the photo of the dead guy can show up on the front page of his paper. There's a sleazy aspect to journalism.
"He ended up doing propaganda for Menahem Begin in the 1940s. He wrote this great 700-page autobiography -- A Child of the Century.
"Look at some of Gene Lichtenstein's stuff from a year out. He had a way of telling community stories in a distinct voice. Talk of the Town (New Yorker) but briefer. This got frittered away over the years. They ran press releases and lost their voice. Who's going to read it if there's not a voice?
"If I want to connect young people to Israel, then I'll do it in a way that will offend everybody over 55. You want to be involved with Israel because it is a sexier, crookeder, funnier, nastier, more backstabbing, more backbiting, crazier, more psychotic place than Hollywood. That's the story I'm going to tell. If you think Ronald Reagan and Charleton Heston were senile old men, let me tell you about Shimon Peres. Let me not run week-by-week updates on Ariel Sharon and his bribes. Let me out-tabloid everybody else. You should go to Israel because they have the most provocatively-dressed women of any parliament on the planet. They're sexier in the Knesset than in Sacramento.
"You keep asking about bribes of money, drugs and whores. Israel is filled with that. You like prostitutes? Israel has a ton from Eastern Europe. The Federation wants people to like Israel as a cause to give money to. Well, maybe you should like Israel because it produces the best Ecstasy on the planet. Zionists for Ecstasy. What if we keep the Dutch middlemen out and make Ecstasy Zionist? Rob Eshman should be running this stuff.
"Let's have a gossip column about Israel. Let's tell the story of Israel through gossip. The profiles that The LA Times won't dare run.
"Psychedelics had a huge impact on the Jewish Renewal movement and everything that is vibrant in the past generation. You take a bit of drugs and you take Heschel and Buber and Abbi Hoffman and chant the Zohar in English and you have the Renewal movement.
"Abe Foxman gambled big and gambled wrong on The Passion. I haven't seen a story stating this and suggesting we fire him. Imagine a giant headline: 'Abe Foxman: His Passion, His Mistake.' It doesn't matter whether it is fair or unfair to him, true or not true, but it's interesting. Abe Foxman's a grownup. He can take it. Abe Foxman's board knows the whole story anyway. You don't have to be fair to Abe Foxman. You need to make waves.
"If you write about a crime in the Persian community, use it as a peg to write about the community. Any time you have a synagogue fighting, it is always about a clash of cultures. It's not a story about why they're firing this rabbi (because a certain percentage of the shul got fed up with him). That's the peg. Now you ask what's the difference between the half who likes him and the half who hates him. It's not that so-and-so says he was not a good rabbi and so-and-so says he was diddling the secretary. Liking the rabbi is just a marker of the two different groups in the shul. Is it the Left and the Right? The old and the young? Behind every synagogue battle is a real story and that story is never written about."
They just fired the rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue. So some board members found him obnoxious. Why does the rabbi have defenders? Why do people hate the rabbi? The story isn't about the rabbi sending out silly emails, not understanding 20th Century technology. The story should be -- what's the culture of Lincoln Square?
"What's the last high profile split in LA?"
"Ohr HaTorah," I say.
"What's it ostensibly about?"
"That the rebbetzin made half the kids in sixth grade cry," I say.
"That is a great story. It is going to break down over the question of how much do we build the self-esteem of little suburban kinderlach and how much do we call it like it is. It's probably an argument in part about parenting styles. You should pitch this story to The LA Times or the LA Weekly. This is a story you can pitch from inside the community to outside the community. It's a great way to talk about raising kids, Jewish parenting values, authority. A Hebrew school is not like a public school where you are bound by bureaucracy and nobody expects you to do a good job. It's a great story for the Jewish Journal, but to do it justice, it needs to be a 3,000 word story.
"Never interview a rabbi without a tape recorder. There are well known rabbis who have lied to Debra Nussbaum Cohen. They've claimed they didn't say things that they said. They are more likely to lie than other people because people assume, oh, why would Rabbi So-and-so lie. JTA wasn't good at backing up their reporters."
"Are AJPA conferences dull?" I ask.
"AJPA conferences are not dull. They're a trade group. The Jewish Journal and The Jewish Week (NY) are among the four best Jewish newspapers in America. It's like The New York Times and The LA Times. The LA Times is one of the four best papers in America. If you live in LA, you might say, you've got to be kidding. But it's true. There's more news in the weekly Forward than in the Rochester Democratic Chronicle. The job of a Jewish newspaper in Rochester is different. They are not reading The New York Times. If you're the editor of The Cleveland Jewish News, then you live in a different world. Seth Lipsky doesn't have to go to the AJPA convention. He can just go hang out with Irving Kristol. If you're an editor of a paper in Arizona, you don't have that community.
"There's an inverse proportion between flashy and important. The General Assemblies of the Federation are flashy. There's real news happening there but a lot of the time it was happening in the back room. Decisions made about hundreds of millions of dollars. Those meetings may have been boring. When Al Gore gives a speech, that may be interesting, but there's really news. Five hundred pages of particulars from the NJPS (National Jewish Population Study) may be boring but they are substantive. If the Federation puts out a report by some well-meaning bureaucrats, it's probably going to be boring, but if you sit down and read the damn thing, you'll find interesting facts in there.
"Most press conferences are unproductive. One exception. On my last week on the job, I got to hear an American rabbi (Abraham Hecht, a fool) call for the assassination of Yitzhok Rabin. I got to see Herschel Schacter, who is prominent, say no comment when I asked him about it. He just sat there saying nothing when the psak [ruling] was given.
"There's less press release journalism that there used to be. Every segment of Jewish life is going to complain about a story told about them because it will be incomplete, unless you really go in deep. If you make it a conventional news story, they're going to feel ripped off. If I go in and say what it is like to Rabbi Mintz or Rabbi [Shlomo] Carlebach, it might be OK
"The real nasty stuff is where the money is. There's been no great coverage of the kosher food industry or the bodies in Harlem River. Moving the kosher meat industry out of New York was the OU's (Orthodox Union) was of moving the industry away from organized crime. It also affected the quality of the kosher meat. Kosher steaks are not as good as kosher steaks were a few decades ago. Where are you going to publish this story? It's a month of research. Ten thousand words. The Jewish Journal might pay you a $1000 for it. It's not worth your while if you're not 20 years old anymore. Moment magazine will pay a similar pittance. Will Moment run the story? Maybe.
"If you want to reinvent Jewish journalism, you have to figure out how to reinvent the demand side. How do you make it worth someone's while to pay reporters. Let's make a business case for why someone should invest a million dollars in Jewish journalism. There are simply stories that can't be told through the current mediums. It may be time to reinvent the funding mechanism, because it is not going to pay for itself. Things that are good for you do not pay for themselves. Things pay for themselves in the long run because they get people more involved in the Jewish community.
"Chabad will have someone learn with you for free, and treat you with the same respect [other Jewish institutions reserve] for the millionaire. Chabad gives away adult education classes. They make it up in the long run through good will and donations. It's the same principle for Jewish journalism.
"Heeb had a good idea but they're trying to be the cultural object rather than report on the culture object. The sign of a good editor is one who finds a cultural object and nurtures a cultural moment. Commentary, Judaism, Tradition magazines in the '60s not only created movements, but captured moments. Wired magazine and Whole Earth magazines in the '80s and '90s did the same thing. I don't see Heeb capturing moments and helping other people find their voices. You can't do it when you only come out twice a year."
"Who's David Twersky?" I ask.
"David Twersky was one of the cofounders of the Jewish Student Press Service in the 1960s. Then he made aliyah and moved to a Kibbutz Gesher with JJ Goldberg and Marc Seal, who became publisher of JTA (Jewish Telegraph Agency). He went on to edit a kibbutz journal and did PR for the Labor party. He came back to American as Washington correspondent for the Forward.
"In 1990, Lipsky was paying these unbelievably high salaries of about $50,000 a year. Lipsky's neo-con leanings became overwhelming for David and he moved to the Metro West Jewish News. He ended up at the American Jewish Congress.
"One of the dirty secrets of Jewish journalism is that none of the Jewish professionals read a single word I wrote. If I wrote that the Orthodox Union used Klingon telepathic technology to make mashgichim (kashrut supervisors) more effective and was considering applying this to Jewish day schools, and two years later spoke to the head of the Reform movement, he would say, 'I just read this article about Klingon technology in The New York Times... I was thinking of using it for our Hebrew school teachers.' While I thought I was helping the movements, in fact they couldn't be bothered opening up the newspapers.
"I'm curious what you will do with this. Will you self-publish and make $20? I share Larry Cohler and Andy Carroll's skepticism of this turning into a book. Then again, if we were the types who believed that books were easily published, we might have published books. Yossi Klein Halevi is the only one of us who's written a book. I remember him in Israel in 1991 telling me to look for stories to break out of Jewish journalism to write for The New Republic. Now he's on the masthead. One of his Op/Ed pieces in the LA Times is equal to 12 Op/Ed pieces in the Jewish Journal."