I fear that my preoccupation with the Jewish Journal (JJ) violates California's anti-stalking laws, not to mention various Torah laws.
JJ editor Rob Eshman (married to Rabbi Naomi Levy) is like the cool popular generous kid in grade school who everybody liked. I was the kid in the corner who blew spitwads and poked girls with sticks. I resolved that when I got big, I'd write nasty things about the popular kids and bring them down a peg or two.
In Australia, we knew what to do with the tall poppies. We lopped 'em off.
I arrive at the Journal office (at 3580 Wilshire Blvd in Koreatown) at 4PM, Wednesday, June 30, 2004. The world's worst newspaper is about to go to press.
You can't get in just by opening the door. There must be so many thousands of dissatisfied readers threatening bodily violence, that they've hooked up an elaborate security system.
Inside it is not grotesque, like something out of David Copperfield (the home of the old lady with all the cobwebs). I don't see any dead bodies floating around, nor any haggard witches. Instead I see huge blow-ups of Jewish Journal covers and the office plays cool pop music from the 1980s.
If I was younger, I could probably get very excited about some of these covers.
I see no sign, "Give up all hope of good journalism all ye who enter here."
The secretary is blonde and busty which are my two biggest requirements in a secretary.
Rob greets me on time. I hate people who make me wait. He greets me as I'm immersed in my Museum of Tolerance black tote bag (glorified purse) between my knees. He thinks I look dejected.
We sit down in his office which has a spectacular view of the ornate Wilshire Blvd Temple up the block. On clear days, you can see to Beverly Hills and downtown LA.
He wears jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and a tie. If I was one of those poofters he loves to play up big in his paper, I'd call him handsome.
He chews gum. He's calm and relaxed.
I hoped I'd be more forbidding.
Rob grew up rich and secular and loved in the San Fernando Valley. His family went to Stephen S. Wise temple on Yom Kippur. He majored in Anthropology at Dartmouth (graduating in 1982). Then he moved to San Francisco for two years and worked as a freelance writer. He decided to move to Israel.
"I'd always been attracted to Judaism but felt like I was always getting a watered-down version. After my bar mitzvah, I stopped going [to temple]. I just didn't find it compelling. I went to Leo Baeck temple. I was fond of Rabbi Behrman. Again, I didn't find it compelling.
"The rabbi at Dartmouth was Michael Paley. He was a dynamo. He got me interested in Judaism as an intellectual pursuit, where you could put the words 'passion' and 'Judaism' in the same sentence.
"In Israel, I supported myself as a counselor and doing freelance journalism for everyone who would pay. I wrote some pieces for the Jewish Journal. I came back to LA and kept doing journalism. Gene [Lichtenstein] called me. I worked freelance for two years and went full-time in September 1994. My son was born in July. I was married in 1991."
Rob struggles to get his wedding ring off to be sure of the date of his marriage.
"I felt like this was the junk bond of the Jewish community. It was an undervalued institution and under-used. It had enormous potential. I became editor in 2000.
"Part of it was that it was a journalism job and I wanted to write and get paid for it and it was there. But the longer I was here, the more I realized, this could be something. I think the LA Jewish community is the junk bond of American Jewish communities. The paper could reflect that. There was a lot of talent here that the paper wasn't taking advantage of."
"You're not eager to read out parts of the Jewish community."
"I want it to be a picture of Jewish LA. I understand that some things are more important. I don't read anybody out except Jews for Jesus. We don't accept their advertising. We do write stories about their recruitment efforts. We don't ignore them. We will print letters to the editor from them.
"I approach it anthropologically. If you had asked me at Dartmouth, will you become an editor of a Jewish newspaper, I would've said, 'Are you high?' But if you looked at what I was doing at Dartmouth, studying ethnography and doing journalism, that's what I'm doing. I'm interested in intellectual and spiritual issues."
"Were you thrilled to become editor?"
"Yeah, I was ready. I had specific ideas of where I would take the paper, like every managing editor does. I'm sure Amy [Klein] does. The way it happened. Gene was hurt in the process and it would've been better if he weren't."
"What are the biggest obstacles that you've had to face to do quality work?"
"The same as every other paper -- time and money. The more time and money we put into any article, the better it is.
"One of the decisions I made with our COO Kimber Sax. We really want to reach every Jew in the city. If you do it through any one organization, there's the appearance that you belong to that organization. LA Jews are different. They don't go to shul that often. They don't go to Jewish places. There are distinct Jewish neighborhoods here but they are comparatively small compared to the enormity of the Jewish population. Our idea was to throw the paper out there, do controlled-circulation (now between 53-70,000), which means to give it away. It coincided with the Federation needing to cut its budget [by, in part, not buying papers]."
"If the Federation bought zero papers (they currently buy 10,000 but will buy zero in 2005) and zero ads, how different would the Jewish Journal be?"
"It would be smaller. Would we make it up? I'm sure we could. Our support comes from our advertisers. We've just begun to mine that market. By going out on the street, we've attracted a lot more advertisers to the Jewish Journal from people who didn't know it existed. It was going to homes [of people who gave over a certain amount a year to the Federation, say, $100]. Our advertising reps would call people and ask if they wanted to advertise and they'd say they'd never seen it. Now people see it, so they call us. We've also started some other products, such as the Jewish Family Life of the Conejo Valley, a featurey glossy. It's a quarterly going monthly. We have Orange County Jewish Journal (monthly). We have separate revenue streams. It dissipates the effect of any one advertiser."
"So you really aren't a Federation paper. I've lied about you."
"We've never shared payroll. None of their [staff] people have ever sat on our boards or had any role in decision making here. We were started by former [machers] of the Federation [such as former Federation president Stanley Hirsh] because they felt an independent paper was the best thing for the community. To their credit, they hired Gene. To his credit, he fought like a bear to keep the independence of the paper against the powers that be. He infused that feeling in me and the other people here, making it much easier for me to fight those fights, which are rare now.
"I appreciate all the good work Federations and their agencies do. They are major players in Jewish communal life for good reason. But precisely because we saw the journalistic and mutual financial downside of Federation-dependent newspapers, we have worked very hard and taken huge financial and editorial risks to secure and maintain our independence. People can have opinions about our Federation coverage (some think it's too kind; some think it's too harsh; I think Marc Ballon, our senior writer, who was 10 years at Forbes and The LA Times, is terrific) but that's all opinion. The fact is we're a non-profit news weekly that answers to a diverse, thoughtful and independent board of directors.
"It is a level playing field here. We do want all Jewish voices in the paper so long as they can write well. We do want every good Jewish story in the paper. We've had some big advertisers read us the riot act but I am not going to name them. But think of every big Jewish institution in town, at one time or another, they either pulled [ads] a little bit, pulled back, or threatened to start their own paper...
"When you look at [sex-abuse] scandals in the Catholic church and how the Catholic press handled it, and how sex abuse was handled in the Jewish press, whether it was Gary's [Rosenblatt] piece on Lanner or the tons of pieces that we have done investigating sexual abuse, there's no comparison. That's one example of where an independent Jewish press contributes real value to the Jewish community. Controversy makes us stronger. Debate makes us stronger."
"That sounds lame," Rob admits.
"Your coverage of abuse stories never seem to go beyond the pro-forma. You get the police report. You interview the protagonists and the critics."
"You'd have to look at all the stories we've done. Some have been done in depth and some have been pro forma. At one point, Julie Fax pleaded with me to get her off the sex abuse beat. She's the religion editor but there are so many of those stories out there, she found herself going from one sex scandal to another. It was ecumenical. It was Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. I know that some of those won us awards. I know that they were more than pro forma. This week... What's the sex scandal of this week? In the Orange County paper, there's a piece about a rabbi who was reprimanded formally by the UAHC."
"Where have you done good and where are you frustrated with your own performance?"
"There's good writing in the paper. We have good columnists. We have good feature stories. I'm happy with our reporters. If there's one piece that's missing from the paper, and that we're always working on trying to get into the paper, is Jewish life as it is lived in LA. That raw Wolfe-ian sense of..."
I start bellowing and pumping my arms and jumping up and down in my seat. "Yeah. Yeah. Scene-by-scene construction. Status details."
"Publisher Stanley Hirsh, a big macher in town, a cantankerous fascinating guy, wanted that. 'Get the gossip in the paper. I want a gossip column.'"
"Lashon Hara Corner."
"He wouldn't have known that [term]. We'd talk to Gene about it and he'd say, Stanley says he wants it but he really doesn't want it. Stanley only wanted it about the people he wants it about. He didn't want it about his friends. Nevertheless, no Jewish paper does it. Bloggers do it but without fact-checking.
"Luke, you have to question why your standard for true Jewish journalism is revelatory personal details. Yossi took you to task for this, correctly so. I'm all for including them when they are relevant, but to only be concerned for those kind of stories means you miss or demean very important communal stories that feature no sex or violence. For every kabbalah center or ecstasy investigative piece, we've done pieces like the recent one on the Federation's $20 million pension shortfall or the JCC's, pieces that affect many lives here but certainly are the opposite of sexy, and that make us no friends among the establishment. I like sex as much as the next guy, but I don't look to my community Jewish paper for a dependable source of titillation.
"We are the Jewish institution that more Jews participate in each week than any other aspect of Jewish life. We have a circulation of 55,000, with a pass-around-rate of three times that many, which is approaching a majority of English-reading Jewish adults in Los Angeles."
I have to confess to a certain skepticism here. In my ten years in LA, I don't recall a lot of people passing around the Jewish Journal. "Hey, did you see what the Journal wrote about..." is not an exclamation I've heard a lot. Walking home from shul on Friday nights, however, I do see many copies of the Journal blowing in the wind.
[Rob writes later: "Cute, but an exaggeration. Many? How many? A dozen unbound newspapers blowing down Pico?" Luke replies: "It varies. Sometimes more than a dozen. Some Friday nights, Pico Blvd below Robertson seems covered with them."]
The answers to many of my questions may be blowing in the wind.
[Rob: "Luke, cliche, cute-sy, you can do better."]
"I think we'd have to get up to 100,000 to really shmear the community. That's our goal, by the end of 2006. Where you can't avoid it, whether you want it or not. We pass out papers around the city and we have a two-three percent return rate. Meaning that two percent of the papers that we pass out for free come back to us. The industry standard, I understand, is ten percent. We want to get to ten percent. We want a lot of papers returned to us so we know that we're saturating the community.
"What else do 150,000 Jews do every week as Jews? They don't celebrate Shabbat.
"It's an enormous responsibility. It gives us this power, this potential grasp of the gestalt of the Jewish community, which I don't yet feel satisfied is reflected in the pages of the paper in an ongoing engaging way."
"Because there are so few writers that can do it?"
"I've talked to a lot of really good writers in town who I think could do it... Many of them make millions writing for movies. They say they'll do it and they might write for us once or twice a year. People like Michael Tolkin. But every minute he spends writing for us is money out of his pocket. He's better and more involved and committed than most."
"He's only done polemical stuff for you."
"Yeah. He hasn't done The Player stuff. I've spoken to him about.
"I've looked for younger people starting out who I feel could do that. It hasn't gelled for us yet. I'm thinking the Internet could be the place where that really happens for us. A section of the paper online on Jewish life as it is lived in LA. It's the anthropology part of me. In a given day, I can go from little Russian shteibls in Fairfax to the backyards of these massive homes in Bel Air. In the course of a week, I'll see the highest, the lowest. The most religious, least religious. I'm just amazed by it. Sometimes I will come into our editorial meetings on Tuesday and be frustrated. Where is that [diversity] in the paper? We have those dutiful articles that nobody else will have. An article on a rabbi accused of [sexual abuse]. This week we have an article on a kid who's suing his school in Canejo Valley because his coach has slandered him.
"You have to have the letters to the editor, because that's the community's voice in the paper. The opinions are important. The singles section is the second most popular part of the paper, sometimes the first. You've got to have obits, the second or third most popular part of the paper."
"Why do you run all the JTA, James David Besser and [days-old Israel stuff]?"
"I'm a James Besser fan. He's got a specifically Jewish take on national politics. JTA is a more valid point. The JTA boilerplate pieces on Israel we tend not to run. The Leslie Susser pieces we do run."
"Why would anyone go to the Jewish Journal for Mideast analysis?"
"I think it's good analysis. Can you imagine a Jewish newspaper that didn't run anything on Israel? Leslie Slusser is better than a lot of stuff on CNN and MSNBC and as good as a lot of stuff you'll see in The New York Times. If I don't learn anything from it, I don't put it in the paper. Could I be more defensive?"
"Does Besser ever break a story or did that stop in the '80s?"
"When did you stop beating your wife? Do you know him? He's a tremendous guy."
"His peers say he doesn't break stories anymore. He's writing for so many different people he doesn't have time to break stories."
"I can't think of the last story he's broken. We don't run him every week. I run him when I think there's something fresh there. This week he has a piece on neo-cons."
"When's the last time Sandee Brawarski..."
"Hated a book? I can even finish your questions for you. Look, those shelves [Rob has enormous book shelves in his office that looks over Wilshire Blvd temple and up to Hollywood and across to Beverly Hills on a clear day], those are the books that have come in in the last couple of weeks. There are so many books out there. If we have one page for a book review every week, sometimes we don't have that much space for a book review, do I want to use that page to slam somebody or to draw people's attention to a book they should be reading? I don't have a lot of space in the paper. The Forward has a lot of space and they do a good job with it and they lose a couple of million dollars a year. I can't. I don't lose any money."
"But she's never written a negative review since Mein Kampf."
Rob laughs. "She gets tons of books."
"Of course. They know they're never going to get a negative review. I'd send her my books too."
"I know there's a blood sport to [writing bad reviews] but I don't have the space. It's not that it is unfair to the person who wrote the bad book but it is unfair to the person who wrote the good book."
"You ran a story about the male administrator [Dr. Amnon Finkelstein, dean of admissions] at the UJ who fell out of the window with a naked female student. Why didn't you name names?"
Long pause. "We've since found out all the sordid details, the names, everything, but at the end of the day, was this a Jewish community story or a story of three people who are Jewish having wild sex? We don't do stories on every Jew booked down at the County jail, or every Jew who commits adultery.
"We just moved on to other things. Gaby Wenig's story reflected the larger implications of the story -- when big institutions that promote Torah values have to deal with scandals that oppose Torah values. The police blotter... It was certainly salacious and would've gotten a lot of people to read the paper but at the end of the day, it was not the story. Now, if it were a UJ rabbi...
"Yeah. We've done stories where we've let all the details hang out..."
"A shooting at Chabad in the Marina. Chabad's a big advertiser. We put Gaby on that story and she and we took nothing but grief.
"So how would you have done it [UJ scandal]? Why didn't you? You have a blog. You can do what you want."
"I did do it. I gave the name of the director of admissions at UJ who fell with the girl."
"You did the Milken High [porn] video scandal?" asks Rob.
"[I did it a week before the JJ.] You ran such pious New Age quotes from the administration about the students' self esteem. This video circulated for a year. What does that tell you about the huge disconnect between the people running the school and the students?"
"When a Jewish newspaper takes on any subject like that, we're already on somebody's s--- list. Just for that first phone call. Every parent calls you and pleads with you [not to do a story]. Every administrator calls. When that doesn't work, the heavy guns come out. The people who think their money runs the town. They say, 'How is this building community? How is this helping the Jews? Do you know what kind of pain this is going to cause?'
"I think about all these things, the last being most important. I live in this community. The thing about Jewish journalism is that you s--- where you eat. You do things that the stupidest animal in the world knows not to do but the Jewish journalist makes his living that way. You have to go back to the same well for the next story. You're always coming face-to-face with these people on a personal level."
"Forget Shabbos dinner. How about the men's room at Temple Beth Am? You try to sneak out of services and catch a break at the urinal and some guy says, 'I didn't appreciate that last comment in that article.' Or you get pitched on something, which is constant.
"It's rare that we find details germane to a story that we don't report."
"Does that mean you don't have good reporters?"
Rob laughs. "People call us with crap on everybody. The community that wants only the best [dishes crap on others]. 'I don't see why you do negative stuff on us. You should be doing it on Chabad. How does it help the community to be so nasty to a Jewish institution? Meanwhile, did you hear what the UJ's doing? We do collect the Jay Edgar Hoover files on people. But a lot of it is just rumors and lashon hara.'
"The thing that differentiates a newspaper from a blog is that we bring journalistic standards to bear. Things have to be multi-sourced. We try to get things on the record. Lots of verification.
"Every day I get people with funny accents giving deep dark information. Sure, we could be that kind of paper 24/7. There are intellectuals who want us to be Commentary West. There are literati who want us to be New York Review of Books West. But our audience is everybody. Six hundred thousand who are a city unto themselves. When people say, 'Why can't you do such-and-such in the Jewish Journal?', what they really mean is, 'Why can't you reaffirm my sense of what Jewish life is?' Why can't you reaffirm my Jewish existence for me in every one of your 60 pages. Everybody, in every single issue, is going to read something that bores them, interests them, offends them and excites them. What's so funny with Jews is that they have this sense of entitlement with their community paper. It should be their paper. When they get the Wall Street Journal, do they expect every page they turn to be intensely interesting? I don't. When I read the Jewish Journal, there are stories that bore me but I expect that."
"Remember that cover story you did a few months ago about eight new rabbis in town? There were no telling details in the whole piece."
"I can tell you about a lot of stories that didn't live up to expectations but we put out a paper a week. Any good stories?"
"I love Teresa Strasser stories. Joel Kotkin. Umm..."
"I don't want to bust your brains coming up with good stories. I can tell that your ears are steaming. I can see that this is way too strenuous for you."
"How is the Internet and Jewish blogging affecting Jewish journalism?"
"I don't think anybody knows. It's another source of information distribution and we're in the information distribution business. At some point, we're going to have to figure out how to get that information distribution into the life of the Jewish Journal. Blogging is here to stay. Some of it is interesting. I think you told me that it is parasitic on real reporting on real Web sites. I hope people understand that blogs aren't reporting. Sometimes it is just a shadow of other reporting and sometimes it is just made-up s---. The people who are smart understand this and the people who aren't aren't going to get it anyway. It has the luxury of space. We run 50/50 every week between ads and copy. In the summer, when we're in advertising doldrums, it means we're going to have a 40-page paper. That means a 20-page newspaper, with about six pages for news.
"We've done hard-hitting stories. I know. You're going, hard-hitting stories in the Jewish Journal? We did hard-hitting stories on the Wiesenthal Center and how much money [Rabbi Marvin] Hier is getting."
"You mean the story that broke in the LA Weekly and you followed up on it [with defensive explanations for the Hier-family salaries]?"
"Yeah, but we had raised some of those questions previously."
"Do you really think your story on salaries at the Wiesenthal Center was hard-hitting? Was there anything new in it from the LA Weekly?"
"Did it hit them [Wiesenthal Center] hard? Yes. Was it hard-hitting? I don't know."
"Tom did interview teachers at YULA [affiliated with the Wiesenthal Center, where R. Hier is the dean] and people who had specific complaints about not getting supplies.
"The Wiesenthal Center doesn't advertise in the LA Weekly and their contributors don't read the LA Weekly. They read the Jewish Journal. So for a story like that hits them hard. And we did it responsibly, getting Hier's reaction, not just the accusations against him.
"The JCC [branches closing around LA] story broke with us and then we followed it into the grave."
"Oh God, did you..."
"You and Amy. It affects a lot of people. It doesn't affect you. I felt it was a huge mistake the Federation was making."
"You wrote several columns about that."
"We really ran it into the dust according to people who weren't interested."
"I read large parts of both. I just didn't finish them. My take on The New Rabbi was that it would've been a compelling 20-page article in The New Yorker. I just felt that he kept trying to establish why it was such a big story. And if you have to try to do that, it weakens it. A Tracy Kidder, John McPhee, or even a Sam Freedman in Jew vs Jew, you don't have to tell the reader why this is such a big story. Fried kept putting that in and it annoyed me. I found it hard to believe that it was interesting to non-Jews and I find it hard to believe that the book did that well. Critically it did well but I don't think it sold a lot of copies. It didn't have much resonance outside the Jewish community. Was it a best seller?
"He kept trying to tell people what was at stake. I think he consciously decided that this was a microcosm of this macrocosm and I just didn't buy it and eventually I lost my interest. I know David [Wolpe] and I read a lot of it with that in mind.
"Postville I thought would've been a great movie. I was fascinated by the whole slaughterhouse thing. I liked Jew Vs Jew. He tells each story completely. He gets into the characters. He establishes the conflict and plays it out. I thought the conflict was genuinely reflective of conflicts in Jewish life. I brought Sam out here to talk to our staff about that kind of writing."
"Did it do any good?"
We laugh. "I don't know. We try our best. It's so unseemly to toot our own horn. We get more awards than we've ever gotten before."
I'm trying my damnedest not to burst out laughing. Awards from the AJPA [American Jewish Press Association]. Big deal.
"From other boring journalists," says Rob.
I burst out laughing and Rob laughs too.
"How did you know [what I was thinking]?" I ask.
"You've got the worst poker face I've seen."
"What's that horrible group, the American Association of..."
"They are not our best and brightest."
Rob laughs. "I'm on the board. Look, I think Jewish journalism is in an interesting spot now. Our goal is to be the best Jewish paper in America. To be the best weekly in America. Why not?"
"Better than Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker?"
"Why not? Commentary started somewhere."
I burst out laughing.
"Why shouldn't we aim high? We have amazing talent in this town. It might take a different format, a different editor in chief. There is no reason that a paper devoted to Jewish life that has the resources of Jewish talent can't have great aspirations. Some say a Jewish journal should only talk about Jewish stuff. I say a Jewish journal should talk about stuff of interest to Jews."
"Wouldn't it be great if you had Sam Freedman writing for you?"
"Time and money. I'm looking for the next Sam Freedman. It's hard to find a Sam Freedman in LA. Most of those really great Jewish journalists who live and breathe the Jewish beat don't live in LA. Marlene Marks (managing editor who died of lung cancer a few years ago) was one of them."
"How much of The Jewish Week do you find a good read?"
"I find Gary a good read. Jonathan Mark. They do a good job covering their swath of the community. They have a smaller swath than we do. They tend to the more traditional swathe and we do everybody. I don't think Gary would put gay marriage on the cover. We get no credit from you for that."
Rob laughs. "No matter the amount of s--- we took. It was exciting. We don't do it to shock. We think these are important issues for the Jewish community to face. Some people think the Jewish Journal is not the place to face them. I don't know where else is. Certainly the LA Times is not going to deal with gay marriage from a Jewish perspective.
"In 1998, I did a cover story on the Kaballah Center. Only New York magazine had done a cover story on them."
"That was a hard-hitting piece."
Rob smiles. "Boy, I'm really flattered. I'm offended and flattered that you remember the pieces that could've been better."
"You reported the details of R. Avraham Union getting a slaughtered lamb's head left on his door [the day before he was going to mail out to all the rabbis in town a devastating letter on the Kabbalah Center. After the head, he did not send out the letter.]"
"And all the people you quoted who thought the Jewish Journal wasn't hard-hitting wouldn't talk on the record about that because they were worried about a sheep's head."
"Who wrote that?"
"Oh, God bless."
"Boy, I actually get a compliment out of you.
"The Kabbalah Center never stopped advertising. They've been a steady advertiser over the year. We did a story where we took their bottled holy water and had it analyzed for content, and made a mockery of their claims, and they still advertise. I think they understand that we're doing our job, they're doing their job. And we all meet together in the Jewish Journal."
"Which segment of the Jewish community is the surliest?"
"Like I'm going to answer that?" laughs Rob. "They all have their moments. You could fill the Jewish Journal with the worst of the Jewish community every week. I think that's better left for blogs."
"Who do you think complains the most about the Jewish Journal?"
I collapse into my chair laughing.
"It's flattering. I read your piece. Somebody sent me your interview with Jonathan Sarna. He goes into this long critique of Jewish papers. You ask him if he reads the Jewish Journal. He says, when I'm in LA. Here's a scholar proffering a scholarly opinion on American Jewish journalism, who then admits he only reads the Journal maybe twice a year. It was offensive. How do you talk about the state of Jewish journalism without taking into account the second largest Jewish newspaper in the country."
"Same way that nobody on the East Coast ever talks about The LA Times."
"No one in East Coast Jewry talks about West Coast Jewry. I don't think in his book American Judaism, Los Angeles is mentioned once in 500 pages. I don't think the West is mentioned. You didn't bust him on it either."
"Do you think that he doesn't read the Jewish Journal reflects more on him or on you?"
"If he wants to have an opinion, it reflects on him. Don't you? What do you think?"
"Yeah. I just found it funny. When people accidentally tell the truth, yeah."
"You got him on that. He reads The Jewish Week, the Boston paper, which has a ways to go, the Connecticut paper which tries hard but is a Federation paper, New Jersey, Federation paper. We get written off by people here as a Federation paper. It would be nice if they were informed. I'm glad that we do our job more carefully."
I make a guilty laugh. I've written off the Jewish Journal in the past as a Federation paper. I was wrong.
"I think the Orthodox community gives you the hardest time," I say.
"I think the Orthodox community has the hardest time with us. They don't always give me the hardest time. I get along with them. I have good relationships with Rabbis May and Muskin and Chabad and others. I know Amy is really close with Rabbi Adlerstein. I have tons of respect for Danny Korobkin and Yosef Kanefsky."
"He must be regretting that [liberal] quote he gave you about gay marriage."
"I think they take a lot of this stuff harder than anyone else. What most Jews consider normative like gay Jews. There are two major gay Jewish synagogues in this town. There's major gay Jewish money that supports major institutions in this town. Our job is to reflect the Jewish community as it is, not as one portion of it wants it to be. They have a hard time that we put men seeking men ads in the paper. That we put gay marriage announcements in the paper. Gene was incredibly courageous to start that. Long before it was a twinkling in the eyes of The New York Times. Gene fought big battles over that. It's a huge credit to our board that they support us in these things. It's ideal."
"What do you clash with the board most?"
"Nothing. We're better off financially than we've ever been. We've doubled our circulation in the past four years. When I took over, the median age [of readership] was 49. Now it's in its early 30s, I'd say. We've kept a core of wealthy older Jews who are major contributors to the community. It's a balancing act in every issue to appeal across the board and move the conversation along. You want people to be arguing about the Jewish Journal at your dinner table."
My perception of the median age of Jewish newspaper readers nationwide is over 50. You just have to look at the papers to see how unhip they are. The Jewish Journal is the best looking Jewish paper in America.
"How often does a macher in the community threaten to go on a financial jihad against you?"
"At least every year, someone threatens to or starts another Jewish paper. The last one was in the Valley. They told me they were finally going to publish a paper from the Orthodox Republican perspective."
I ask Rob if he's a cheerleader for LA Jewish life. He says yes. "Jewish life here is fascinating. The level of scholarship here is astonishing. The level of political activity is historic. The level of Jewish innovation is groundbreaking. Sarna completely missed this in his book."
I complain about plodding cover stories, such as the recent one on Mare Winningham, the actress who converted from Catholicism to Judaism.
"You missed the part about her being a serial killer?" asks Rob. "You read too fast."
"I want something to surprise me. I knew it all just by the cover headline."
"You've got a high standard. You need a money shot. Sometimes you don't get that. You've still got to go to press."
"Has Naomi Pfefferman (arts editor) ever written a critical celebrity story?"
"I don't know. Probably not."
"What does that mean?"
"That Naomi has never written a critical celebrity story."
"If some Jew has a movie or TV show coming out and they are profiled in the Jewish Journal, I know it is going to be a positive profile."
"So give me the model of the negative story you'd like to see?"
Amy Wallace's takedown of Peter Bart in Los Angeles magazine, the result of months of exhaustive reporting which the Jewish Journal could not afford.
"The abominable behavior that goes on routinely in Hollywood. [Drugs, whores, egotism.] Death threats."
"You have a much more difficult time with your sources."
"I think there are places for that in journalism. I'm not sure there's a place for that in every 1100-word profile that is mostly fulfilling that information need. These are no less hard-hitting than the celebrity profiles in Vanity Fair. Entertainment journalism tends to be profoundly positive. I defy you to find a critical piece on a celebrity because that is the last interview that reporter is ever going to get with a celebrity."
"That's why you guys have such great access."
"Because you're powder puffs," I think to myself.
"Naomi has amazing access. In 18-years, one person has said no to us. That was Al Franken when his first book came out. The second book he said yes. I can't think of one person we can't reach."
"Because they know that you'll be nice."
"No. Hier and Cooper and Federation people and politicians we haven't been nice to will come on the phone. At the end of the day, the dust settles and they realize we've told another side of the story and the world hasn't collapsed around the Jews. If there were three Jewish newspapers in town, there would be more [powder puff journalism]. It's very expensive to put out a paper."
"I don't know anything about economics."
Rob laughs. "It's easier to be independent and tough when you are the only Jewish paper in town.
"Say we're not at the quality Luke Ford wants, but say we're at an above-average quality. We provide advertisers with access to an upscale, educated and involved demographic, unique in this region. Everybody here gets a good wage. We're at the industry standard. Nobody is being screwed here because they're part of the Jewish community and have the honor of working here. We try to pay writers what is standard for freelancers. We're self-sustaining. We provide a weekly service to readers for free or for a minimal subscription cost. Thanks to our business staff, it works without us having to be beholden to any one communal interest."
Rob is called away. As he walks out, he hands me Los Angeles magazine. "If you want hard-hitting... What's their excuse?"
Three minutes later.
"What do you think of LA journalism?"
"The best now is on KPCC."
Managing editor Amy Klein walks in. "I'm sorry but..."
"He's sucking me dry," smiles Rob.
"I know," she says. "But we need to go to press and I need you to..."
"I've looked at everything."
"Who are the biggest wankers [in the Jewish press]?"
Rob sighs. "We all have our moments."
"When you're at the AJPA, do you feel like you're with a sharp crowd?"
"You're with your peers. A lot of it is some whining, kvetching, drinking, talking show about advertising rates, software. These are your cousins."
"Your retarded cousins?"
"Some are really bright. I defy you to find many journalists in this country who are as good as Andy Carroll."
"What happened to the part of you that wanted to publish all the salacious details?"
"I get accused of always doing it. People pick on me that I am only interested in sex. I think in some ways we're pussycats.
"The Jewish Week and the Forward would never run Teresa Strasser. Meanwhile, she's won all sorts of awards and her career's taking off and she's a terrific writer. But she writes about making out with a guy at 3 a.m. in a strip joint in Hollywood. I get all the time, how does that build Jewish community?"
[Eve Kessler writes: "That's false. We have run personal essays about women and sex that were just as pungent as Teresa's. I don't know if teresa every pitched anything to us. If so, we would only take it if it was exclusive. I'm a fan of her's, actually, having met her many years ago when she was at The NCJB. But the idea that he's the only one who would run a cute, light chick column about sex is just bunk. We ran an interview with a jewish stripper on page 1 probably 11 years ago already."]
"Do you get more hate mail over her?"
"We did, but it's like The Simpsons and Howard Stern. What started out as anti-establishment and everybody hated it, now I get 80-year old grandmothers coming up to me and complaining that there's not enough Teresa Strasser in the paper.
"We're doing a better job than any other institution in town reaching younger people.
"All our male writers get married within two weeks of writing a column. These women could write singles columns for 30 years... They can get a lot of dates because of it but they won't find a guy."
The Journal has not been sued for libel since Eshman has served as editor (and just once since he's been at the paper). Jonathan Kirsch is the Journal's libel lawyer.
"There are certain people who every time their name is in the paper, they call and threaten to sue for libel."
It's annoying to interview someone who knows more about every single question you raise than you do. He knows more about LA Jewish life, but unlike me, he's not going to use it to hurt people.
I leave at 7:30 p.m. Our last hour together was off-the-record chitchat. When I give Rob some grudging accolades for his work, he says, "No, no. Stick to your guns. 'It's a boring paper.'"
Rob encourages me to pitch in with suggestions on how to make the Journal a more exciting paper. I think I'd rather stay a part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
All I want from my Jewish paper, to adapt a saying on a a t-shirt, is peace in the Middle East and a ---- ---. Is that too much to ask?
When I read an article in the Jewish Journal, I want to feel my whole body convulsed by tension, climaxed by a satisfying conclusion that makes me scream, "Oh my God. Oh my God. That was the best ever." Is that too much to ask?
I want to leave my tawdry life while reading the paper and float in an ethereal world. Is that too much to ask?
Each time I open up the pages of the Journal, I expect my experience to usher in a messianic age. Each time I'm disappointed. It makes me very very angry.
Rob Eshman writes: "I just read Geneís [previous editor] interview with you. Really interesting. I canít imagine that outside of me, you and Gene anyone would be interested, but I appreciate your doing it. Gene is thoughtful and independent, and much of what is good about the paper was his doing. BTW, he was wrong on most, if not all, the facts concerning my family and its Rothschildean wealth. But as we sat around the 17th century Carerra marble mantle piece in the family library on the ancestral Eshman manse next door to the Heinzís little place, we all had a good, rich laugh."
I found this on an obit (presumably written by son David) of Herb Brin, the cantankerous publisher of Heritage, a Jewish paper in Southern California: "The leaders of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation-Council who were sometimes derided by Brin as machers or big shots responded by converting its monthly house organ, the Jewish Community Bulletin, into a subsidized weekly newspaper in competition with the independently-owned Jewish press of Los Angeles. The Bulletin's successor, the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, still requires an annual subsidy of more than $2 million in charity money."
I email Rob Eshman, editor of the Jewish Journal, about this. He replies: "We don't receive a subsidy from the Federation, not for two dollars, and not for two million. "The Federation buys a dwindling number of subscriptions from us-- about 5K next year. The rest of our circulation (50-65 K) is distributed through other subs (including shuls and other orgs that also buy subs for donors or members) and free distribution."
Luke emails: "Has the JJ ever had its staff take something like this: "Train and sensitize Jewish Week reporters and editors to UJA-Federation as a resource and seek out its perspective on important stories."
Rob replies: "Do we expect writers and editors to familiarize themselves with Jewish institutions and sources, including the Federation, and use them to inform particular stories when appropriate? Uh, yes. Do we have some training agreement or understanding with the Federation? No. Do we train writers to be skeptical and verify and balance information any Jewish institution or source offers, and supplement their interviews with independent research and analysis, rather than just parrot every accusation or statement? Yes."
Luke emails Rob Eshman: "Jason Maoz, editor of the Press. Do you regard him as a peer? It seems that few journalists for the mainstream Jewish weeklies accord The Jewish Press any respect? He complained that The Jewish Press was not taken seriously for AJPA awards. He regards the AJPA as in the thrall of Gary Rosenblatt. Would prefer an on-the-record response but will settle for anything."