Samuel G. Freedman Interviews
January 16, 2003
Author Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia and author of the (2000) book Jew vs Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.
1 - State of Jewish journalism. I think it is generally lackluster.
Sam Freedman: I don't buy your sweeping generalization at all. Think of recent books like Stephen Bloom's Postville, Nicholas Dawidoff's The Catcher Was a Spy, Lis Harris's Holy Days, Bruce Feiler's Walking the Bible. I think there's actually been quite a lot of vivid, incisive writing on Jewish lives by Jewish writers.
2 - What were the most common criticisms you received on your book? Did you get accused of lashon hara?
Sam Freedman: The most common criticism I got was from secular Jews who objected to my depiction of secular/cultural/ethnic Jewishness as being in a state of deterioration and decline. I don't recall anyone bringing up the lashon hara issue. Actually, I got a fair amount of positive feedback about having found a way to be fair to people in different ideological and theological camps.
3 - There seems to be something about Jewish communal life that tends to stifle good writing?
Sam Freedman: Again, your premise is so sweeping that I can't accept it. It's true that many Jewish community newspapers struggle with the tug-of-war between being journalists and being communal organs (especially for papers owned by the local Jewish Federation). But actually I think the quality of these papers has improved dramatically since I was a teenager in the 60s and 70s and they published mostly press releases. Certainly, the Forward has set a standard for bold reporting. But look at what Gary Rosenblatt has done at the New York Jewish Week -- he broke the story of sexual harassment by Rabbi Lanner of the OU.
4 - I thought Fried's book was very similar to Wilkes AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE but Stephen did not see the resemblance. Fried told me, Wilkes wasn't Jewish. I don't think that matters. Agree or disagree?
Sam Freedman: Having written one of my own books about a black church, I absolutely believe an outsider -- if he/she does diligent, thorough research -- and do as good a job as an insider. But I haven't read Wilkes' book.
Luke to author Stephen Fried: "What did you think of Samuel Freedman's book Jew Vs Jew?"
Stephen: "I liked it. It's much more about political issues between the Jewish denominations. Sam and I have become friendly. His book about the black church, Upon This Rock, is closer to the kind of project I did. Sam was the first person to agree to blurb my book. I'm teaching at Columbia now in part because of his support. Freedman blazed the trail for real journalism about Judaism and with Upon This Rock encouraged journalism about other religious organizations."
Luke to Jonathan Tobin, editor of the Jewish Exponent weekly out of Philadelphia: "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."
Luke talked to Ari Goldman, professor at the Columbia School of Journalism:
Ari: "Sam Freedman in Jew Vs Jew applies the same sort of journalistic techniques that he learned in writing about schools and politics and the black church. Sam and I work together. I know his method. Before he publishes a book, he shows it to the people he wrote about. If he did a chapter on Luke Ford, he would run it by you and say, 'You're not my censor, I want to make sure that I got this right. I want to make sure that I'm not hurting you. I want to make sure I didn't do anything under false pretenses.' Now, that's not common journalistic practice."
Luke: "You're right that's not common journalistic practice. We wouldn't do that with the goyim."
Ari: "But he did it with the goyim. He did it on his church book and on his education book. Not for approval, but he didn't want to say something in book form that was inaccurate."
From Beliefnet.com's review of Jew Vs Jew:
Michael Lewyn writes on Amazon.com:
Lowkell writes on Amazon.com:
Janneur from Oyster Bay Cove, NY writes on Amazon.com:
Mark Mills writes on Amazon.com:
JACKI LYDEN, host on NPR: Tonight marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, a time for reflection and atonement in the Jewish faith. American Jews have had strong and often divided opinions about peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. For many, the security of Israel is an issue central to identity as well as faith. The preponderance of Jewish opinion in America has supported the peace process, but now, says writer Samuel G. Freedman, many moderate Jews find themselves asking painful questions. Freedman has just finished a book on American Jewry, and he says many moderate Jews feel paralyzed, and that the most hawkish predictions may be coming true.
Mr. SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN (Writer): There is kind of a stunned recognition of this and really a kind of soul sickness. Because just as you hear Israeli doves talk about the emotional and psychic exhaustion of being at war all the time and a desire to just be one nation among other nations, I think, similarly, in parts of the American Jewish community- -in the liberal part of it--there's a similar desire for this to be over, for this to be settled, for there to be, in the language that is often used, not a marriage with the Palestinians, but some kind of divorce, just a separation, and that would sort of go away. And now, plainly, it's revisiting in a more severe way than it has in a generation.
LYDEN: Speaking of a generation, Anwar Sadat first went to Israel in 1977. That's when we first had some idea that there could be peace between Jews and Arabs. Is it your fear that those Jews who've always been the most skeptical about that, the most hawkish, will have more validity now in their outlook?
Mr. FREEDMAN: Yeah, absolutely. The right wing of American Jewry, just like the right wing of Israeli Jewry, looks extremely validated right now. When American Jews, even at the most liberal end of the spectrum, saw news photos and film footage of Joseph's Tomb being destroyed and being set on fire and when they read about Hezbollah coming across the border fence to abduct three Israeli soldiers, these were the most dire forecasts of the conservative part of the American Jewish community come to life. This was everything that liberals like me had been warned about and had tended to diminish or discount happening in front of our eyes. LYDEN: Whatever opportunity the Palestinians may have lost in peacemaking, at the negotiating table, Ariel Sharon did go to Temple Mount, Haram el-Sharif, in a very provocative gesture. And the facts on the ground are that the Israelis have superior force and have now issued an ultimatum. Can you place the blame on Ehud Barak's shoulders?
Mr. FREEDMAN: I don't think so at this stage. I think that there' s a growing sense that if this is the stability or the safety of Israel at issue here, then there's not going to be a lot of anxiety about the use of the army. You know, because, again, you not only have violence in the territories, you now have violence even within the Arab communities inside Israel proper. So this is a very different situation already from the intifada.
LYDEN: So the idea is: If our country really is at peril, then we will use whatever force we deem necessary to keep it at bay.
Mr. FREEDMAN: Right. Right. And here's a better way of saying it. I think American Jews in the main, especially those who haven't independently educated themselves deeply about the situation in Israel, are going to look for their cues from two people, from Bill Clinton and from Ehud Barak. So I think when Ehud Barak says, `We're giving you an ultimatum. We're not going to restrain the army anymore after Monday night,' that American Jews, for the most part, are willing to follow him there. And for those who choose to follow it more closely, you' ve been seeing some writings over the last month or two from leading Israeli peace advocates, people like the novelist Ama Saz(ph) and the politician Ara Ham Berg(pH), basically saying, `If it gets to be an issue of national survival in our eyes, expect us to pick up our guns.' And I think that that penetrates the American Jewish consciousness.
July 23, 2004
Author Samuel G. Freedman calls me back.
"What were the unique obstacles you faced in writing Jew Vs Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (as opposed to your other books on non-Jewish topics)?"
"It's always different writing about your own community. One of the things that intimidated me as I first thought about taking on the subject was whether I was well-versed enough to dare try it. I hadn't had a formal religious education. I felt confident in my abilities as a historian but I felt intimidated and inadequate to writing about the religious aspects, which were essential to the book.
"When I wrote a book about a black Christian church [Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church], because I was a white Jew, nobody in that congregation had an expectation that I would know anything. That was wonderful. I learned along the way. I had a big fear that in Jewish circles, my ignorance would be held against me. That fear wasn't borne out.
"I didn't realize until after the book came out that it was, in part, an excuse for me to educate myself about something I was interested in.
"I was concerned that there might be an issue of, why are you airing our dirty linen in public? If we're seen in public as being divided, it means that we will be conquered. I was familiar with those concerns. When I wrote the book about the black church, there was this sense of lively debate within the congregation, but a concern that if you let the rest of the world know about it, it will be used against us.
"It didn't come up that much.
"My desire was not to take sides in the conflicts but to try to understand them. For the most part, I got credit from people for hearing them out and not wanting to take sides. Much of the writing up until that point had been partisan.
"One guy in Beachwood, Ohio, said to me when I introduced myself and said I wanted to be fair and evenhanded, 'What if fair is wrong?'"
"Did writing the book change you?"
"No. I am not so easily changed."
"Anyone in the book get angry at you about it afterward?"
"The people in Great Neck, the ones who move out because they don't like their observant neighbors, the wife was upset. She posted a nasty review of the book on Amazon. It really wasn't a review and I asked Amazon to remove it for this reason. She alleged that I had falsified things from the interview, which was entirely untrue. But most of the feedback was positive. Several people I wrote about contacted me to say that I had treated them fairly. Others, who I wrote about at great length, I did not hear from.
"Writing about the Library Minyan [at Beth Am (C) in Los Angeles] was important proof that I could get to all sides and get it right. Particularly in writing that chapter, whenever I wrote about any given character, the reader had to believe that I had complete sympathy with that character and complete understanding about what their experience had been."
"How do you handle the issue of lashon hara Vs reporting the truth?"
"Lashon hara to me means gossip and rumor mongering and things, even when true, that are meant purely to defame. I've never trafficked in that. I think there is a key difference between mere gossip and writing about issues of consequence that interplay with person's lives.
"If Bill Clinton had a private sexual affair, that doesn't rise to the level of news. But, let's say he's having an affair while publicly campaigning for legislation to promote marriage, then the disparity between the public stance and the private behavior does make it germane. Certainly in a case like his where it involved lying to a grand jury, then it is certainly germane."
"Who is telling the story of the American Jewish experience with depth and passion?"
"There are some wonderful novelists: Allegra Goodman, Tova Mirvis, Nathan Englander, Gary Shteyngart, Art Spiegelman. I think this is a rich moment in Jewish American writing. When the great Jewish writers were Malamud, Roth and Bellow, they were telling the stories of the generation that immigrated and assimilated. Now, you have a generation post-Holocaust literature written by the children of Holocaust survivors. Two, you have the renaissance of Orthodoxy and serious religious observance and good fiction written about it (Allegra Goodman, Tova Mirvis). Three, you have the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union like Gary Shteyngart who are telling the story of the new immigration story."
"Who is telling the story of the American Jewish experience with depth and passion via journalism?"
"Stephen Bloom's book Postville. You've had a substantial improvement in the past 20 years in the quality of Jewish journalism. The creation of the English-language Forward, The Jewish Week under Gary Rosenblatt... You have some exquisite historians: Jonathan Sarna, Gerald Sorin, Deborah Dash Moore. Sociologist Sam Heilman. Chaim Waxman. I haven't seen the great nonfiction book yet on the demise of secular Jewish life."
"Would you describe The Jewish Week as a compelling read?"
"I feel compelled to read the paper every week. I read several things each week. I feel the same way about the Forward. I also read the Jerusalem Report and Haaretz online."
"I know Rob Eshman brought you in to the Jewish Journal to share your expertise. How much success have you had in teaching others' your journalistic techniques?"
"I don't know. You'd have to ask them."
"I fear to say that I haven't seen it in the Jewish Journal."
"I don't know. I did a workshop for one day. It's not the same as having a student at Columbia over the course of a whole year."
"Do you find yourself reading their papers afterwards and trying to see if they got it?"
"No. I don't have time."
"What do you tell Jewish weeklies when you do your one-day seminar?"
"I say that you are not doing a service to your community by pretending that conflicts don't exist. I point to people like Gary Rosenblatt who've been courageous in reporting on painful difficult intra-communal issues such as sexual abuse."