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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.

Luke asks:

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:

Freedman's conclusion of an Orthodox victory seems unwarranted. "Jew vs. Jew" is not sociology, despite the occasional appearance of a sociologist. "I make no claims for this book to be encyclopedic, all-encompassing," he writes. But this candor, while commendable, doesn't free him of the burden of proof for his dire forecast. Indeed, I suspect his prediction is wrong. For all his peregrinations, Freedman seems to be viewing American Judaism through the lens of New York City, where the Orthodox community is disproportionately large. It's my impression (admittedly, I don't have sociological data either) that most American Jews are secure in their secular, or Reform, or Conservative lives. They may feel some wistfulness about abandoning certain of their parents' or grandparents' observances as they have become more Americanized, but they are generally happy with the tradeoff. Indeed, most American Jews look upon those who wear black hats, or even yarmulkes outside of temple, as very distant kinsmen. (Beliefnet, Aug. 2000)

Michael Lewyn writes on Amazon.com:

This book is basically a collection of magazine articles without much in common except that they involve some kind of intra-Jewish disagreement. Like a magazine article, it is thankfully a quick read; I finished reading it in five or six hours (about as much as it deserves). On balance, I didn't react as violently (either pro or con) as some other reviewers did. Generally, the stories were mildly interesting. I think Freedman tries to be fair-minded, though there are a couple of biases that I think don't make sense outside the nation's most Jewish cities. Perhaps because he lives in NYC (the nation's most Jewish city), he overestimates the severity of Orthodox/non-Orthodox infighting; for example, he focuses on a bitter Orthodox vs. non-Orthodox zoning dispute in a Cleveland suburb which I subject is almost unprecedented outside the biggest cities, for the simple reason that very few places outside NYC are 80% Jewish (as the suburb in question was). Also, he has weirdly pessimistic about modern Orthodoxy, virtually predicting its extinction (perhaps because of NYC's huge Hasidic population). In Atlanta, where I live, modern Orthodoxy seems to be on the proverbial move, other forms of Orthodoxy are barely noticeable to anyone outside the Orthodox community (except for Chabad, which seems to get on OK with everyone) and the various types of Jews go about their business and don't bother each other.

Lowkell writes on Amazon.com:

In "Jew Vs, Jew," Samuel Freedman has something to say, and overall says it well, but still I recommend that you take this book with a large grain (maybe even a pillar!) of salt. For instance, Freedman argues that the "Orthodox model" has "triumphed," but at the same time there is evidence (which he doesn't cite) that enrollment of non-orthodox Jewish children at Jewish Day Schools is booming. Also, as Freedman himself acknowledges (in the last line of the book -- "the only ones fighting are the only ones left who care"), the vast majority of Jewish-Americans (especially the "just Jews" group, as Freedman calls them) are NOT involved in this "struggle for the soul of American Jewry." What about all those people? And what are the implications of the fact that most of these people are proceeding with their lives regardless of what the Orthodox "establishment" thinks about them? Is Freedman writing off half (or more) of the American Jewish population, or is he just not interested? Examples like this make me feel that although "Jew vs. Jew" is well-written (in a journalistic style), it somehow is missing the forest for the trees, and also that it lacks rigor - i.e., hard evidence and an analytical framework to put all the anecdotes (interesting though they may be) in some sort of intellectual context.

Three other criticisms of "Jew vs. Jew." First, Freedman claims (ambitiously) to be painting a picture of "the soul of American Jewry" today. But does Freedman really believe that there IS one "soul" and one "American Jewry" - or should be -- in such a large, diverse population? Second, Freedman argues that, in America, Jews are being "loved to death," and that this is a bad thing. But wait a second...isn't it GOOD that anti-Semitism has declined to the lunatic fringe? And, is it really soooo bad that, given the freedom to do so, different Jews will chart their own course towards God and religious expression? What's wrong with having a whole range of Jews - from politically and socially liberal, secular humanists to politically and socially conservative, ultra-Orthodox - out there, anyway? Christianity has that, and it seems to be doing just fine! And Freedman never explains why, just because Jews are a minority in America, they are doomed to fail. What about the explosive growth of other religious minorities in America (Mormons, Muslims, etc.)? Finally, Freedman seems to ignore the fact that much of the conflict he cites regarding Jews in America is really about power and money. How about some honest discussion about fears and prejudices among non-Orthodox, suburban Jews, who fear that an influx of Orthodox Jews will overwhelm their town, hurt their schools, and perhaps drive down their property values?

It's not that I think Freedman is totally off base in what he has to say - indeed, the liberal, secular, Zionist Camp Kinderwelt IS dead, and the ultra-Orthodox Kiryas Joel IS thriving. Also, there's no doubt that intermarriage rates are very high, probably over 50%, and that many (most?) of the offspring from these marriages are not being raised Jewish in any meaningful sense. It's also definitely true that there ARE passionate disagreements between Jews - just as with all other groups of people (Christians, for instance). But Freedman never really explains how arguments within the Jewish community are NECESSARILY a bad thing. Would Freedman really prefer a monolithic community or one in which arguments are suppressed?

Anyway, in my opinion Freedman's book really should be subtitled: "These are the kind of problems you WANT to have!" For one of the first times in history, Jews have nearly complete freedom, and lack of anti-Semitic persecution, in a majority non-Jewish country, and to all that I say: mazel tov! The question now is whether Judaism - in all its manifestations - can adapt and compete in the free marketplace of ideas that is America. True, Camp Kinderwelt itself may be dead, and its liberal, Zionist, secular orientation on the wane at the moment, but something tells me that it's not the end of the story quite yet. The Jews - however they are defined -- have been written off many times, but somehow are still around. Camp Kinderwelt is dead...long live Camp Kinderwelt!

Janneur from Oyster Bay Cove, NY writes on Amazon.com:

Dr. Freedman purports to write a nonfiction reportorial piece. Therefore, I think it is important for the public to know that in reporting my interview with him for this book. Dr. Freedman appears to have very selective hearing. After reading the book, I was rather taken aback to see that whether deliberately or unconsciously, Dr. Freedman misquoted me, misunderstood what I had to say and basically bent my remarks to fit his own agenda.

Essentially, during my interview I told him I deplore fundamentalism whether in my own religion or someone else's and I did not want to live among fundamentalists. I also mentioned that as a feminist, I was horrified by the behavior of orthodox men in relation to women. I told him that while I respected the communal atmosphere of the orthodox, I found that it frequently infringed on the rights of others less communal in their life style.

While Dr. Freedman did not report any of those remarks in his book, he editorialized that I was intimidated by the orthodox and that I had only a cursory understanding of my own religion. Both of those remarks are untrue. Given that Dr. Freedman made no attempt to cover his subject fairly and without bias, I warn readers to view the book as an opinion piece rather than a factual accounting.

Mark Mills writes on Amazon.com:

Having just suffered through this book, I feel as though the encomnia showered on the author must be tempered somewhat. Given the author's credentials -- former NYT reporter, professor of journalism -- one would be excused for thinking that he might have the barest inkling how to write engagingly, or, if not, at least interestingly. Unfortunately, freed from a newspaper's space constraints, Mr Freedman does nothing but blather endlessly and leadenly, making sand from the rocks he tirelessly pounds. Each of the topics he essays to examine is, in itself, of interest; however, by the time he finishes describing the provenance of, e.g., the dog's veterinarian's psychiatrist's rebbe's education and dining habits (well, perhaps the slightest exaggeration), one feels like screaming, "Get to the point if you have one!" "Jew vs. Jew" joined that exceedingly short list of books I've had to force myself to finish, a rare occurrence for this compulsive reader. The author has blown up a perfectly reasonable NYT Magazine-length article into an overlong, misshapen mess. If you think you absolutely must read this, begin skimming from the very beginning; you'll still glean Mr Freedman's meager and rather self-evident points, while frustrating and exhausting yourself less.

8/26/00

Economist:

``Jew vs. Jew'' is the more modest and more successful volume. Samuel Freedman offers dispatches from skirmishes in the war between orthodoxy and modernisers of various stripes--over issues such as feminism, Israel and conversion--interspersing them with shorter explanatory chapters. Yiddishkeit--Jewishness that depends more on language, culture and shared institutions than on religion--is killed off early in the book. The subject of its first portrait is Camp Kinderwelt, a summer camp in New York's Catskill mountains whose mixture of Zionist fervor and Yiddish vernacular never, in an American context, had a chance. Mr Freedman mines the reminiscences of Sharon Levine, the Newark daughter of immigrant parents, and other ex-campers to evoke a culture as recent as ``Runaround Sue'' but as dead as ancient Rome. It was defined by Yiddish, by Jewish newspapers, by the Farband, which provided such services as burial plans for families of immigrants, by left-wing politics and by dowdy, quixotic Camp Kinderwelt. American secularism proved more alluring than the sore-thumb Jewish sort, and the camp closed in 1971. Two miles away, though, a Yiddish-speaking culture of a different kind took root and thrived: a township called Kirias Joel peopled by the Hasidic Satmarer sect, Jews at their most pious and least worldly.

Many of Mr Freedman's protagonists are caught between Americanness, which threatens their identity as Jews, and orthodoxy, which threatens their sense of themselves as modern-minded Americans. Mr Freedman writes of the furore in one Los Angeles congregation aroused by a woman who, leading services, inserted in one of the most sacred prayers the names of the four matriarchs alongside those of the three patriarchs. He recounts a battle waged in the late 1990s by reform (liberal) Jews against plans by orthodox brethren to build a religious complex in their Cleveland suburb. The reformniks had themselves once fought to get their temple approved. He tells of a failed kosher butcher who planted a (nonfunctional) bomb in a conservative synagogue in protest against Israel's willingness to cede land it held for peace.

Mr Freedman makes surprisingly poignant material of zoning disputes and congregational politics. He relates them with sympathy in blow- by-blow detail that is rarely boring. These are big issues. Can Judaism accommodate modernity? Is Jewish identity to be the property of an ultra-orthodox minority? Can more-modern Jews be trusted with it? As Deborah Lipstadt, a well-known historian, observed during the debate about the matriarchs, ``There will be those who might say, 'What a strange, legalistic people this is. So much discussion over such a little thing.' But those people miss the point of this and so much else in Judaism and Jewish tradition.''

The orthodox idea--that religion defines Jewish identity--has triumphed, Mr Freedman concludes. The alternative, secular Judaism, has been ``loved to death'' through intermarriage and other forms of assimilation. He predicts a realignment in which various branches of Judaism will become more traditional and, paradoxically, more separate. After this ``Jewish reformation'', Mr Freedman writes, these branches will be ``divergent faiths sharing a common deity and a common ancestry.''

10/8/00

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."