It takes Tom Tugend just a few minutes to size me up. "You don't want Jewish journalism," he says with a smile. "You want an orgasm."
He then proceeded to give me the most mind-blowing interview I'd had all day, leaving me spent yet exhilarated, with renewed faith in God, Torah and the Jewish Journal.
["This is the first time I've been accused of renewing anyone's faith in God and Torah," Tom writes later, "but if you say so."]
We meet Sunday afternoon, July 18, 2004, at Elysee Boulangeries in Westwood. He's just finished his daily swim at the UCLA pool.
"I was born in Berlin in 1925. My dad was a pediatrician. He came from a line of assimilated German Jews. Little Jewish consciousness as far as I could tell. This all changed in 1933 when they discovered with all the other Jews that they were indeed Jews. My mother became president of the Women's International Zionist Organization for Germany. I belonged to a Zionist youth group. First I went to a Montessori and then to a Jewish school. I have an older sister.
"My dad left in 1937 and became a lecturer at Bryn Mawr [women's] College in Pennsylvania. That allowed us to get out of Germany in April 1939. We felt no sense of urgency. My father kept writing to tell us to leave and to forget about the furniture and so on. The feeling was that there wouldn't be any war. Stockholm Syndrome [where you believe what your captors tell you]. Hitler would get what he wanted and there wouldn't be any war.
"I went to a school in suburban Philadelphia. As soon as I turned 18 and had a chance to get away from home, I went into the Army [early 1944]. I was still in high school. Whatever your skills or IQ , they needed infantrymen. I fought in France and Germany. Towards the end of the war, I was transferred to the counterintelligence corps when they discovered I spoke German."
"Did you ever kill anyone?"
"I'm not sure. I was in a mortar and heavy machine gun unit. You shoot far away. I never saw anybody killed [on the other side]. I saw some killed on our side.
"I supposedly educated German prisoners of war about democracy. I was offered an opportunity to translate at the Nuremberg Trials but I was sick of the Army and wanted to be transferred back. It's one of those things I regret I didn't take up.
"I was discharged in May of 1946. I started going to UCLA on the GI Bill. I wanted to go into journalism. UCLA didn't offer that major. I went to UC Berkeley in 1947 where they had a journalism school.
"In 1948, I left Berkeley and went to Israel for the War of Independence. I fought in an Anglo-Saxon unit, the Fourth Anti-Tank Unit. Again, nobody fell in front of my eyes. I was a squad leader. I worked on a kibbutz after it was over. I finished up my degree in 1950.
"I was recalled in the service for the Korean War. The Army was never more fucked up than in the Korean War. They were sending in old guys, wounded guys. Fortunately, they needed somebody to put out a newspaper at the presidio in San Francisco. I spent a year editing the Foghorn.
"After I was discharged, I got a job as a copy boy on the San Francisco Chronicle. That was one of the few ways to get in [to journalism]. If you made it, they made you a reporter. I was a copy boy for nine months. Herb Caen was there. Pierre Salinger. Other copy boys included a former philosophy professor and a socialite lawyer from New York. All odd balls. The most intelligent group of people I've known putting carbon sheets between sheets of paper and getting coffee for the reporters.
"As a reporter, I mainly covered the police beat and the court beat in Oakland. After three years, I overdosed on Hemingway and decided to go to Spain. The VA would only pay for one course at a Spanish university, the Pre-Columbian History of the Americas. I never found out whether Columbus made it or not but I knew all about the Incas and Mayas.
"I came home. I married an Israeli girl in 1956. We have three daughters and eight grandchildren. I got a job at McDonnell Douglas for a year as a technical editor (and worked on the copy desk of The Los Angeles Times at night]. Then I got a job for 30 years (until 1989) at UCLA as a science writer and communications director. That meant interviewing the different academics about their research and then trying to translate it so that the average newspaper reader could understand it, based on the theory that as their taxes paid for it, they were entitled to know. It would be sent out to the general press.
"In 1957, I started working for the Jewish Heritage newspaper. Herb Brin was the publisher and editor and advertising manager and everything else. On Saturday, we generally put the paper together. Whatever I wanted to write about, he published. I did a lot of theater and politics and Hollywood. In the best of times, he printed about 30,000 copies. He had a chain of four - San Diego, Orange County, Central Valley and LA.
"I spent a year in Israel as the head of PR for the Weizmann Institute of Science. When I married my wife, I promised her that we'd try to make aliyah. They gave me a job. Now, all the people I had worked for at UCLA were goyim and good goyim. They didn't pound the tables. If there was a problem, we talked about it. I'm not confrontational.
"When I was in Israel, they started sending me letters, when are you coming back. I really missed the goyim. My theory is that if there were no Jews, life would be dull. If there were only Jews, I'd be climbing up the wall.
"I started as the Los Angeles correspondent for the Jewish Chronicle of London around 1970 and shortly thereafter for the Jerusalem Post."
"Was the Heritage the biggest circulation paper in LA?"
"No. The Bnai Brith Messenger. Around 40,000. I don't know. They all cheated like crazy [on circulation numbers among other things]. They weren't audited. There was one paper, Israel Today, which said it had a circulation of 65,000 when it really only had a few hundred copies."
"Did any of them run a real gossip column?"
"No. The papers in the '50s and '60s were really dull. The Heritage was not a dull paper but it was not balanced. Herb had three marriages. Our relationship lasted longer than any one of them (from 1957 until Tom went to work for the Jewish Journal in 1993). If he liked you, you were not just a good journalist. You were the greatest journalist whoever lived. And if he hated you, you were the most miserable sonofabitch."
Tugend has been the Los Angeles correspondent for the JTA since 1984.
"Gene Lichtenstein used to pick up my JTA stories. Every once in a while, he'd ask if I wanted to work for the Journal. I felt loyal to Herb and I said no. Finally, in 1993, he made me an offer I couldn't refuse. The Journal was getting better and I thought it would be nice to work for a paper that more people read and was less a reflection of one man's personality."
"What does the difference in the Jewish Journal under Rob Eshman as opposed to Gene Lichtenstein?"
"It's generational change. Rob has angled it to a younger and hipper audience. I can do without all the singles columns but I see that you are looking for a wife, so... Rob once said he wanted me as a counterbalance to the kindergarten [set]. At the staff meeting, it's mostly young girls. I have a certain institutional memory. I think it's become a livelier paper.
"I am not primarily an investigative reporter. I try to get both sides. I'm old school. You keep it as balanced as possible."
"Correct. I know that's not terribly fashionable. I think that if I do a critical piece, people say that I did not do it out of malice or to win a Pulitzer Prize, but out of fairness.
"My son-in-law worked for many years at The LA Times. He's now an editor for The NY Times. Mark Stein."
We talk about the Museum of Tolerance and its ilk.
"One swastika painted on the door of a synagogue and the ADL, Wiesenthal Center, and the American Jewish Congress will say there's a Holocaust around the corner. But in the 1940s, there really was solid anti-Semitism.
"A Jewish reporter criticizing Israel in the 1950s and 1960s was like going into Beth Jacob and saying there was no God. It wasn't done. American Jewish society has changed. You can now criticize Jewish organizations."
We talk about the Northern California Jewish Bulletin which long had more pages than the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. A community like Baltimore has 90,000 Jews and a 140-page paper. Everybody in Baltimore knew that if you wanted to reach the Jewish community, you had to advertise. Here Jews are less involved. You come here because you want to cut your roots.
"I did a story about the most influential Jews in town. I started out with ten. I ended up with 130. Most important rabbis, industrialists, politicians. I made 130 friends and about 10,000 enemies. [The story is not on the Jewish Journal Web site.] Gene and Rob said never again. One guy said to me, how could you leave me out. We had lunch at the Hillcrest Country Club. We agreed to review his book."
I ask Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman about this. He replies:
"On the one hand, people say the Jewish Journal is a rag. What do I care? I'm above these things. One academic friend who I left out of the list stopped talking to me for two years until he published a book. I mentioned this to somebody. He said, how ridiculous. How childish. But if we left that guy out, he'd react the same way."
Tom asks me a few questions: "What makes you run? Are you the enfante terrible?"
"Yes. Nothing makes me happier than winding someone up so they're screaming down the phone, 'I'm going to kill you.' Australians are hell-raisers.
"How many friends did you lose over that story?"
"I don't know. They didn't talk to me."
"You hate Jackie Mason?"
"I don't hate him. I think he's an asshole."
"In a bad way?"
"Yeah. I went to a show. It's not that he shocked me. I heard those same jokes 30 years ago. This is the cutting edge? The difference between a goy and a Jew?
"What blew my mind is when he played in England about ten years ago. The English Jewish community is much more scared and insulated than the Jewish community here. And they said, 'We are now coming out of the closet thanks to Jackie Mason. He showed that you can make jokes about Jews. To them he was the Messiah. He liberated them. I couldn't understand it.
"Somebody once said of journalism is that it is the last refuge of the vaguely talented. If you are a tremendous genius in music or art, you focus on that. If Jewish journalism had the same payscale as the general media, you'd get top talent.
"The Jewish community is more open to critical journalism today than ever before."
We talk about my level of Jewish observance.
"You're a strange guy," Tom laughs.
"There's an old Yiddish saying that a man should live, if only to satisfy his curiosity. I've never lost my curiosity about human beings, including all the mishegos of the Jewish community. I still sweat over every story. One of my struggles as the LA correspondent for different overseas papers is that they really only want to hear about the mishegos: what nubile starlet and what orgy took place.
"There was an old story about Time magazine that if they wanted something about finances, they called called the New York bureau. If politics, the Washington bureau. Academic life, they called Boston. Agriculture, Chicago. If they wanted something off the wall, they called LA.
"The Jewish Chronicle [of London] would be happiest if I just wrote about Hollywood and is Paul Newman really half Jewish. Is so-and-so one-eighth Jewish. Part of my educational effort is to say that California and LA are the most interesting social laboratories in the world."
"Who are the sexiest starlets you've ever interviewed?"
"Barry Levinson?" Tom laughs. "When I write about a film, I try to interview the director."