Walter Ruby calls me back Monday, August 9, 2004.
"How did you get into journalism?"
"It's a good story. It was 1974. I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin [doing] an MA [in history and education, his BA in 1972 was also in history]. I had married too young. I was depressed. I went to a shrink. I was saying to him, I really feel like I need to do something creative beyond what I was doing. He said, you'll come up with a specific task to move this forward. I said, I'd like to submit an article to the local newspaper (The Capital Times of Madison, a daily). He said, you have to sign an agreement by whatever date, then you have to pay me $100.
"A few months before, I'd been to this town in northern Wisconsin and met this old man who was running a historical museum. I said, that will be a good article.
"Let me go up and interview him and write the article. I went up and did the interview. I came back thinking they'll never publish it. I had an inferiority complex. But I had to do it or I'd lose $100. So I did it. I went to the newspaper and walked in the room and found an editor and said [hurriedly], 'My name is Walter Ruby. I wrote this piece. You probably won't like it. But anyway.' I put it into his hands and ran away thinking, good, at least I won't lose $100.
"At my next session with my shrink, I walked into his office and he had this enormous grin on his face. He took out the newspaper and there it was.
"I made aliyah [moved to Israel] in the beginning of 1976. My wife was a Midwestern Baptist. She ended up leaving me for an Arab. I can't totally blame her because I discovered Israeli women along that period.
"Somebody told me they had all these great teaching jobs in Israel. I found out there weren't any great teaching jobs. The only jobs available were in tough towns with terrible pay amidst rough conditions with tough kids. I did a little practice teaching and I thought, I really don't want to do this.
"I managed to see the editor of The Jerusalem Post, Irwin Frankel. He looked at my resume. He saw I hadn't written anything except for a few freelance pieces. He said I should do a few freelance pieces. I was starting to leave the office. He looked at my resume again. 'Wait a minute. You went to the University of Wisconsin. That's my alma mater.' He found me a position in the Haifa bureau. He said, 'There are these two difficult guys who run the bureau. We've sent about five guys up there already. The deal is they have to take you for three months. Then they can fire you. I'm sure that's going to happen to you too. They're impossible but these are the union rules. But if you want to give it a shot?' I said yes.
"Three months later, I was fired. They were impossible people. I think Irwin Frankel felt some guilt about it. He put me on a small retainer and said, we'll look favorably on whatever freelance stuff you submit. The next year was the best year of my life. I was this roving freelance feature writer who traveled around Israel. I did the first story in the English-language press about being gay in Israel.
"I ended up in New York. In 1983, I became the Jerusalem Post's correspondent in New York. I wrote for a consortium of American Jewish newspapers [The Long Island Jewish World, Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, Washington Jewish Week, Palm Beach Jewish World, New Jersey Jewish Standard] until 1990. If you wanted to go to South America to look for Mengele, each paper would plunk down $300. I spent three years in Russia in the early '90s for the Forward, Ma'ariv, and The Jerusalem Post. Then I came back. I thought I was ready to stop being a reporter and start being a columnist and author. I tried that. It didn't work out. I had some tough years.
"I got involved in a peace project with Israelis and Palestinians. I got excited in the mid '90s about the possibilities of the Internet for inter-group communication and reconciliation. I started a Web site called Encounter. In 1999, I lived in Berzeit teaching computer skills to young Palestinians. I'm a strong peacenik. I want to find a solution for the conflict that will be win-win for both peoples. A huge piece of that needs to be person-to-person reconciliation. I think the failure of Oslo was very much because that piece of it was not actualized. I have this warm and fuzzy dream that one day we can create an ethos where the two peoples can love the land together. Some of this has made me not very popular within certain precincts of the American Jewish community. I've been called a self-hating Jew a lot.
"I've been writing a lot about the Russian community for The Jewish Week. I was just back in the Ukraine for the JTA."
"How did you lose your great gigs in the early '90s?"
"The Jerusalem Post moved to the right. I was a marked man. As soon as Russian and Israel established relations, Ma'ariv were able to get their own man in there. My main employer was the Forward. I did not get along with Seth Lipsky. His politics are really neanderthalish. Things got mixed up and he decided to get rid of me. I lost all my positions within a few months.
"I said, fine. There are all these books I want to write. Then I came back and found I didn't have any books I wanted to write. I don't have anything to say. I guess I'm really a journalist. I would love to be able to make a living with a column but that hasn't worked out. In the meantime, I play reporter. I try to be a peace advocate where I can."
"Did you remarry?"
"There was a second wife from whom I'm now getting divorced. She was from the Soviet Union. I met her in 1980. That's how I got my whole Soviet connection. Now I'm with another woman who I may marry. She's from the Ukraine. The second wife was Jewish. The third one is a wonderful woman."
"Any great stories you haven't been able to get into a paper?"
"In the late '80s, I talked to a gentleman named Barry Gurary. [He was the son of Rabbi Shemaryahu Gurary, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson's elder son-in-law, married to his elder daughter. Menahem Schneerson beat out Rabbi Shemaryahu to become the leader of Lubavitch.] There were books at 770 Eastern Parkway that he claimed belonged to him. Lubavitch claimed they belonged to them. He took the books and sold some of them. That led to a court suit. He was found guilty and forced to pay back much of the money.
"Barry sent me transcripts of fabrengens that the rebbe had preached that these books were like living documents, pieces of flesh, and that anyone who would sell them, it was like killing somebody. After the rebbe delivered one of these fabrengens, one of his young followers went upstairs, knocked on the door of Barry Gurary's mother and knocked out her eye. She was 85 years old. The fellow who did this was put on the first plane to Israel before they could prosecute him.
"The police didn't come around very fast, as a local [African-American] police sergeant in Crown Heights said to me, Mayor Kotch doesn't put a high priority on looking into this as the Lubavitcher Rebbe delivers 40,000 votes to him every election.
"This story was laid on my doorstep. I told the story. I submitted it to the consortium of Jewish newspapers. Then I went on a long trip to Russia in late 1989. When I came back from Russia, I found that I had been fired. One of the editors had showed the thing to someone in Chabad who had threatened to sue. Then I was going to sell it to New York magazine. I didn't get around to it. I did see it published in New York magazine by somebody else."
"Who was the editor who got you fired?"
"I'd rather not say because I still write for him.
[I believe it is Jerome Lippman, who usually backs his writers. Jerry was the driving force behind the consortium.]
"You can't expect the rebbe to apologize. He didn't tell the guy to go up and beat this old woman to death but his words caused it."
"Did you have any dealings with Malcolm Hoenlein?"
Walter laughs heartily. "The story got published and almost 20 years later, Malcolm still doesn't speak to me.
"Around 1986, Cardinal John O'Connor, the late Catholic Archbishop of New York, had gone to Israel and he was doing some diplomacy. The Presidents Conference people were unhappy because he seemed to be saying some mildly critical things about Israel. For me it was almost indiscernible but for them it was a shanda. The Presidents Conference ruminated for several days about issuing a statement. Hoenlein wanted to get this statement out before Shabbat. It was already Friday morning. They couldn't hammer it out. So he went ahead and wrote the statement and wrote the names of every one of the 53 president of the major Jewish organizations.
"Cardinal O'Connor returned to New York. Reporters were waiting for his response. He looked at the statement and blew up. He said it was outrageous. How dare they? I do everything for Israel and now they're attacking me...
"Monday morning. I was writing for The Long Island Jewish World. Editor Jerry Lipman called me. He said he was getting all kinds of calls from presidents of Jewish organizations saying they never signed that letter. He asked me to look into it.
"Until now, I had had a decent relationship with Hoenlein. A month earlier, my editor at The Jerusalem Post, Ary Rath, had been in New York and Hoenlein had made a point to say to him, 'Walter's a wonderful reporter. You are so lucky to have him.' I guess he figured he bought me with that.
"I call him. I told him I'd heard from about 20 of the 53 presidents who said they had never signed this document. The first thing Malcolm said was, Walter, this would be a terrible thing for the Jewish people if you published this. It would cause grievous damage. I was like, Malcolm, come on. Give me a break.
"I thought about it for a day. I asked the editor if we should go ahead with it. He said yes. I called Malcolm back. I said, we're going to press tomorrow. We'd like some response. He said, 'If you publish this, I will fuck you for the rest of your life.'
"And he did. A month later, he and the chairman of the Conference, Morris Abrams, the Mort Zuckerman of his era, went to Israel and had lunch with the editors of The Jerusalem Post and asked that I be fired. David Landau, who was then managing editor, said your ass was hanging by a thread, but they couldn't stomach it. They felt Hoenlein was so right-wing and they were liberal left. On the other hand, they said, why do we need the tsures [trouble]?
"Later on, there were moments when I felt like he was hurting me behind the scenes. Years ago, when I was in Russia, the JTA position in Moscow opened up. I was the only logical person for the job. They offered it to a young businessman who was not a journalist. He said to the editor of JTA, why wouldn't you offer it to Walter? And he [editor Marc Pearl] said, according to the businessman, 'Walter Ruby has no credibility in the Jewish community.' That felt like the hand of Malcolm Hoenlein.
"In 1998, Jeffrey Goldberg, who has gone to great things with The New York Times and The New Yorker, wrote in the Forward how Hoenlein had threatened him."
The Forward April 17, 1998
"I know other reporters who have gone through that with him. I wrote a long letter to the editor narrating my experiences at the hands of Malcolm Hoenlein, a serial abuser of Jewish journalists."
"Is journalism a good way to meet women?"
Walter laughs. "Certainly. When I'm doing a story, I'm interviewing women. I met my second wife playing journalist. She had just arrived from the Soviet Union. I was sent by UJA/Federation to interview her. I did PR for a year or two. I am shy with women and it is a good way to break the ice. My present girlfriend too. I was working on doing a book about the Russian community in New York. Probably most women I've met in my life have been that way.
"I remember when Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin visited one of those illegal settlements on the West Bank, Elon Moreh, and he said, in a few years, we will have many Elon Moreh in Judeah and Samaria, the first time an Israeli leader had used those words. My Israeli friends on the Left said this is horrible. I said, you don't have to worry. The US won't let him get away with it because US Jews won't go along with this. We have this nice liberal guy Alex Schindler who's the head of the Presidents Conference [head of the Reform movement, marched with Martin Luther King]. He certainly won't go along with this.
"Of course, Alex Schindler said, this is the Prime Minister of Israel and I have to put aside my personal position and defend the Prime Minister. That decision had enormous calamitous consequences for everything that came afterwards. The American Jewish community has been the enablers of the settlement movement."
"Whoever is in power in Israel, the [American] Jewish press marches in lockstep."