She's the Arts and Culture Editor of the Forward and the Editor of this new hardcover -- A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward.
Deep Inside Alana Newhouse
I call Alana Newhouse (Arts & Culture Editor of the Forward) Thursday morning, July 22, 2004.
"Are you ready for your close-up?" I ask.
"What clique did you hang out with high school?"
"The JAPpy (Jewish American Princess) clique. I grew up in Lawrence, Long Island, and I loved it. To this day, I can do a better French manicure than any French manicurist you can get in Manhattan. I can put lipliner on in a dark cab. I was pretty focused... I'm a well-honed JAP."
"How do you reconcile your desire to be JAPpy and your desire to be tznious (modest)?"
Alana laughs hard. "I don't. There's no problem. I think tznious is more about.... There was a woman in my neighborhood who had everything perfectly covered but she was the most immodest woman I've ever met in my life. Modesty is a character trait."
"What about length of skirts?"
"I don't wear only skirts. My skirts tend to be pretty short. Tznious as a ritual observance -- I don't observe that ritual. If I go into a shul, I'm going to be dressed appropriately. But I walk around in pants and shorts. I feel like modesty is more about your character than about what you wear."
"What does modesty mean to you?" I ask.
"I don't really know. It's a very personal thing. You didn't ask whether modesty as we understand it is a good trait. It should be ok to talk about yourself when it is helpful for someone else.
"There are ways that you can cheapen yourself, and make people feel that you are usable in any number of ways -- professionally, emotionally, psychologically, sexually. That is what I mean by immodest."
"What were you expected to become?"
"Married with a baby.
"I think I was expected to become a writer."
"Where did you go to college and how did you get into journalism?"
"I went to Barnard College, graduating in 1997. I majored in American History and Political Science. Writing was one of my first loves from high school. I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home and I went to Orthodox day schools. I went to Hebrew Academy of Five Towns in Rockaways. I'm a Long Island JAP. When I went to Barnard, the whole world opened up for me. I fell in love with politics.
"When I was a Junior, I met David Garth, a big political consultant in New York. He gave me a job after college. I worked for him for a couple of years. I burned out on politics. I went to Columbia Journalism School and graduated [with a Masters degree] in June 2002.
"I was interested in magazine journalism. I asked a professor what I should do for the summer. He said to go to Thailand or Europe because nobody was hiring. There was an ad for an internship with the Forward. I met with Andy Silow-Carroll. I immediately felt like if I had the opportunity to work with him, it would be a great experience. I ended up staying. I became a reporter in the Fall. I was covering religion and ideas. In April of 2003, I took over the Arts section."
"Are you still Orthodox?"
Long pause. "I don't want to respond to that question because I am not sure of the answer. I am certainly not as observant as I was when I was growing up. I'm in a weird phase of my life. I'm betwixt and between."
"Did you pay attention to the Forward before you worked there?"
"My father was a charter subscriber to the English edition. My father and I read it on Friday nights together. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote for the Forward and I was completely enamored with him. And Jonathan Rosen's art section."
"Did you read any other weekly with equal joy?"
"What are the primary obstacles you face in putting out the best Arts & Culture pages you can?"
"I know there is great stuff going on in the rest of the country but I need writers in those cities who have their ear to the ground and can tell me the great cultural things going on. I want to know about a great underground Jewish ska scene in Detroit. I want to know about a cool literary series going on in Houston. I'm acquiring a stable of freelancers to do that work."
"How was your journalism school education? A benefit or minus to your career as a journalist?"
Long pause. "It's a benefit but if I had to do it all over again, I'm not sure I would've gone."
"The more you learn about arts and culture, the more does it tug you away from Orthodox Judaism?"
"No, the two are not related."
"How often do you run stories you couldn't give a hoot about?"
"Once every six weeks. One of the great things about being an editor is that I choose what I want to run."
"Do you choose it on the basis of what excites you?"
"Yes. Literature is my first love but I learn from my writers. I'm not really interested in dance, but Joseph Carman did such great writing about all sorts of Jewish dance -- Israeli folk dancing, the Jewish origins of Flamenco. Everything about my section excites me, at least in its idea. It may not be executed as well as I want it to. There are times you have to salvage a story."
"Who are the great Jewish writers?"
"The children of immigrants from the Soviet Union are going to be an unbelievably fruitful generation of fiction writers. David Bezmozgis's short story "Minyan" is infused with a sense of Jewish life. Dara Horn, who is a great writer of journalism and fiction. She's steeped in Jewish life. She lives it and you can feel that. Even when she's not writing about anything Jewish, she feels Jewish in the best way.
"The masters are still at it. Philip Roth has a book coming out in October. I love it. I think he's going to win the Nobel Prize for it."
"Do you read a book a week?"
"It's hard. I read the first chapters of lots of books. That's why I don't review a lot. I believe that writers of every kind should fetishize beginnings. Make it amazing because so many people will never get past it if you don't."
"What's your favorite part of your job?"
"I've fallen in love lately with layout. My favorite is probably text editing."
"What's your least favorite?"
"Writers can be difficult to work with. Some are prima donnas and they need hand-holding and coddling. Some have been presumptuous about my time. Some will send me 2000 words for an 800-word story. I know I can cut it but I don't want to cut it. I want you to hand in a story of 800-words. Generally speaking, I don't work with those writers again."
"Do you think writers as a group tend to be misanthropic?"
"Yes. The best writers need to escape the world to think hard to create art. It's almost a survival mechanism. You turn on your misanthropic stance when you need to leave the world to analyze it."
"How do you determine if a story is Jewish enough to go into your pages?"
"It largely depends on the writer. I got an email about an author, Josip Novakovich. He's not Jewish and there's nothing Jewish about his book. But somebody sent me a pitch that his book had I.B. Singer written all over it. I took a look and I sort of saw it. He's Singeresque. I didn't end up running the piece because it would've been for September and I'm too packed.
"The woman who founded Bluemountain.com, where you can get e-cards, is Jewish. I was sent her autobiography. It looks like an interesting story but there's nothing about her being Jewish that made her start a greeting card business. It just didn't feel like a Forward story.
"On the other hand, there's a guy who's half Italian and half Jewish who's starting a Jewish chi-chi tenement hotel on the Lower East Side. It's completely formed by his sense of Jewish culture. He could've been a Roman Catholic, and it would fit. It's more feel."
"How do you balance high culture vs low culture?"
"I just do it. I know the difference between the Beastie Boys and Isaac Luria and I try to have both of them in my section. I go on what I would want to read. I read Page Six and I read The Times Literary Supplement. I am a high-low girl."
"Are there any great Orthodox novelists?"
"I don't know which writers identify themselves as Orthodox. Rebecca Goldstein? Nessa Rappaport. Jonathan Rosen is certainly affiliated with Judaism but I don't know that he is Orthodox."
"From your knowledge of the Orthodox community, what are the obstacles, if any, between being Orthodox and being a great artist?"
"Everything. Art is seen as a waste of time that could be spent on Torah. That [attitude] is depressing to me. I see the world as one thing and religion as another. I don't know that Orthodox communities encourage kids to look at art or to understand music. Maybe they should get out and see God in art? You can see art as taking away time from Torah or you can see art as a different way to learn Torah, a different way to connect to the divine."
"What about the communal pressures towards conformity?"
"Now you're getting really nuanced. I don't know how you'd even address that. Yes.
"It's very difficult for certain religious people to see power in something other than religion and God. There are religious people who are able to reconcile this wonderfully. It can be very frightening for religious teenagers who are taught that everything is God and religion to see power in art.
"When I got into politics, I thought there was a weird perception of that, that I was out in the world of shtus."
"Have you spent much time wondering about whether Orthodoxy can be reconciled with Modernity?"
"Yeah. I think about that every day."
"Do you tend to be more pessimistic or optimistic on that question?"
Long pause. "As an idea, I know it can be reconciled. In practice, I think it can be reconciled. I just don't see it happening in practical terms."
"How do you reconcile Biblical Criticism with the Orthodox approach to sacred text?"
"Luckily, I don't have to."
"You mean in my life?"
"No, in your head," I say. "The traditional way of studying text in a secular sense is to ask three questions: Who wrote this document? When was it written? For whom was it written? When you apply those tools that you apply to every other piece of writing to the Torah, you get results radically different from the understanding of text in the Jewish tradition. So how do you deal with that?"
Long pause. "You're asking me a question about my personal views. I have writers who express both ideas, who venerate the Bible as literature and those who venerate the Bible as the word of God. Personally, I don't know. I don't know how to answer your question. When I firsted learned the Bible, I learned it as the word of God. It was only when I got older that I started seeing it as literature. It's like I have two distinct brains. I can see it as both. When I come to a place in my life, which I am coming to whenever, where I feel like I need to reconcile what I want to practice in my daily life and what I believe, I may need to come to terms with this.
"Every time I close a Bible, I kiss it."
"If you were to lead a normatively Orthodox life, could you do a similarly good job as you are doing now?"
"Well, thank you very much."
"You sound exhausted," says Alana. "Did I wear you out? Go get some sleep."
"I didn't get a good night's sleep. I was racking my mind for questions to ask..."
"Arts and culture in Jewish journalism," Alana laughs.
"Tossing and turning and crying out to the HaKodesh Barchu..."
"What is Jewish literature?" she cries.
"What is tznious? What would the Kotzker Rebbe say?"
"What would the Kotzker say?"
Later, via email: "Dear Alana, I have a final theological question for you. How many inches above the knee would a dress have to be before you would consider the wearing of such in the Forward office to be a sin?"
Alana Newhouse (pictured on top of the Forward office) replies: "A skirt more than four inches above my knee might make the people I work with uncomfortable and, as such, I'd avoid it. Not because I believe it's a sin against God -- I don't think God is scandalized by my thighs -- but because it's a sin against fellow human beings."
Steve Brizell writes to Protocols: "One wonders whether Ms. [Alana] Newhouse's classmates actually believe after 12 years of HAFTR that their definition of modesty/tznius is more "meaningful" than that set forth in Shas, Rishonim and Poskim. If this is the case, then this interview illustrates much of what ails Modern Orthodoxy. I would submit that someone who subsitutes their own definition of modesty and tznius in place of and instead of the definition offered by Chazal presumes that they know nore than Chazal. Moreover, the fact that Ms.Newhouse supposedly developed her mind at Barnard illustrates the danger in allowing the average child to attend and dorm in an environment shaped by post Modernism, MTV and and multiculturalism. The average MO HS grad can't handle the shock to their values, even if the kid goes to Israel."
Alana Newhouse writes me with a list of hot new Jewish authors:
Rabbi Parrots Anti-Feminist Line
Chatting About Wendy
Here's a selective transcript of a chat I had with Alana Newhouse, Arts and Culture editor of the Forward, on Monday night, February 7, 2005.
I allowed Alana to edit her remarks before I published them.
Luke: "Do you remember when there was this much discussion about an essay on Jewish fiction?"
Alana: "When was the last time The New York Times did something really big on Jewish fiction? I don't know. You're right to say that there's been a lot of chatter in the past week-and-a-half about Jewish fiction. But I'm looking at the quality of the chatter, not the quantity."
Luke: "And the quality of the chatter is what?"
Alana: "Wendy put something out there. People either come out one side or the other. I'm not sure that anyone's learning anything."
Luke: "Did Wendy Shalit's essay surprise the hell out of you?"
Alana: "No. I'm still perplexed about the process behind it...
"I still didn't find it that compelling."
Luke: "Because she doesn't critique literature qua literature?"
Alana: "That's primarily it."
Luke: "Because she judged it morally."
Alana: "Well, my position is more nuanced than saying that literature has no moral value. Stories have affected my life. But what affects us personally is different from making broad moral judgments [about literature].
"Soviet art was bad because they put the moral first. When art comes second to the message, it loses value."
Luke: "Do you think novels can be moral or immoral?"
Alana: "No. Can it be offensive to certain people sense of morality, including my own?"
Luke: "Of course. That goes without saying."
Alana: "There's plenty of art out there that offends me."
Luke: "No, no, no. Don't worry about that. Can a novel be immoral?"
Alana: "No. I attach morality to actions."
Luke: "Did you read Lolita?"
Luke: "And you don't think that's immoral?"
Alana: "No. I can't say it's immoral. It happens to be one of the books that changed my life."
Luke: "I hate to think which way."
Alana: "In a very good and important way."
Luke: "How old were you when you read it?"
Luke: "Thank G-d.
"I think Wendy Shalit believes that fiction can be moral or immoral."
Alana: "I imbue human beings with agency."
That's a fancy way of saying that Alana holds people, not books, responsible for human behavior.
Luke: "Do you believe that movies can be moral or immoral?"
Alana: "No. It's like people saying that a Marilyn Manson song made them kill someone. It didn't do that. It may have inspired something that existed in the person already but the song didn't make you do it."
Luke: "The Passion."
Alana: "It's a work of art but it's an example of someone using their art to send a larger message, and as a result, the art lost some of its value. But it is not an immoral movie."
Luke: "The movie Gloomy Sunday is based, in part, on a true story about a 1930s hit song that dozens of people committed suicide listening to."
Alana: "That's a terrible thing and I'm sorry it happened.
"We all come to art with our own experiences. I don't know why the song inspired people to do that. Something can inspire people to act but art itself doesn't act. I can walk out into a forest and feel supremely lonely and be overcome by despair and want to kill myself but nobody is going to cut down a forest because it inspires somebody to commit suicide.
"Art can have the power to impart morality or immorality but art is an inanimate object neither moral nor immoral."
Luke: "Do you think something with the power to impart morality or immorality is moral or immoral?"
Alana: "You decided the definitions of things here. I'm willing to concede that certain things may impart immorality. That's a different discussion. I don't know that Wendy was making that point. I don't think she was saying that any of this fiction would inspire Orthodox people to go out and not be Orthodox."
Luke: "Her criticism of the fiction is that it enables people to say to a group who purport to a higher moral law, a ha, they pretend to be so holy in public but it is all pretense."
Alana: "Yes, and to be fair, that's a better argument than saying that we don't want to write this because it is going to inspire kids to eat shrimp salad, which is not what Shalit wrote."
Luke: "I wonder if somebody could believe that Orthodox Judaism is divine truth, superior to all other religions, and write a compelling novel about Orthodox Jewish life?"
Alana: "I wonder too. I don't know if they haven't written that novel already. I don't know what goes on in these writers' heads. I don't know that Tova Mirvis, for example, isn't the person you just described."
Alana admits that she spent Shabbos afternoon thinking about Wendy Shalit's essay.
Luke: "Did Wendy's essay intellectually excite you?"
Alana: "Yes, but I'm easily excitable.
"One of the reasons you saw pieces in Jewish newspapers about Wendy's essay is that her piece touches on a cultural divide that goes beyond literature -- the rightward shift of the Orthodox community and the fear that Modern Orthodoxy is dying. It may have touched a nerve far beyond the effect of literature.
"One of the nerves it touched for me was my fear that Orthodoxy is becoming more provincial and less permissive of art and what the world has to offer."
Luke: "Are you disturbed by the amount of hubbub over the piece?"
Luke: "Wendy didn't see her story replicated in the pages of Orthodox Jewish fiction..."
Alana: "Yes. I agree with her on that."
The Return Of The JAP
Self-proclaimed JAP (Jewish American Princess) Alana Newhouse, arts and culture editor of the Forward, does her on-the-one-hand-this, but on-the-other-hand-that thing in the Boston Globe Sunday before concluding that she, and those who are like her, are ok:
Alana began her Alana-rific weekend in Friday's LA Times with her piece, "Yiddish literature gets new 'Angel'":