What The New York Times Tells Us About Ourselves
Ari L. Goldman, professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, writes for the Jewish Week 12/3/93:
This summer, when I was wrapping up my career as a reporter for The New York Times, my father told me a joke that I haven't been able to get out of my mind. It goes like this:
A doctor and lawyer sit together every week in shul. And through the davening, people come over to the doctor. "My son has an earache. Can you take a look?" one man says. "What's better, penicillin or tetracycline?" asks another. "Do you know a good cardiologist?" says a third.
In exasperation, the doctor turns to his friend the lawyer and says, "I can't stand it. These people are driving me crazy. I can't even daven anymore!"
"I've got a solution," the lawyer responds calmly. "From now on, if anybody asks you a question, just send them a bill after Shabbos."
"Great idea," the doctor says, feeling a sense of relief.
A few days later, the doctor opens his mail. And in it, there is a bill from the lawyer.
For the last 20 years, I've felt like that doctor. I go to shul Shabbos morning and the questions don't stop. "Why did your paper write this about Israel?" "Why did you write that about Crown Heights?" "Why did you write so much about Israel?" "Why did you write so little about Israel?"
And, in what might be termed "the revenge of the doctors," one of them, a specialist in infectious diseases, berated me for 20 minutes at a recent kiddish about "a terrible" article on Page 1 of The Times about Lyme disease. "But I'm a religion writer," I pleaded. He wouldn't stop. "Write a letter, please," I begged. But he wouldnt' stop. He didn't care what I was and he certainly wasn't going to write a letter. He needed to get this off his chest. And I was the recipient.
Ah, if only I could them all a bill, I've often thought since hearing my father's joke. I'd be a rich man today.
Well, after 20 years at The Times, the last 10 of them as a religion writer, I've decided to tell all - not about The Times, but about the Jewish community.
The Times, while far from perfect, has been very good to me. It took me on as a copy boy right out of Yeshiva College and enabled me to pursue a challenging and fulfilling career as a reporter. And one of the most important lessons I learned at Yeshiva was the principle of hakarat hatov - recognizing and acknowledging the good people do for you. So this is not a kiss-and-tell article.
I, of course, also learned to love Israel and the Jewish community at Yeshiva. But this love was never compromised at The Times. Despite the charges of Jewish "media monitors," who see anti-Israel bias in every picture and headline, I can state categorically that there is no anti-Israel conspiracy at The New York Times.
There are, to be sure, editors and writers who are less inclined toward Israel and others who are more inclined. But the policy of the paper is one of evenhandedness (or should I say evenhandedness with a liberal/Labor bent) and the pro and con voices at The Times most often balance themselves out.
Moreover, what seems like hostility is often ignorance. And the level of ignorance, even among Jewish editors, is astounding.
Editors would often bring photographs from Israel to my desk and ask what the Hebrew writing said. This was understandable; not everyone knows how to read Hebrew. But once a Jewish editor brought me a photograph of a sign in Hebrew and asked me what it said. And to my great surprise, he was holding it upside down. Not only didn't he know our people's language, he didn't even know what was up and what was down.
One Sunday several years ago, the metropolitan editor in charge - a newcomer to the paper from the West Coast - decided not to send a reporter to the Salute to Israel Parade. No need to cover it, he reasoned. He didn't cover the Pulaski Day Parade the week before and no one seemed to mind.
When Monday's paper appeared without a word or a picture about the Salute to Israel parade, hundreds of people called to complain. The editors were so embarrassed that they ran a correction in Tuesday's paper saying that they had made a terrible mistake by missing the parade. And they've never missed it since.
On another occasion, I wrote an article about a woman rabbi near Albany who was a graduate of a Reform seminary but was seeking admission to the Conservative rabbinical organization. I wrote that she wouldn't drive on Shabbos, so if the weather was particularly bad, she wouldn't walk the mile to shul, but her congregants "would come to her house."
An editor added: "...and drive her to the synagogue." Luckily, I caught the error moments before it got into the paper. The editor was Jewish, and when I explained to him that some religoius Jews don't ride in a car on Shabbos, he said in all sincerity, "I never knew that."
The level of Jewish ignorance in journalism is probably no greater than in any profession, but when this ignorance slips into the pages of The Times, it becomes another opportunity for charges of anti-Semitism.
I know this because I've heard from these people over the years, sometimes in shul and sometimes on the job. As a religion writer, it was my job to cover all religions - Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the many denominations of Christianity as well as Judaism and its branches. Still, Jews, who account for only 2 percent of the nation's population, made up 50 percent of my calls and letters.
And the Jewish public relations people were, without a doubt, the most persistent. If the publicist for the National Council of Churches would call to tell me about an event on Sunday and I said that I wasn't interested, she'd politely wish me a good day. But if the publicist for the National Jewish Anything would call and I'd say I wasn't itnerested, the questions would only then begin: Why not? How come you never write about us? Why do you always write about the Conservative/Orthodox/Reform (whatever the caller wasn't)? And then, my favorite: Well, if you can't do it, who else at The Times should I call?
You couldn't get them off the phone. Unless, of course, you were asking them tough questions. The late Irving (Pat) Spiegel, one of my predecessors at The Times (and, as far as I know, the only other Jewish religion writer in the paper's history) told of calling a Jewish publicist during the nursing home scandals of the 1970s.
Once it was established that the publicist's organization was soon to be implicated in the growing scandal, the conversation went something like this:
"Pat, if you print that, you know I'm finished."
"Don't be ridiculous," Pat Said. "We're not talking about you, we're talking about your organization."
"We're one and the same."
"Listen, relax. You'll weather this."
"No, you can't print this. Pat, I want you to know I've brought the phone over to the window. Pat, I've opened the window. Do you hear the traffic? Pat, I'm not sitting on the ledge. And, Pat, if you tell me you are going to print this, I am going to jump. And I'll hold on to the phone so you can hear me scream."
Pat spent the rest of the conversation talking the poor publicist off the ledge.
I came to the conclusion long ago that The Times was mroe than just a newspaper to the Jewish community. It is our common denominator and holds the community together in the way that the old Yiddish papers once did.
Reading The Times has become part of being Jewish in America. For many it's become their daily devotion, their tallit and tefillin, their new kashrut. They don't have breakfast without it.
I've often fantasized that The Times would not come out one Saturday morning. Rabbis all acros sAmerica would get up in their pulpits and have nothing to say.
In many neighborhoods, you wouldn't go out to Shabbos lunch at a friend's house without reading it. How owuld you make small talk? The Times' society page has become our social register. Its Op-Ed page, our town square. Its obituaries, our Jewish cemetaries.
My friend Marvin Schick, the president of my other alma mater, the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, once told me that he proposed to the board of directors of the school that they stop "wasting money" on paid obituary notices in The Times for friends and supporters of the school. The proposal met vehement opposition on the board. One elderly man shot Marvin an angry look. "Are you going to deny me my final resting place?" he asked.
Marvin's proposal was resoundingly defeated.
The first week after I quit The Times, I went to shul feeling like a man freed of a burden. I walked in, took my sat, opened my siddur and waited for the first question. "How about that Tom Friedman?" someone said. "I don't work there anymore," I responded.
"At The New York Times."
"How could you give up a job like that?"
I just smiled and kept on davening.
A Chat With Ari Goldman
I speak by phone 1/8/03 with Journalism Professor Ari Goldman of the Columbia School of Journalism. A longtime religion writer for the New York Times, Goldman published two books on Jewish life - The Search For God At Harvard and Jewish Practice.
Luke: "I loved Stephen Fried's book. I think there is a lack of fascinating Jewish journalism like he has done. And that's what I wanted to explore."
Ari: "Ok. I've just finished the book too. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a brilliant piece of reporting. He really gets into people's lives and tells about a community in crisis. It's an exciting book to read. My one criticism of it is that he hurts a lot of people along the way. While it's good journalism, it's not always good from an ethical point of view. I know some of the people he writes about and a lot of people are going to have to live down a bad sermon, a slip of the tongue, some other embarrassing moment in their life. It's fair game if you're writing about politicians but I don't know that rabbis are politicians in the same way."
Luke: "You sympathize with the critics and the Perry Ranks?"
Ari: "Yes. I read the article in the Forward. I've heard some of the criticism. I think the same good reporting could've been done while protecting people. One of the people interviewed for the book was blindsided by the final product, saying, 'He told me he was writing a profile of Gerald Wolpe and instead...'"
Luke: "Rabbi Ackerman?"
Ari: "No. That chapter Waiting For Ackerman is one of my favorite chapters. He's a good writer and a fine reporter and I'm impressed how much he learned about the observant Conservative community."
Luke chuckles: "Which is very small."
Ari: "It is small. But he's knowledgeable. I like the way he relates this to his own life and his father's death and the kaddish. I think it's a successful book, I just feel bad for some of the people who get caught up in the story and who are really bit players, not major figures, and are suddenly thrust into the limelight in sometimes embarrassing positions."
Luke: "If you ever do any good journalism, you are going to be hurting people's feelings right, left and center."
Ari: "I don't think that's necessary. I think you could tell the same story and manage to protect people's dignity."
Luke: "Is that something you were concerned with when you were working for the New York Times?"
Ari: "Of course. I write books and I'm conscious of that when I write, the effect of what I say could damage someone's reputation, could embarrass them. Lately I've been writing a lot of obituaries for the New York Times. What's great about that is that you are only embarrassing dead people."
[Luke finds little embarrassing in American obituaries. They tend to be much tamer and more dull than their British counterparts. Fewer stories about crazy things done while drunk, etc.]
Ari: "You worry a little bit about the survivors but in an obituary you can say nice things. In every other kind of journalism, they press you to find something bad to say.
"I teach journalism."
Luke: "You teach preserving human dignity."
Ari: "Let's say a student is writing a profile. And I'll say, 'Go talk to a critic. Go show this guy's failings.' These profiles aren't believable unless you can see the human frailty. In my journalism, I don't shy away from being critical. You do it for balance and when it's relevant, but there's a sense in [Fried's] book that a lot of this is just gossip. Here's some juicy gossip."
Luke moans: "It's delicious dish."
Ari: "It is delicious dish. The whole Leonid Feldman..."
Luke explodes: "Oh, I loved that. Yummy!"
Ari: "There was nothing new in there. It was all in the Palm Beach Post."
Luke: "I never knew of it. I was like, wow! This is great!"
Ari: "But it was irrelevant to Har Zion."
Luke: "But it was fun as hell to read. I was telling my friends at my Orthodox shul and it just confirmed all our worst suspicions about the Conservative movement. I told my rabbi friend at shul and he loved it because he hates the Conservative movement."
Ari: "You should give the movement its dignity too. This basketball game with the rabbis after shul on shabbos. It's not the Judaism I grew up with.
"Now let's get to your premise. Is there a dearth of good Jewish journalism?"
Luke: "This sort of dish."
Ari: "I don't know. Look at Gary Rosenblatt and the Baruch Lanner story."
Luke: "The Orthodox rabbi molesting kids at NCSY [National Council of Synagogue Youth]. That was a rare story. Normally Jewish journalists are lapdogs."
Ari: "Yes. That was courageous. Did that story hurt people? Absolutely. There's an example of a case that was necessary. Yes he hurt people and yes he got people fired and he got somebody who ended up in jail. You can make a good argument that that needed to be told. Whether Perry Rank is bald and where he wears his yarmulke on his head. It was a good story but it could've been told anonymously."
Luke: "But it would've lost its punch."
Ari: "In some regards but I don't think it would've been totally denuded. Also, there's the problem of Stephen Fried. I like him. I know him. I had breakfast with him two weeks ago before I read the book. He gets into the mind of the selection committee. This is what they were thinking. Number one, he wasn't even in the room. He got this from his sources. Was that the most outstanding characteristic [of Perry Rank]? His preaching on Bob Dylan and his crooked yarmulke? It seems gratuitous.
"I like [Fried] and I like what he did but I wouldn't paint him as the paradigm of reporting in the Jewish community. I don't know that we need more reporting like that. We need more examination of issues that make us uncomfortable - dissent on the Israel question, the question of gays in the synagogue and pulpit, intermarriage. I think there are tough questions to explore but gossip is not one of them."
Luke: "You sound like the admonition that great people talk about ideas and lower people talk about people."
Ari: "Right. I don't want to sound haughty."
Luke: "It's ok to sound haughty. Orthodox Judaism is a haughty religion. This book for me is one of the few things I read in Jewish journalism that comports with how I experience my religion. This has got all the love and hate and angst and human frailty that I experience when I go to shul and I never read that in the Jewish press. All these Federation papers, the softballing product of fundraising organizations. They seem to have all the journalists in their pocket and does not reflect the love and rage and hatred I experience when I go to shul. This is one of the few books where I could say, 'Ahhh, this is human, warts and all. This is Phillip Roth.' I have to go to fiction to find the Jewish life I experience. I know Phillip Roth got his head handed to him in the sixties by the Jewish community. Is there something about Jewish communal life that stifles good writing about Jewish communal life? You just say lashon hara and you shut everybody up."
Ari: "There's stuff worth exposing and then there's stuff better left anonymous. You should question at every turn, do I need to embarrass this person? Is it worth it?"
Luke: "Would you criteria be different if your subject were a non-Jew?"
Ari: "That's an interesting question. If you look at Fried's earlier books, he's written about the fashion and pharmaceutical industries. He's bringing the skills that he developed writing secular books to the Jewish story and applying the same standards. To an extent, I think that's fair and admirable. We should be able to withstand that kind of grownup journalism.
"I'm not against [Fried's] book as a whole. Rabbi [Gerald] Wolpe went in with his eyes open. Jacob Herber cooperated."
Luke: "Poor man."
Ari: "Those central characters, you had to use their names. But whether Ackerman's wife's mother got cheated out of a house because of a selfish congregation, I don't know. I hear that people [in that allegedly selfish congregation] are saying, 'How embarrassing!' When he starts getting into the cousin's mother's uncle's son... He opens up the pot with all the garbage in it and flings it around."
Luke: "How did you feel about him going into synagogue and taking notes and evaluating whether the rabbi gave a good sermon or not?"
Ari: "If you want to get to the sleazy line, when Herber catches him taking notes, he says, 'You can't do that. It's wrong.' He comes on Rosh Hashanah with a tape recorder [in his tallit bag]... Here's a guy who opens up to you and is honest and is your friend. He's screwing him left and right."
Luke: "That's what journalists do. That's quintessential journalism, it just so happens to take place in our sacred spaces. If it was any other goyishe situation, we'd say, 'Wow, look at [Fried's] spunk.' But he's violating God's Law."
Ari: "I'm uncomfortable with a lot of that. He successfully captures [Rabbi Gerald] Wolpe, the congregation's inability to replace a leader of that magnitude, the only one they know. It's an impossible task. Nobody can replace that kind of leader who's developed relationships with people at life cycle events over the generations. There's some powerful stuff in there."
Luke: "Where do you find compelling writing on Jewish life as lived as you experienced it?"
Ari, ten second pause: "I could start with my own books."
Luke: "You got some stiff criticism for your memoir, The Search For God At Harvard."
Ari: "I did go outside the bounds [of Orthodox Judaism]. I was criticized by the Orthodox community and embarrassed some people. I'm not so holy here. I just wonder about the limits of it.
"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 pretences.' 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."
Luke: "Fried checked his facts. They hold up. He just went for the same details in synagogue that he'd use in the fashion industry."
Ari: "I think you put it well. This is our sacred space. I think it has to be treated a little more respectfully. I think the tape recorder is a good example of violating a trust.
"I teach my students that when you do an interview or write an article, you go into a relationship with someone. You trust that they are giving you good information. They trust you that you will be accurate, fair and kind, and not trash them and get something over at their expense. I think he does that. I read it to the last page but it left me feeling guilty. I didn't want to see all these people humiliated but it is so much fun."
Luke: "So many of the rabbi I know are control freaks and used to controlling not only their own shul but with their image generally and I found this book refreshing that they had to deal with the same type of scrutiny as any other public figure. Do you think rabbis are public figures and accountable to the same sort of scrutiny we'd give other public figures?"
Ari: "Yes, I think rabbis are public figures. Once you take that job, you live a public life. I've participated here on academic searches to bring in new professors and new deans and new presidents of the university. Confidentiality of that process is sacred. Ninety nine out of 100 people you talk to are not going to get the job and that they are looking for a job could hurt them in their current position. You have to be sensitive in who you are talking to about who's good at the interview and who's bad... For all this to be made public, I'm not sure of the benefit of saying that this rabbi couldn't say a d'var Torah (teach a passage from the Bible) off the cuff or this rabbi was having a bad day.
"I don't think anything would've been lost if he had protected a few people. I say that with a lot of admiration for him as a journalist but I think that maybe it is time for him to turn his attention away from the Jewish community. Maybe the Catholic Church could use a Stephen Fried."
Luke: "Where does this concern for not hurting people come from? Is it primarily a Jewish thing or an American thing? I know British and Australian journalists don't have that compunction."
Ari: "In my life, and I've hurt people, it comes out of my Jewish education. In our secular society, it comes more out of our libel laws. You don't want to get sued. For me, it's an ethical issue. I remember years ago, I wrote an article about a major Reform Jewish leader. In the eighties, there was a lot of discussion about denominations getting along better. There were Orthodox and Reform rabbis talking. I did an article about the difficulties of bridging the gap.
"I quoted a Reform rabbi who made an off-the-cuff comment to me after dinner one night. I didn't have my notebook out. He said to me, 'I'd give up eating lobster if sometimes they didn't wear a yarmulke.' I wrote this news analysis and then my kicker quote was from this rabbi. A few days later, I get a note from the Reform rabbi and all it says is, 'Ari, how could you?' He was indignant. No rabbi wants to be known as the lobster-eating rabbi in the New York Times. Did I really need to name him? Could I have fudged it? Could I have said something else? I was young. I don't think he really ate lobster."
Luke: "That's a delicious quote. I love it."
Ari: "I can tell which side of the debate you're on. Every journalist has to ask, is it worth the laugh for someone's reputation. What did he really mean? Rabbi Herber talks too much about the [New York] Islanders [hockey team]. I don't know."
Luke: "Were you prepared for the hostility you got for your memoir from the Orthodox community?"
Ari: "Yes, I think I was prepared for it. I'm a product of that community and I know how vicious it can be. What surprised me even more was the sympathy and support I got. Many Orthodox Jews said [to me], 'I cut corners too. I don't talk about it. But behind closed doors, I do the things you did and you were courageous for making them public and struggling with them.'"
Luke: "People put tremendous effort in the Orthodox community into maintaining appearances."
Ari: "I felt that if I was going to be a journalist and write honestly about other people, I would have to apply the same standard to myself. I don't know that Stephen Fried did that."
Luke: "Apply the same scrutiny to himself? He doesn't reveal anything too embarrassing about himself."
Ari: "I'm not sure he applied the same level of scrutiny to himself that he does to everyone else. He emerges one-dimensional as a character in his return to Judaism. He left it for 20 years. What was that like? How honest is he in now saying I'm back, I'm a member of the club, I can judge everyone else. I think he needed to acknowledge that he left the club and he's not quite in the position to judge these rabbis who, flawed as they are, are in positions because of their scholarship and talent and their ability to work with people. You have to apply that critical standard to yourself as well as to the people you write about and he doesn't seem to be terribly self-critical."
Luke: "What did you think of Paul Wilkes' book And They Shall Be My People?"
Ari: "That book's a little too soft, a little too loving, a little too positive. Wilkes is somebody I know and admire. I use his other book, the one on the priest, in my teaching. I remember there was a problem with his wife..."
Luke: "She was bitter about the community monopolizing her husband's time and energy."
Ari: "I don't remember it being anywhere near as juicy as this one."
Luke: "And Paul still got his head handed to him by the Conservative rabbis. Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum and his wife were very hurt by it. There's no pleasing these people [Conservative rabbis, apparently, with anything other than adulation]. That Wilkes book was softball. It was gentle, loving, positive about Rabbi Rosenbaum yet he won't give me an interview about it. He was wounded by the book and his wife is angry about it and JTS shunned Wilkes."
Ari: "I remember him speaking over at JTS."
Luke: "And he was slotted in to 12-minutes over lunch and no one wanted to listen to him and they dissed him and they want nothing to do with him, is his impression. And I thought he wrote a love poem. I loved the book and thought it was similar to Fried's."
Ari: "Fried picks a much more interesting time in a rabbi's life. This transition time. The other is just a profile."
Luke: "Fried says that because Wilkes is not Jewish..."
Ari: "It insulates [Wilkes] from the kind of criticism that Fried's vulnerable to. In a way, [Fried] took advantage of Wolpe's relationship with his family. I admire what Fried did but something made me uneasy about reading this book."
Luke: "Does one need to be Jewish to capture the dynamics of Jewish life?"
Ari: "I don't think so. It would be wrong for me to say that because I've written a lot about the Catholic Church. It takes a while to get that insider-feel."
Luke: "Wilkes felt like he got a negative reaction from many Jews that he Wilkes, as a non-Jew, would dare to write about such things?"
Ari: "I certainly don't feel that way."
Luke: "Did you get accused of lashon hara with your memoir?"
Ari: "Not really, more in my journalism writing for the [New York] Times. I didn't name names in my memoir. I see lashon hara as directed more towards an individual.
"I don't mean to sound haughty, but the person who the most lashon hara is told about in my memoir is myself. I talk about having premarital sex, eating non-kosher food and desecrating the shabbos. I'm the victim."
Luke: "Isn't there a prohibition against that as well? You're not supposed to lashon hara yourself."
Ari: "I've never heard of that."
I have and I've been convicted of it.
Ari: "I violate a lot of other laws. Mares eyin. When people see you doing something and then conclude it's OK If Ari Goldman can eat trafe... I'm setting a bad example. I was certainly accused of setting a bad example. Who am I to bend the laws with using a pencil on shabbos?"
Luke: "They are not so upset that you did it but that you admitted it publicly."
"I don't think Fried does the kind of soul-searching and self-criticism necessary before you go attack others. I'll keep saying this. I like him. He's a friend of mine. But something made me uneasy about that book."
Luke: "Is part of the reason you quit the Times because of the hassle you got in shul about the paper?"
Ari: "Yes, it was a major reason. I had to answer not only for my sins but for the whole New York Times. It wasn't just, 'I didn't like your article', it was, 'I didn't like Tom Friedman's article.' I had to answer for the whole newspaper as well as criticisms of what I wrote, or why didn't I write, or could I come and write about this? That got to me after a while."
Luke: "Oh yeah, I understand. It's hard in Orthodox Jewish life to step outside the circle and just be a responsible journalist, particularly with Jewish issues. The community exerts tremendous pressure on you. Your second book was much more gentle than your first."
Ari: "There too I bend the rules a bit and talk about different approaches to halacha (Jewish Law) and the different ways people practice, as if everything they do is kosher. I got some criticism for that. The worst thing for any author is to be ignored and I didn't get attacked enough [for that book]. I should've been sharper.
"It's been almost ten years since I left, and people still come up to me and say, 'That New York Times.' There's no escape."
Date: 09-25-1998; Publication: Jerusalem Post; Author: Michael S. Arnold:
Goldman eloquently chronicles his experiences as an Orthodox Jew struggling with the riches of other traditions in his 1991 bestseller, The Search for God at Harvard, about the 1985 sabbatical he took from his reporting job at The New York Times to study comparative religion at the Harvard Divinity School.
Though he approached the year at Harvard with trepidation and a fair amount of guilt, Goldman today defines himself unequivocally as an "orchard Jew" - one who believes whole-heartedly in the value of interaction with other faiths. Many of the struggles he describes in his book "are the struggles of a young man trying to define who he is," he says. Still, the book pegged him at a certain point in his personal development - and served as inspiration for a host of readers similarly questioning how to reconcile Jewish identity with life in a Gentile culture.
"People have this image of me as the yeshiva boy struggling with the modern world," Goldman says with a laugh, "but I'm beyond a lot of those conflicts. We get older, we get wiser."
Now 48, his light-brown hair beginning to gray, the skin behind his small wire-rimmed glasses creased, Goldman still is perched between two worlds, but ones defined more by age than by ideology. He no longer feels driven to chase "the story" as he did during his 20 years at The New York Times; he is more content to assign it to students at his alma mater, the Columbia Journalism School, where he is an assistant professor. He spent this year in Jerusalem on a Fulbright fellowship, taking time out from the hectic pace of Manhattan to reconnect, he says wryly, "with my inner Jew."
"On the last [sabbatical] I was still the yeshiva boy looking at Christianity and Islam, trying to come to terms with what it means to be Jewish and observant and still to respect and appreciate other faiths," Goldman says. "This year was much more introspective, delving deeper into Judaism. Maybe as we get older we turn more inside."
After a year on the Times's religion beat, Goldman asked his editors for what was then almost unthinkable at the paper - a year-long sabbatical to study comparative religion. To his surprise, the request was granted, and Goldman soon found himself at Harvard. The experience was a powerful one which convinced him of the beauty and depth of other faiths - and strengthened his commitment to his own. "In a lot of ways I think that fear of contact with outside cultures is an old demon that I conquered," Goldman says. "I'm very much an orchard Jew. You have to take that plunge. Judaism is at its best when it has that encounter with the other. There's a richness in that encounter that you don't find when you stay in the ghetto or the shtetl. I think it's part of being a Jew today."
In 1991 he turned his experiences into a bestselling book. By 1993, feeling he had done all he could at the Times and burnt out by the office politics, Goldman left the paper to join the Columbia Journalism School faculty. Goldman arrived in Israel last August on another sabbatical, this time with a Fulbright fellowship to study the language skills of foreign correspondents. In a way, he says, the project was the vicarious fulfillment of his own frustrated longing to be a foreign correspondent; for his research, he traveled on assignment with reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Newsday and Baltimore Sun.
His findings were hardly earth-shattering - foreign reporters can function well in Israel without speaking Hebrew, but miss some of the local nuances - but it appears the project was almost incidental to other, more important aspects of self-discovery.
Nearly an hour into a discussion of his experience in Israel, Goldman has to be prompted to mention the Fulbright fellowship. "And now," he says, embarrassed, "a word from our sponsor. In a way the [Fulbright project] was part of my personal exploration as well, to develop my Walter Mitty fantasy of being a foreign correspondent, " Goldman says. "The point of a sabbatical is not to lock yourself into an agenda. The things I was supposed to do, I did, and I do feel this experience will make me a much better journalism professor. But it wasn't the most compelling part personally."
More meaningful, it seems, was a men's group that Goldman helped found. Talk never turned to such typical male topics as sex, sports or politics; rather, Goldman says, with six of the eight participants here on sabbatical they discussed such things as finances, moving a family overseas and the differences between wearing a kippa in America and Israel. For Goldman, the male bonding was powerful. In a uniquely Israeli twist, the group substituted the intense Carlebach-style praying of the monthly "Lieder minyan" for the emotional catharsis other men's groups in the US seek by beating drums in the woods.
"This year I withdrew from a high-pressured Manhattan life into a more reflective, quieter mode," Goldman says. "It wasn't only the place, it was my head. I was able to do more personal work."
He finished writing a book on the Jewish life-cycle, a sort of layman' s guide to Jewish practice, which he had been working on for three years, and says he may turn his experiences with the men's group into another book. Goldman's wife, freelance writer Shira Dicker, also is writing a book on the family's experiences here for the Jewish Lights publishing house in Vermont.
Goldman also began studying Talmud again this year for the first time in 25 years - an experience he says was like "going back and being a yeshiva boy again. I took great pleasure in that" - and studied a bit with his son Adam, 14. Rounding out the family is daughter Emma, 10, and son Judah, three.
The sabbatical helped fill what Goldman considered a gap in his life - a deep connection with Israel. Curiously, though much of The Search for God at Harvard deals with what it means to have a meaningful Jewish identity in America, neither Israel nor the Holocaust - the two pillars of identity for many Jews - is mentioned. "I'm much more of a Torah Jew, I'm much more connected to ritual and tradition than to Israel or the Holocaust," Goldman says. "This year came to fill that part." But he does confess to a deep disappointment with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's approach to the peace process. "When I came here 12 months ago, the government was debating the second redeployment. You pick up the paper now and there has been no progress," he says. "I saw great promise in this country three years ago and it was dashed. It makes me very sad to see that opportunity slip out of our hands. I see a willingness to deal on the Arabs' part that I don't see matched by Netanyahu."
Goldman returns to New York this fall with a renewed enthusiasm for the richness of Diaspora Jewish life, which he insists in some ways is on an equal footing with Jewish life in Israel. "I have a place there," he says - though he's not certain just what that place is. His past work has focused on interfaith relations and the way they can enrich Judaism, but he does not want to be pigeon- holed by it. Indeed, he describes his book and his reporting at the Times, which have earned him a small measure of fame, as "these two burdens, this heavy baggage to carry with me."
Of the student who placed him on the shelf alongside the giants of modern Jewish thought, Goldman says, "I don't want to be another dead Jewish writer. I don't want to be known by The Search for God at Harvard. I want to go beyond that. I want to be known by my next books." Especially, Goldman says, "I would really like to write something that reunites the Jewish people. Again and again I see just how divisive those [denominational] labels are."
Now, after a brief and unhappy experience with a shallow Orthodox community in New York's posh Westchester County - where synagogue members questioned Goldman's fitness to lead Yom Kippur services because he ate in non- kosher restaurants and named one son for a non-Jewish music teacher - Goldman has returned to Manhattan's Upper West Side.
One of his projects is the revitalization of the Ramat Ora synagogue on West 110th Street. Until a few years ago the most active component of the shul was its hevra kadisha (burial society), pressed into frequent service as the synagogue's elderly members died one by one. Now, with Goldman as the shul's vice president, Ramat Ora's Carlebach- inspired praying attracts nearly 200 people for Friday night services. "At a certain point I decided that I'd rather be the bad boy of Orthodoxy than the tzaddik of Conservatism," Goldman says. "I'm trying to push [Orthodoxy] toward openness, toward equality for women, but within a halachic framework."
He still flirts with the idea of becoming a rabbi, but Goldman remains convinced that his "ministry" is journalism. For now, though, he says, he is content to oversee his students' work and watch them grow under his guidance. "That's something else that maybe comes with age," Goldman says. "I'm not dying to get out there and cover the story right now. There was a time in my life when I needed to be out on the street covering the story. Now I'm willing to sit back a little bit and be reflective. "I guess," Goldman says with a grin, "I'm really in the sabbatical mode."
Religion As Therapy
I won't repeat all the glowing reviews for the book and I promise not to use the words "lyrical" or "moving" in this article, even though the book brought me to tears. It struck too close to home.
Ari grabs a cup of tea. It's 8:15AM my time. I've been up since 7AM. It's Ari's office hours and his journalism students drop by to see him.
Luke: "I picked up your book as I was walking to shul last Friday night and you grabbed me by the third page and you held me close to tears the whole way and then you killed me at the end. I was grabbing people in shul and telling them they must read this book.
"What did you love and what did you hate about writing this book?"
Ari: "As with my first book, The Search for God at Harvard, which was about a year I spent at Harvard divinity school, I wanted to hold on to the experience. Being a mourner was not something pleasant, but something significant in my life. I wanted to remember the feelings. I wanted to remember how I mourned for my father."
There's another student at Ari's door. We take a 30-minute break. Ari calls me back.
Ari: "I can't think of anything I hated."
Luke: "How about the tsures (trouble) from family members because their memories differ from yours?"
Ari: "That wasn't so much in the writing of the book as in the reaction to the book. Some family members are not happy with my portrayal of events. I have my interpretation of what happened. Writing this book was cathartic. This isn't anybody else's memoir. I will put up with the tsures from family."
Luke: "It wasn't a crippling thing as you were writing it? Oh no, what will Uncle Joe or cousin Sarah say? Did you have to fight that fear?"
Ari: "I thought it was important to make my points without unnecessarily hurting people. I did tone things down. I left some stories out. I write about the uncle [at the funeral] who forgets to mention me in a eulogy for my father. At first I wrote his name. At the request of one of my cousins, I took it out. I thought that story was emblematic of when there's a divorce in the family, some people pretend it never happened. That the issue [children] of that marriage is not worth mentioning."
Luke: "How many people did you see permission to write about them or to check their recollections of events?"
Ari: "I showed it to various family members as I was writing it. Some corrected me. Some said I was way off the mark. Some asked that I not publish the book. I tried to be sensitive to their feelings but I felt my own inner-need to say this overrode anybody else's feelings."
Luke: "How has your life been affected since your book came out?"
Ari: "It's been out two weeks. Overwhelmingly the response has been good. There have been a few unhappy people, but I didn't write it for them. I've gotten responses that the book was helpful, comforting... And there was the Christian friend who said the book was about forgiveness. I don't think I intended it that way."
Luke: "Christians love that. Everybody sees the book through their own prism."
Ari: "I found that [remark] comforting. Yes, it is about forgiving my father and forgiving myself for not being the son I could've been. It's about coming to terms."
Luke: "The picture of your parents together happy - has it had a lasting imprint on your life?"
Ari: "I find solace that my parents were my parents. I wasn't always allowed to feel that they were my parents."
Luke: "How did your wife react to your writing this book?"
Ari: "My wife is incredibly open about her own life and her own history. She's adopted. She talks a lot about finding her birth mother. She was an inspiration for this book. She validated my feelings and encouraging me to give voice to them."
The Mexican gardener outside has been operating his leaf-blower at full volume the past ten minutes and I can barely hear Ari let alone my own thoughts. Luckily, I've written down my questions and I'm taping the interview.
Luke: "How is your Judaism changing over the years?"
Ari: "I will be 54 next week. I'm still on a spiritual journey but I've found my rhythm in a way that I did not five years ago.
"I feel my commitments as a Jew are solid."
Luke: "Are you becoming more popular or less popular with the Orthodox Jewish community?"
Ari: "That remains to be seen. I was unpopular after I wrote The Search for God at Harvard because I became my own rabbi after the rabbis let me down. In the book, I describe an experience with a black-hat shul that was afraid of me because of my New York Times experience.
"What I do here is validate an Orthodox practice. On the other hand, traditionalists might take offense at my reasoning. The traditional Orthodox point of view on the Kaddish might be - it is not for you. It is not to make you feel better. It's the halacha [Jewish Law], you have to do it. It's not about trying to say Kaddish, it's about saying it. It's not about going once a day, it's about going three times a day. I can see an Orthodox critique of this book but I didn't write it to make friends."
Luke: "As most of Orthodoxy moves right, there's also a stream, of which you are a part, moving left."
Ari: "The more progressive Orthodox are small. I think it is important for those of us on the left to speak about what we do and not be afraid that our Orthodox credentials will be taken from us."
Luke: "What do you think now about your daughter turning 13 and having to go over to the other side of the mehitza?"
Ari: "I feel the same. I miss her next to me in shul. I would like to see Orthodoxy be more inclusive of women."
Luke: "Do you think Orthodoxy can ever accept men and women sitting together at prayer?"
Ari: "No. It's come to define Orthodoxy. The best you can do is make women feel comfortable in shul on their side of the mehitza. Separate seating has come to define Orthodoxy, for better or worse. I would like to see the women who come be equal partners. Maybe the service shouldn't start until there are ten men and ten women. There's got to be more of a partnership."
Luke: "I wonder if your book is part of a trend of therapeutic religion?"
Ari: "Interesting point."
Luke: "Meaning religion as personal therapy, clergy as spiritual therapists, religion serving the needs of the individuals rather than the individuals primarily serving the religion."
Ari: "I think it has always been that. I don't draw a big distinction between what I do for God and what God does for me. I'm in a relationship with God and it's all part of being a Jew. If Judaism didn't do these things for us, we wouldn't be in the game. If we subscribe to a faith, it's because it gives us meaning. I would challenge your question. It's like saying, Is there a trend towards therapeutic medicine? No. Medicine is supposed to be good for you. Sometimes it hurts and stings but its purpose is to heal. With religion as well, we may not always understand it or enjoy it, but its purpose is to heal and to improve my life. I make no apologies for religion being good."
Luke: "Would you hold by what you just said as a single sentence that stands alone? The purpose of religion is to improve my life."
Luke: "Would people have said that in Orthodox Judaism 40 years ago?"
Ari: "Maybe not in that sense, but in that context of a relationship with God. I don't have to apologize for benefiting. I don't know if people would've articulated that way but they certainly would have those feelings."
Luke: "I don't want to say that you should apologize, but there's been a sea change in religion in the last 40 years, becoming more therapeutic and psychological and oriented towards healing and individual fulfillment."
Ari: "I think that's a good thing."
Luke: "Would you agree that shift has taken place?"
Ari: "I don't know. I wrote an article in Sunday's New York Times week in review section talking about religious commemorations of death. I say that modern psychology confirms that all the ancient religious rites are good for you. You can't just have closure and move on. You have to grapple with your loss. Religion has been doing this for ages. I think that's the purpose of religion - to give us comfort and meaning."
Luke: "If your child came to you at age 19, and said, 'Dad, I'm finding more meaning and comfort in Buddhism than Judaism.' How would you react?"
Ari: "I would say, 'Good for you.' But I would feel like I failed. I have brought my children up to find meaning in Judaism, to love Judaism and to serve God. I couldn't argue with a child who said that and I'd wish them well."
Luke: "If religion is primarily about comfort, then if your kid..."
Ari: "But I have given them a Judaism of comfort and of obligation as well. Ultimately, I want it to be meaningful for them. I wouldn't want them to do this if it wasn't meaningful."
Luke: "What do you think of Dr. Laura leaving Judaism because it is not comforting for her?"
Ari: "I have no opinion."
Luke: "You weren't intrigued by it?"
Ari: "Nope. I've never listened to her. She's never been a significant character in my worldview. I don't think we gained anything and I don't think we lost anything."
Luke: "Did you ever read Lauren Winner's book and what did you think of her journey?"
Ari: "I was sad to see her go but I wish her well. Her publisher just asked me to blurb her new book and I declined because I don't want to endorse what she's done. I'm happy that she found something meaningful in her life. I'm sorry Judaism couldn't fulfill her."
Luke: "She found something more comforting."
Luke: "She found that closer personal relationship with God. You don't hear much talk about personal relationship with God in Judaism."
Luke: "What do you think of Rabbi Avi Weiss's new yeshiva and what it could mean for American Orthodox Judaism?"
Ari: "That's not my book. I do mention him in my book. I do like him. I do like what he's done. I think he's a terrific pulpit rabbi and a good friend and a comforting presence. I would rather see him try to change Yeshiva University [bastion of Modern Orthodoxy that's shifted right over the past 30 years] than set up an alternative to it."
Luke: "Do you have hope for Yeshiva University with its new leader?"
Ari: "Absolutely. I am not enthusiastic about Rabbi Avi Weiss's yeshiva."
I wanted to ask Ari to disparage the book Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier but I chickened out.