I chat by phone with David Twersky Monday, July 12, 2004.
"I co-founded the JSPS (1971-73) with David Kaufman.
"I lived in Israel for twelve years (1974-86) and edited an English-language journal of the kibbutz movement Shdemot. For four years (1982-86), I founded and edited a magazine for the Israeli labor party called Spectrum. It was for distribution among parties of the Socialist Internationale in Europe.
"In 1990, I came to work for the Forward as Washington bureau chief. From 1993-2002, I was the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
"I don't miss the sense of working for the Jewish community and having to worry about where the chips fall (from your writing). The Forward does that less than the other Jewish newspapers.
"There are many different financial models for Jewish newspapers. Some are owned by the Federation. Some are financially dependent on the Federation. Some have a sour relationship with the Federation, such as the Minneapolis paper. That independence hasn't manifested itself in any stellar contribution to journalism.
"The Federation provides the most complete mailing database for a subscription list. Invariably, even if the paper begins with the best of intentions, inevitably Federation looks at it through the prism of what's good for the campaign and what's not good for the [fundraising] campaign.
"If you look at any small-town paper, they also do a lot of honorifics. Someone elected president of the Elks Club. So-and-so baked pies for the high school reunion. That tends to be a dimension of the Jewish paper as well."
"Are we any different from the Catholic and Protestant press?" I ask.
"Yes, we're better. The Catholic papers are bad. They're basically newsletters."
"Which Jewish newspapers would you read for fun?"
"The Forward obviously. I look at The Jewish Week every week because I live in the New York area. And JTA.org."
"Do you look at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles?" I ask.
"I look at it sometimes. They've got some good people. They do some interesting stuff. No question about it."
"I don't know. I haven't looked at it lately. LA is an interesting community."
"What are the biggest obstacles to doing compelling journalism on Jewish topics?"
"People are usually more interested in a superficial telling of their story. There's a small constituency that is interested in all the passion and all the depth of the Jewish story. The Forward in its current incarnation is 14 years old and still has fewer than 30,000 subscribers..."
"And is losing millions of dollars a year."
"They make a valiant effort and I just don't know how big of a constituency there is... There are a lot of intelligent, articulate, well-educated Jews who simply don't care about what to them is inside baseball. They connect with the Jewish community occasionally. They may just want a local superficial what's-going-on-in-my-community paper.
"The problem with running a national paper is that it is hard to get ads. We made money in New Jersey off of banks and real estate and car dealerships. Those are local. You need a mass of readers in one area. Are there enough people interested in a national Jewish newspaper?"
"If you told a compelling story, there'd be more people interested," I say.
"That remains to be seen."
"Somebody told me you quit the Forward because of Lipsky's neo-Conservatism."
"That's absolutely untrue."
"What are the biggest stories you never got to publish?"
"There are two stories that I blew. One was about Jesse Jackson trying to become the leader of the NAACP. I had the scoop and didn't do anything with it. And I knew about the blind sheikh Abdul Rachman before anybody else, way before he was arrested. I will never forgive myself for f---ing that up."
"What about scoops that you couldn't get in the paper?"
"Nothing worth talking about. In the Jewish news, the more local, the more problematic. If you had a scoop that affected somebody locally, then it raised eyebrows. If you had a great scoop about Israel or Washington, nobody would care.
"There was a scandal in the Jewish Federated community."
[Marty Kraar. He was the married head of CJF (Council of Jewish Federations) for ten years. He had a sexual affair with a woman in her 20s, Liz Hollander, who worked under him at the CJF. After he ended their affair, she threatened a lawsuit in 1999 against Kraar and the Federation (spearheaded by her New Jersey father, Sandy, a lawyer with The Jewish Agency). News coverage was slow. Liz moved to Israel and had at least one more affair with a married man (in Marty's Israel's office, broke up a family south of Beersheva with four kids) and then a relationship with a Holocaust survivor who worked for the Jewish World Service. In most, if not all, of the press coverage, only Marty, not the woman, got named. Marty remarried. Liz apparently resented that. Apparently, the Federation gave her about $60,000 to kill a lawsuit.]
"Gary Rosenblatt wrote a signed editorial about it. Marty was furious. He said to me that I had to write a response. I wouldn't do it. The woman involved, her parents lived in Metro-West [the district of Twersky's Jersey Jewish News]. I thought there was no point in dragging them through the mud on this. There's no higher goal here. Marty Kraar's done. He's not going to become the head of this new entity UJA. I can't save him or do him in. It's been aired in a gigantic Jewish forum. If I go after this any further, I am going to do to that particular family what Philip Roth did to the parents [Patimkins in the novela] of the girl in Goodbye, Columbus. There are still people in my synagogue who do not forgive Phil Roth.
"I know people close to that family who are furious that he would write a book about screwing their daughter."
"Yeah, but it was worth it because it was such a great book."
"That's what Philip Roth would say."
"What would you say?"
"I would say it was worth it but I didn't know the people. He writes a lot about people who people really know. The Swede in American Pastorale lives in South Orange, a mile from me. His nickname is the Swede. They went to highschool together. We interviewed him. He was happy with the book. It's not true that his daughter went underground. I Married a Communist was mostly literally true. It was based on something that his homeroom teacher told him about his younger brother the communist. I called the teacher and he was still so blown away by the McCarthy period that he wouldn't talk about it. But he talked to Roth about it and one of the things he and Bellow are so great at is recording and imitating the way people really talk.
"It's one thing to write an article in the Forward and screw somebody because you out them on some issue and it's another thing in a local community where you have to live with the people you're outing. You have to see them at the UJA meeting next week or the kosher butcher.
"When Mort Pye was the editor in chief of the Star Ledger in Newark, before he retired, he published this thing on the front page of the Jersey section on some wealthy Jew from the Wilf family, one of the Holocaust survivor families that went into building. Lenny Wilf, a big Jewish philanthropist, was having a nasty divorce. His wife leaked to the paper what she estimated his net worth at. She was going to get 50% of whatever X was. He printed the estimate. It just so happened it made the front page. It was supposed to be buried. It was in the Sunday paper. Everybody saw it.
"Mort Pye walked into his club and nobody would talk to him. Everybody turned their back on him in the lockerroom. It's like when the Jewish lawyer in the OJ case (Robert Shapiro) went to [Wilshire Boulevard Temple] on Yom Kippur [the day OJ was found not guilty in the criminal trial] and everybody moved away from him."
David now writes a weekly column for Seth Lipsky's New York Sun and works for the American Jewish Congress.
July 17, 2010:
David Twersky, who died Friday evening of cancer, was one of the most remarkable journalists of his generation — a reminder of the impact that can be made by one person with a pen and a passion for the issues. He took up newspaper work relatively late in a life that had been devoted to Labor Zionism. He instantly showed an uncanny ability to analyze a political situation and sense a scoop where others weren’t looking — and an honesty that brooked no pleading on the right or left as he pursued the truth as he saw it and the Jewish cause for which he lived.
We first met him when the staff was being assembled to bring out the Jewish Forward in English. The meeting took place over dinner, where Twersky, then with the American Jewish Congress, told, among other things, of one day in the Bronx when he was a boy and his father sent him to the news-stand for a copy of the Forward, which was then issued daily in Yiddish. The lad raced out and, in a ghastly error, came back with a copy of the Freiheit, the communist paper. His father was so upset that he threw his son out a window. The window part may, or may not, be apocryphal, but it was clear that Twersky had never stopped looking for the right paper.
So the Forward took Twersky on and sent him to open its bureau in Washington, whence, in the closing years of the administration of President George H.W. Bush and the early years of the administration of President Clinton, he landed scoop after scoop by working sources that few, if any, other reporters were working. They were often sources from the right wing of the labor movement or the Social Democrats. It was Twersky who first reported on concerns of the labor movement over President-elect Clinton’s decision to put at the head of his transition team in health, education and labor an educator with far-left connections.