I read J.J. Goldberg every week he wrote a column for such major weeklies as the Jewish Journal. He regularly disappointed me because I thought him too kind.
I also read his book Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment and was again disappointed that he didn't shed blood.
Monday morning, July 19, 2004, I spend 80 minutes with him on the phone. To my delight, he's blunt as hell.
I like passionate people. They're more interesting and provide better copy.
"I'm taping," I begin.
"Will your machine go beep beep?" he asks.
"No. But I'll do my best to provide the beep beeps every ten seconds on my own."
"What are the biggest obstacles to providing compelling journalism on American Jewish life?"
"The biggest obstacle is that most Jews don't want compelling journalism on American Jewish life. The Jews who look to Jewish journalism tend to want to be anesthetized. They want journalism that will make them feel great about being Jewish and remind them of how much the Jews have overcome and how horrible their enemies are and how cool it is to be Jewish. The ones who have distance from that have so much distance that they don't want to put any effort into it. Critical loyalty is nearly gone except on the right-wing where they are critical of the rest of the Jewish community for not being sufficiently observant and appreciative of the Torah. That's the biggest obstacle. Everything else is secondary. If that didn't exist, there would be more interested readers and more tolerance and more people would be coming and trying to do this stuff. The stuff that is done, including the community weekly journals, against the odds, is sometimes pretty good."
"When did you first start writing on Jewish life?"
"I was doing it as a teenager in the '60s. I was involved in the [left-wing Zionist] youth group Habonim. I used to write manifestos about the community, civil rights, and oppression, in our newsletter. In college, I was part of an editorial collective that put out a weekly radical student paper The Other Stand.
"I'm a rare bird who hasn't changed his views much since he was a teenager. I'm more nuanced and, I hope, a little more grown-up, but my outlook on the world is left-of-center and Zionist and I still keep kosher.
"My first reporting job on the Jewish community was in LA in 1981 for a Hebrew weekly aimed at the Yordim (those who've left Israel) community. That lasted a year. After two years working outside of journalism, I came to New York for journalism school."
"Can you give me any turning points in your career? Times when you've decided to tell the truth in something and known you were going to lose friends?"
"That happens all the time. Many of the people I've been friends with over the years, from out of the Jewish student movement, the Jewish Student Press Service, friendships with people who are now senior officials at Jewish organizations such as my oldest friend David Twersky. We've lived on kibbutz together. We've been in newspapers together. The friendship goes in and out as the roles change. John Ruskay, Steven M. Cohen, on and on. Even people that I'd been reporting on for so long that they'd become relationships and then one day you've got to bite them in the ass and they really don't like it and they're not your friends anymore. That's hard. There are weeks where it is very hard to go to shul because everybody is mad at you.
"A year ago when I translated the Avraham Burg essay (former speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament), that was transformative in how upset people got. He wrote a piece in Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest-circulation newspaper, last August about the occupation [of the West Bank and Gaza Strip] and its corrupting influence on Israeli life. He wrote that it was destroying Zionism.
"I read it in Jerusalem. I ran into him that morning. I said, 'Do you mind if translate this into English?' He said sure. It got reprinted within two weeks all over the world, in the International Herald Tribune, LeMonde, the Guardian of London, the Baltimore Sun. It spun around the Web. The day before Yom Kippur, the Syrian ambassador was on CNN quoting from it, to show how corrupt Israel supposedly was.
"I went to my [breakaway not-affiliated Conservative] shul on Yom Kippur. We don't have a rabbi in my shul (though a big percentage of the members are Conservative rabbis). Every week, there's a different person giving a dvar Torah. Somebody got up and talked about how awful it is that some members of our community are providing ammunition for the enemies of Israel. Friends of mine almost walked out in protest. You go to shul and expect not to be attacked from the bima. That was transformative."
"Any one article you've done where you lost the most friends?"
"Almost 15 years ago, there was a wave of firings of executive directors at Jewish organizations. My curiosity started out because the head of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry was suddenly dismissed after 20 years on the job. He almost created the Soviet Jewry movement. Somebody said to me, 'Look into this. There's something going on.' I looked into it and it was about lay people. The older generation of lay people [who were big donors] were garment manufacturers [and from other businesses that did not require an extensive formal education] who would write checks and let the staff run the organization. A younger generation of lay people were lawyers and consultants who had time during the day. They were micro-managing the organizations and telling the staff what to do. The staff was fighting back. Things were getting ugly. Careers were being brought to an end for no reason.
"I quoted somebody who called it a bloodbath. There were people who were forced to resign. I didn't realize that if you write that somebody was fired when they were merely forced to resign, they will sue you. Years later, over Shabbos dinner, I would run into people who had been friends and who still didn't want to have dinner with me because I had written they had been fired when they had agreed to resign. It still sounds like a silly distinction to me.
"I was struck by your discussion about human feelings with one editor. You were, get the story. This person was, what about rachmones (mercy)? There's something about your background so that you don't put a high stake in what people you don't know think of you."
"Right," I say.
"But a lot of these Jewish community activists, they care about that a lot. The New York Times worries about this too. Is the damage you are going to do to this person's personal life deserved?
"Ernie Michel was on that list. A Holocaust survivor, he had been the executive director of the New York Jewish Federation. He was beloved among his colleagues and clients. He was one of the founders of the Holocaust survivors movement. Thirty years ago, survivors didn't have meetings and issue statements. They nursed their wounds, raised their children, and historians wrote about the Holocaust. Israeli politicians talked about the Holocaust. Ernie, along with Elie Wiesel and others, organized a world gathering of Holocaust survivors in 1981. He was one of the first Holocaust survivors to achieve a position like director of the New York Jewish Federation.
"Around 1987, I heard that he was eased out. There was a big restructuring of New York Federation and they were bringing in younger people. He was in that article.
"My career has been a crossover between the bureaucracy and the journalism. But he'd always been warm to me. The first time I went to interview him. These people always have pictures on the wall of themselves shaking hands with Richard Nixon, etc. He had a picture of him with Harpo Marx. For this world, that's a great thing. He was a good egg.
"He let me know through every avenue possible, other than by talking to me, that he had never been more wounded in his life. There was one time when I really needed a quote from him because he was the only person who knew what I needed. I called him. He got on the phone and said, I just want to remind you that I told you that I was never talking to you again, and I'm sticking to that.
"You would expect it [these rupturing of friendships] to be about something big in the world and it is always seems to be about these little things."
"These little ego things," I say.
"Personal feelings. How they face their kids the next morning over breakfast.
"Ernie Michel mellowed out after a couple of years."
"What always struck me about your weekly columns was how nice you were," I say.
"I tried to be gentle. I was more interested in nailing the issues than the people. My general assumption is that most people do their best. Most things that go wrong are because either something is too hard for the people involved or because there's a genuine clash of interests.
"There's this whole thing with social justice work. Young people doing pro-choice work, anti-hunger work. It is to oppose the policies of the Republicans. The assumption being that Republicans are against social justice. They are not. They have a different way. In their minds, they think that what they do achieves greater social justice. If you stop giving poor people money, they will find jobs and there will be more justice. I don't agree but I don't think they are against social justice. A lot of people assume that if you don't agree with my methods, you must oppose my goal. There's a whole lot of anger and demonization that goes on. 'That John Kerry isn't against terrorism.' 'That George Bush doesn't believe in freedom or civil rights.' I don't agree. I think most people mean well."
"You seem to believe that most people mean well and that if we only better understood each other, and communicated better, that many of our problems could be ameliorated," I say.
"That's going a little far. If we only understood each other better, and communicated better, we could probably argue these things out more smoothly. We'd still disagree. It probably wouldn't be as ugly."
"For instance, do you believe that if more Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews socialized together more, do you think that they would hate each other more or less?"
"I don't know. It's hard to imagine them socializing more together because then they'd want to date. I think Orthodox Jews would do well to understand what it does to other people when you don't want to socialize with them. I think they assume that because they're doing what God told them to do, everybody else needs to understand it. A lot of Reform Jews think they believe in pluralism, that everybody is entitled to their own form of Judaism. Now, Orthodox Judaism teaches that halachah is Judaism. Reform Judaism doesn't believe that the Torah commands anything. It recommends. By definition, an Orthodox Jew cannot believe that Reform Judaism is an authentic interpretation of the Torah. If you are really a pluralist, you have to believe in the right of Orthodoxy not to accept Reform Judaism.
"The Reform are always pressing in communal situations and organizations for resolutions [calling on Israel to accept the legitimacy of Reform Judaism]. There have been a couple of national Jewish councils that have fallen apart, the Orthodox resigned, because the Reform managed to get a majority to adopt a resolution calling on the Israeli government to accept the legitimacy of Reform Judaism. If they had sat down and thought it through, they would see that the Orthodox can't live with that. If you don't want the council to exist, fine. But if you want there to be a council where everybody sits around the table, don't shoot a hole in the floor of the boat.
"It would solve some problems if people listened to each other."
"My take is darker," I say. "I believe that if Orthodox and non-Orthodox spent more time with each other, they would hate each other even more."
"What's the circulation of the Forward?"
"Somewhere between 26,000-30,000."
"Does that bother you?"
"Yeah. It's about 50% higher than when I took over four years ago. It was just under 19,000 then. We have significantly higher newsstand sales."
"What are you the most proud of since taking over and where do you think you have the furthest to go?"
"What am I most proud of? My daughter learned to ride a bicycle a few weeks ago. She's ten. I also have a seven year old son."
"With the Forward?" I ask.
"S---, I don't know," J.J. sighs. "I hate lists like this. I think we're putting out a decent paper. I think Lipsky created a national journal worthy of the name that became must-reading, that became a platform where the Jewish community, of all views, had to come together to talk to each other. I have managed to maintain that. Some people think I have raised the level. I turned around the political direction without losing the quality of journalism. You know what they say about turning around an aircraft carrier while you are traveling full steam. I think the Opinion page has become a real forum for exchange on Jewish stuff. I think the Arts page is expanding the boundaries of what is Jewish. The things that Jews are interested in are Jewish things. That could mean everything in the world, but somewhere between that and a narrow interest in Israel, the Holocaust and the Torah is a broad middle area that we're looking for. We're groping in the dark. It's evolving. I'm proud of finding people who are good at what they're doing and letting them do it.
"We have a couple of reporters who are just stars. I get a kick out of the fact that I can find these people."
"I miss Eve Kessler's reporting on religion," I say.
"We don't do enough reporting on religion. Eve was a really interesting religion reporter but she is a brilliant political reporter. She is the kind of journalism you like -- go for the throat."
"Yeah," I sigh.
"That serves the political world better than the religion world. In Judaism, there's so little debate, that if you shut down the sources, if you burn everybody, you get one good week and then there's no more. If you can find a way of doing it so that people want to continue the discussion... The Lakewood business [a yeshiva student from Lakewood self-published a book that argued the racial superiority of Jews], there are times when you have to let it all hang out. But there are other times, when you look for the negative, look for a way of making people look bad, just for entertainment value, you don't gain that much.
"We're a small paper. We don't have too many resources. I think there's so much going on in the world of religion that I would like to talk about it with depth and intelligence and not just smarts. Some of her stuff was great. In what she's doing now, all of her stuff is great.
"Now that I think about it. I'm listening to you and I'm listening to myself, and it might just be time... She's gained a whole lot of depth in the last couple of years. That might not be a bad idea to bring her back to the religion beat. Thank you."
"Please God," I say.
"That's interesting," says J.J.. "I'm listening to myself talk and I'm listening to you and I'm thinking about what we're missing."
"I thought she was awesome [on religion. I don't care about a Jewish perspective on national politics.]"
"For getting the paper read, the stuff that she's done on politics the last two years has gotten us more buzz than any other single thing. To the extent that we have grown 50%, part of it is marketing, direct mail, and spending money but part of it is word of mouth. A lot of that has to be just her getting quoted because she comes up with these great stories. When you're talking about stuff that everybody is interested in. The moment you talk about ethnic ghetto narrow Jewish stuff, the involved Jews will be grateful and everybody else will tune you out.
"Hillel had this debate about how to structure their buildings where you have the kosher lunch and Torah lessons upstairs and downstairs you have the general stuff that will bring people in. If you have the hardcore stuff by the entrance, then other people will never get in the door. If you want to design a newspaper to get read as widely as possible, the theory would be to have really good coverage of something that a lot of people are interested in."
"I'm not sure she was adequately replaced."
"Ami Eden was doing a great job on religion for a while but then he became the news editor.
"The other thing that is hard about doing good Jewish journalism, is that there are not many people who are informed on Jewish affairs, have an open mind so that they can fairly listen to varying Jewish points of view, who appreciate both Jewish tradition and culture and politics, who get into the Middle East and the Jewish communal world, and the religion. The people who tend to get that stuff tend to be conservative. The people who get that stuff and are what I'm looking for, center-Left, are rare. The people who are left are frequently Left-wing. I'm not looking for ideologues. The subset who are left who also know how to do journalism are a small group of people.
"If you look at the staff we have working here, most of them are good at something. They're not that interchangeable. The hardest thing is to find somebody who can cover Jewish religion intelligently. Ami was the best but he's also the best news editor. That was his triage. Now I'm looking for somebody else [to cover religion]. Somebody who understands Orthodoxy and can cover Reform. If you know anybody, send them along."
"What do you think of Jewish journalists who abandon their craft to go to work for the people they were covering?"
"That's life. I'm sorry for the profession but I'm glad that they're making a living. I am more happy when a Jeff Goldberg or Philip Gourevitch goes from Jewish journalism to the larger world of journalism. But they have to go somewhere. They could become the editor of a Jewish weekly. I know you won't agree, but there are five or six [Jewish newspapers] where the job allows you to have some real credibility. I think Andy [Silow-Carroll], Rob [Eshman], Gary [Rosenblatt] do good jobs. I don't agree with a lot of Gary's decisions but I think he maintains a certain amount of integrity in his own belief system."
"Does Gary produce a compelling read each week?"
"Plenty of people think so."
"Do you think so?" I press.
"He's doing a very different thing from what I'm doing. It's not my taste. I know that it serves the needs of a lot of people."
"I get the sense from his paper that is edited by a Modern Orthodox editor for a Modern Orthodox audience," I say.
"You know what? I don't want to talk about his paper."
"Did you read the book The New Rabbi?"
"I didn't finish it. I read the beginning, end and a lot of the middle."
"What did you think of what you read?" I ask.
"I thought it was a great book."
"Again, a good book."
"What do you think about using some of the techniques of New Journalism in your paper?"
"It makes the articles longer. If you can do that and still tell the truth, then it makes for a better read. We've had a couple of reporters who were able to do that. My rule is first, give me a credible news report. Then, the more charmingly it is written, the more people are going to want to read it."
"What your reaction to Malcolm Hoenlein and his approach to journalism on American Jewish life?"
"I've never discussed this with him."
"He's lectured that the Jewish press should report dissent less and his views more, because he represents the major Jewish organizations. He also threatened Gary Rosenblatt that he would financially destroy The Jewish Week if they ran an article on Malcolm's secret slushfund by Larry Cohler, thus delaying the article's publication for 18-months and watering it down."
"The story you just told me sounds like it says more about Gary Rosenblatt than about Malcolm Hoenlein. It is the job of people who run large bureaucracies to protect their bureaucracies and try to spin their presentation. He wants the press to get his message out."
"Has he tried to bully you?" I ask.
"Not much. What is bullying?"
"I will financially destroy you. I will destroy your career. I will ruin you."
"What can he do to me?" asks J.J..
"I don't know," I say. "He's known for employing those tactics."
"It's a chess game. Everybody is out there to block each other's pawns. He does his job and I do mine. He was at my son's bris. I can't think of anything he has wanted us not to do that we haven't done because of that. Occasionally, he has wanted us to do things that I thought were good ideas and I have done them.
"Our funding is internal. When the Forward was a major metropolitan daily, it acquired a lot of assets. Now we're living off the interest. We're lucky. The Jewish Week is more dependent on the views of its audience.
"One of the freest reporting positions I ever held was when I was at The Jewish Week (1987-90, after which J.J. moved to the Forward for his first go-round). Nobody ever told me what to do. Before that, I'd gone to journalism school and then to work at a daily newspaper in New Jersey. I was frustrated. I was a low-level editor watching the Iran-Contra thing go by and knowing a lot of the big players because I'd been involved at a high level in Israeli politics and thinking I could be writing stories better than this. Then The Jewish Week offered me an opportunity to do that.
"I'm skeptical of [blaming the] Federations [for dull journalism], but the pressure you get from your readers and advertisers is serious. You hear occasionally about a Federation editor who hears from the Federation, you can't write that about a donor.
"There are a million stories in the world. I could write 15 stories about the block outside my window. So if I can't write that story because it would end the career of my newspaper, big f---ing deal. If the most important thing I need to do is to piss in the pool I'm swimming in, I'm probably in the wrong line of work.
"On Israel, the people who raise money for it have very strong views. It's not so much the Israelis as their big fans. These real estate guys and lawyers..."
"Who will fight to the last dead Israeli," I say.
"They have intense feelings. They want their community to reflect what they think is right. I got dropped from the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent for writing something bad about Mort Klein [right-wing head of the Zionist Organization of America]. Now, I'm still friends with Mort Klein. He made calls saying, 'This is ridiculous. He wrote an article. I didn't like it. It's over.' The people who run the [Philadelphia] Federation were people I was friendly with. They had intervened in the beginning to get my column into the paper. But there were a couple of big donors who did not want my type of column in the paper. That sort of thing happens all the time. When big donors call up and say, if sort of thing happens again, you lose my gift. The bullying mainly happens from donors."
"Jonathan Tobin came to the Jewish Exponent in December 1998, after this."
"True - he was at the Ledger in Connecticut - my understanding at the time was that the people who were mad at me in Philadelphia tried to lean on him to drop my column from his paper and he refused. He was and is a mentsh."
"What would you guess is the median-age of a Forward reader?"
"A little under sixty. That's down a decade since I took over. We're trending younger. Our new acquisitions from our new advertising who emphasize more of the irreverent stuff. We had this event in the East Village last week. The 100th anniversary birthday bash for I.B. Singer. It was a hip bar. It was packed. The average age was well under 30.
"I've been hearing since then from people I know casually who were going, 'The Singer event was yours?' Everybody's talking about. I sense that we're getting more younger readers, more online, which doesn't pay the rent."
"Can you give me 15 seconds?"
"I've given you half an hour."
"Hang on, please."
Two minutes later, I return to the phone.
"Now," J.J. says, "this is all off-the-record, right?"
"Just kidding," he says.
"How is the Internet and blogging affecting Jewish journalism if at all?" I ask.
"I have no idea. I don't understand it. There are people who follow that stuff. I don't see much crossover. I see a whole lot of gossip passed around as though it were news. There's no fact-checking. It's impressions. I'm old-fashioned. Journalism is get the facts and tell the story. Find out what the other side thinks.
"I had an Op/Ed piece submitted a few months ago. The author wrote: This person who issued this statement, I have no idea why he said that. I sent the piece back to the author. 'Find out why he said that. Give him a call, for Chrissake. His number is in the phone book. There is no reason not to know why he said it.'
"Some blogs I read obsessively because they give me a lot of information I didn't have. Mainly blogs by journalists - Josh Marshall, Eric Alterman, Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus. I like Steven Weiss's blog. But blogging is not the same thing as journalism."
"Why did you fire Steven Weiss?"
"Because he did not have journalistic skills. His reportage and story construction were not mature. He needs more growth than we have the resources to give him right now. It was really really painful because he is going to be a great journalist. We have a budget crisis. Where the market is right now means that the interest we get off of our nest egg is not covering our deficit. I can't eat up our endowment or we will be out of business in ten years. I don't have enough editors to make everybody's writing up to snuff. I need writers who can walk in ready. He's really smart. He's really gifted. He's really got a vision. I wish it were two years ago or two years from now and I just had the back-up staff so that somebody could sit and spend the time they needed to work with him."
[J.J. told Steven he would help him find another job.]
"How hands-on an editor are you?"
"I don't sleep much, if that helps. Mostly, I leave a lot of it to Ami [Eden], Wayne [Hoffman, managing editor], Alana [Newhouse, Arts], Oren [Rawls, Opinion]. They work with reporters. I go back when I notice something. I go through everything just before the paper goes to press, if I can."
"I hear stories that 'J.J. wasn't here all week and then he shows up just a few hours before the paper is to go to press and he goes crazy,'" I say.
J.J. chuckles. "I've gathered that it is always better for someone else to pass on bad news than me because I tend to get impatient. The kindly persona that I tried to create in my columns doesn't seem to come across when I'm airing my wisdom with people. It seems to work best when I don't share. I want English to be good English. I don't want dangling participles. I don't want upper cases to be lower case. I hate misuses of the word 'for.'"
"How often do you come in to the office?"
"I'm in every day. I don't come in all week? I was in Israel for a week. I meet with people."
"What do you love and hate about your job?"
"I hate writing the editorials, I guess."
"Then why do you do them?"
"I do it well. People seem to like them. It's hard for me. It's always the last minute. I'm always against deadline. Writing on deadline is a physically painful thing for me. Having written is one of the most gratifying things.
"Management stuff is my least favorite. When you've got to let somebody go. You've got to mess up somebody's life. I hate that.
"Somebody gets off the phone and they've just nailed something, such as why a Jewish agency is cutting a budget. They jump up and there's a look on their face. That's magical. The whole newsroom lights up for five minutes. You just know the front page is going to be great next week.
"Sometimes there's a Tuesday morning when we're putting together a front page. I'm proud of how we remade the front page to have that colored section on the left with the non-news stuff. I'd like that to be bigger but I haven't figured out how yet. I've pushed the balance of news and features a little more towards features and still make it feel like a newspaper. I don't know quite how to do that.
"But there are moments on Tuesday morning, right after we've finished the front page, when I know we're going to have a great issue."
"Some people say," and I make a guilty laugh, "that you push a lot of front page anti-Bush stories that don't have much to do with the Jewish community."
"So they say. I don't know. I don't think there's anything in the paper that doesn't have anything to do with the Jewish community. The Forward has a two-part mission -- Jewish culture and social justice. It's 106-years old. I'm not going to apologize for that.
"When [Seth] Lipsky was editing the paper, he was pushing a lot of stories about privatizing the nation's economy and lowering the capital gains tax. None of these people complained.
"There are a lot of poor Jews. The median income for a lot of American households is around $40,000. The median income for American Jewish households is around $50,000, which means that half of the Jewish households in America are living on less than $50,000 a year.
"The American Jewish Committee did a study in the mid '80s of the cost of Jewish living. If you have two kids and you want to put them through day school, belong to a synagogue, send the kids to summer camp, make a modest donation to Jewish charities, is out of range of 90% of the Jews in America. How do they set tuitions? How do they structure Jewish life? The boards of major American Jewish organizations are all made up of people who make more than $200,000 a year (from a study a decade ago by Steven M. Cohen for the Israel Democracy Institute). How would they know how people live?
"You meet with these people and ask them how people will manage and they'll reply, 'They'll manage. I manage.' A chair of the nominating committee of the New York Federation Board told me in the late '80s when I was at The Jewish Week, 'We're not limited to rich people. We recently took a new member onto the board whose annual gift is $5000. That's not rich.' That's the poverty faction.
"I think these [issues of poverty] affect Jewish life. Most Jews are sorta interested in Jewish stuff but they're interested in a lot of other stuff. If we only do the narrowly-defined Jewish stuff, we're not doing what most Jews are interested in. It's a delicate balance. So we talk about comic books. We talk about administration policies... I write editorials around holiday time, such as Shavuos, where you are not allowed to cut the corners of your field [to provide for the poor]. The Torah outlaws extracting full profit from your enterprises. It's not yours. The idea that the government can't tax you because the money is yours? George Bush says you can keep your own money. It's not your own money. The Torah says so. Why is that not a Jewish issue?
"I've been doing Jewish journalism for 30 years. I don't get to write this stuff anymore except for the editorials. I'm trying to get editors to work with writers and develop this stuff and a lot of people have no idea what I'm talking about. Most young Jews don't think about economics and poverty that much. When they think about progressive, they think about gender, race and war and peace issues.
"You've heard that I have a temper and I bark at people. Partly, I throw out ideas and hope they stick. Partly, I do a bit of assigning myself and work directly with writers on stories I'm particularly interested in. Sometimes I say, do a story on that topic and we'll worry about the Jewish angle next month. Sometimes we don't do it because we don't see a way to do it."
"Do you have any right-wingers on your staff? Conservatives?"
"Republicans? Probably not."
"Would you be a better paper if you did?"
"Possibly. We have some Orthodox Jews. We have some hawks, doves, Democrats and we may have one Nader supporter. We probably would be a better paper if we did."
"What drove you to start putting blogs on Forward.com?"
"Staff people said, I'd like to put a blog on Forward.com. I said ok."
"Did you have any concerns? Worries?"
"We're responsible. We get sued a lot. That's an exaggeration. We get a lot of attention from lawyers whose clients don't like what we wrote. The minute the lawyer writes you a letter, you've got to get your lawyer to write them back, so it's costing you money. You don't want to get involved with lawyers. You're spending money on lawyers anyway to review articles that might get you in trouble. We've got a lawyer on retainer who reads the articles he needs to read. That's grown-up newspapering. Bloggers just write whatever is in their head. Generally speaking, it is not practical to have a blog read in advance by an editor. Blogging is in real time. They could write something. It is on our website. And the next thing I know, I'm in court.
"Even if that doesn't happen, the blogger expresses an attitude. The blogger then goes back to their day job as a reporter, writes an article. Somebody comes back with their lawyer and says, 'You were trying to f--- me.' 'Oh no, we were just reporting the news. We have no agenda.' 'What do you mean you have no agenda? The writer in his blog expressed this attitude and now he writes this article to twist the facts to advance that attitude? The blogger is revealing his state of mind.
"The New York Times has a rule that staff members are not allowed to go to demonstrations. There was a big pro-choice demonstration in Washington a couple of years ago. Several of their staff members went and were disciplined. Because you've got to be a monk.
"Once I decided to go in the direction of blogging on my website, I'm moving into unknown territory. I'm holding my breath. I'm hoping for my best. I'm hoping it enriches the discussion."
Goldberg says the geographic distribution of Forward readers mirror that of the Jewish community in general in America. About 35% are in New York. About 15% seem to be Christians. About 10% are in Los Angeles.
"Which segment of Jewish life is the surliest to deal with? The most likely to claim bad motives on your part if you report anything critical."
"All of them."
"Aren't Orthodox, particularly Charedim, the most likely to scream anti-Semitism at the least criticism?"
"I have a good relationship with Lubavitch, Agudath Yisrael. These days it is the pro-Bush, pro-Likud people who think that if you don't agree with them, there's something wrong with you. You're hurting the Jewish people. We had a negative reaction to that Lakewood story but we get some complaints we spend too much time reporting on activities within the Orthodox world. The non-Orthodox people say, talk about my world. To which I'd say, you'll be sorry.
"The only sector that feels it is wrong to report bad news is the pro-Likud, pro-Bush sector. They feel we're damaging the cause."
"Did you make a mistake leaving the name of the academic Allan Nadler on the initial Lakewood story, when most of the reporting and writing was done by others?"
"He found the story. The others got the tagline. There wasn't time to think it through a lot. If it was a mistake, it was a small one. He found it. He read it. We had to send a messenger out to New Jersey to get the one copy of the book into the office so that I could read it that night. There was no other way of double-checking the quotes. All these people were saying, 'It couldn't be in that book. A Torah book wouldn't have that.' It was Allan Nadler's word vs the world.
"I read the book. One of the letters we got complained that we translated one of the words in an Israeli modern Hebrew sense and the claim was that in rabbinic Hebrew, it meant something different. The guy who wrote the book speaks Israeli Hebrew. I know rabbinic Hebrew. I know Israeli Hebrew. The book was written in a modern contemporary syntax. He knew what he was saying."
"What kind of grade would you give your paper on its coverage of that book?"
"A," says J.J..
"Does the phrase, 'Is it good for the Jews?,' go through your head when you consider stories?"
"Now and then, but generally speaking, I think truth is good for everybody. I think it is bad for the Jews to think that they don't sin. To think that everybody else is out to get them. One of the reasons we report on Jews on death row, on Jewish gangsters in Israel. We do coverage on that that almost nobody else does. Part of this is old-fashioned Zionism. Jews do these things. Jews are normal people. As a teenager, I grew up loving Jesse James."
"Do you often run into conflicts with advertisers?"
"Now and then. I wish we had more advertisers to run into conflicts with. The advertising department knows not to come to me but occasionally they do. I say OK, forewarned. One of the great things about this job is that I get to do this. Malcolm Hoenlein, the advertisers, readers, Agudath Israel, the White House. Let them complain."
"Have you ever killed an important story?"
"I don't think I've ever killed an important story for any reason other than it wasn't ready to go. There are important stories I would love to run that would piss a lot of important people off but we haven't been able to nail because we're not big enough. We don't have enough people to do deep research.
"I recently found out that a story I was waiting for was on the backburner because people were under the impression that I wouldn't want it because it was going to embarrass a politician I liked. That hurt my feelings.
"There was a review [by Lawrence Grossman] of Rabbi David Hartman's new book on JB Soloveitchik. Somebody really roasted him across the coals. I saw it Tuesday night, on the boards, ready to go to the printer.
"I thought: Gee, this is really harsh. It doesn't really address his ideas. It psychoanalyzes him.
"[Rabbi Hartman] was my professor for years. I love the guy. I visit him when I'm in Israel. Fora while, he wouldn't speak to me."
"Because you ran the book review," I say.
"That's happened to me a couple of times. But you have a contract with the writers that they get to do honest journalism. At times, I will say, this is stupid. Write an article about what he thinks. Don't psychoanalyze the guy. If I had read it on Monday and we had time to remake the page... I'm kicking myself because it changes my life because I read it on Tuesday night instead of Monday morning. I couldn't make everybody stay up all night to remake the page and write another review to put there so this could be rewritten next week.
"Frank Rich at The New York Times would write reviews and plays would get killed. For all these people, their livelihoods were finished because he didn't like the play. We have a little bit of that influence in the Jewish world. They have a million [subscribers] and we have 30,000. I try to have more rachmones [mercy].
"This is where we started. I want to know that the person deserves this. If they don't deserve it, find another way to do it. If somebody calls me up and tells me you better not do it, I'm more likely to say, fuck it, rachmones is out the window."
"How would you handle a story about a leader of a major Jewish organization who is involved in an ongoing extramarital affair that is disrupting his work life but he's not doing anything illegal."
"It came up. [Reform Rabbi] Sheldon Zimmerman. We ran the story. I hear he hates me. I don't see the guy."
"But you didn't run any details on what he did wrong. Nobody did. You just said sexual indiscretions."
"At the time, we couldn't find out. Once we got the details, we did."
"You got sexual indiscretions. Everybody wants to know what they were."
"By the time I found out, it was ancient history. The guy's already dead. Why shoot him again? At a certain point, it becomes pornography. The issue is, what's going on in Jewish life. If we had known that week what had gone on, we would've printed it. But everybody clammed up on that. Nobody wanted to talk. My family and friends who are involved in these things [Jewish organizations, not necessarily sexual indiscretions], and they won't tell me. Everybody is afraid to talk to me.
"It took weeks and weeks to find out what it was about. If it is only interesting because we can find out who stuck what where, then in it is pornography."
"He is now at a major Jewish position. [He's now Vice-president for Jewish Renaissance and Renewal at United Jewish Communities.]"
"And we wrote about that," says J.J.. "He's really mad that we wrote about that. Now, it turns out that what I gather he did is so unexceptional. It wasn't with children.
"If it is [a certain type of sexual indiscretion], we'd have to have it lawyer-proofed. Maybe they don't sue bloggers because bloggers don't have any money. It's amazing how many more letters we got from lawyers once newspapers reported we had sold our radio station for $70 million. Suddenly everyone is interested in the details of what we wrote. I can't [publish] anything I can't prove in court."
"How good of a job are you doing covering all the sex abuse scandals rippling through the Jewish world?"
"Not much. There are a number of things we don't do as well as we should and that is probably one of them. We've covered a few of them. The Jewish Week was ahead of us. It's not one of the things we do best. Along with religion, Jewish education, and a few other things."
"What can you do to cover Jewish education better?"
"We need a reporter who's going to make that his beat. Most of the coverage we give to it is in the back of the paper in a feature-kind of way. If it is going to be on the front, it's going to be hard news. It is sometimes hard to see the hard news in what goes on. People have a new idea on how to run a school. They have a conference that brought teachers together to talk about teaching. It's a yawner. To the people involved, it's their life and we need to report and I haven't found the answer to that yet."
"Are Jews more sensitive to criticism and more likely to carry a grudge? My impression is that they are."
"I don't know enough Gentiles to compare," says J.J..
"Rabbis in particular want it both ways," I say. "They want to go on television, be the spiritual heads of their congregations as well as CEOs, preach from the pulpit, and yet not be covered as public figures."
"For most American Jews, their Judaism is a leisure time activity. They've been trained to regard themselves as authorities regardless of how much they know. They're proprietary about it. Everything sets off Holocaust imagery. It's not that Jews are more sensitive than others. Jews are sensitive about their Judaism. I think Catholics are sensitive about their Catholicism."
"Is there a generation issue here?" I ask. "I don't hear younger Jews worrying about what's good for the Jews."
"Research shows that younger Jews worry less about what's good for the Jews because they're less interested."
"Compelling vs important?"
"Yes. That's true. I am aware of the conflict. Every week we talk about that. Do we want something because it is flashy or because it is important? Are we going to feed our readers their Castor Oil? The best answer is to take the important story and go back and make it compelling.
"My time has come to an end. People will say I'm never in the office."
"I'll send you a transcript before I do anything," I promise.
I then proceed to immediately blog a point about the firing of Steven Weiss on Steven's Protocols blog. And then I feel like I've broken my word to J.J..
Later, I email J.J., "Do you believe in God?"
He replies, "God only knows."
When I ask intellectuals what Jewish newspaper they read, they consistenly say "only the Forward." They cite such reasons as:
* Its superior Arts and Culture coverage.
* It's the only independent Jewish weekly.
* It's the only national Jewish weekly.