When Yiddish papers still were dailies, and we were young enough to have grandfathers, my zaydeh took ill and asked, upon entering the hospital, that we save him his papers. My dad or I would go to the newsstand, get the old Yiddish broadsheets, and stash them in the car's trunk. The old man grew weaker, the trunk filled, then the back seat filled too. When he died, it was hard, but throwing out his papers was when we cried.
Then the Jewish papers died, too. The trouble wasn't that just that the old Jews were dying, what was dying was the art of the paper. Unlike my grandfather's generation, Jews stopped thinking of the Jewish paper as "my paper," as something to save if you missed a week. There weren't writers to love, or that you'd want to punch in the nose (but writers you'd miss, if gone), or stories to clip or bring up at Shabbos lunch.
As Gary Rosenblatt wrote when he came to revive The Jewish Week ten years ago, in a world of sinister threats to the Jewish people, the sheer boredom of Jewish life -- more exactly, the boredom with which newspapers chose to tell the spectacularly unboring story of the Jewish people -- was as sinister a threat as any.
Garrison Keillor, of Prarie Home Companion, speaks of a newspaper trend, even to this day, away from two-fisted, back-alley story telling, replaced instead by articles like "What Is Good About Our Community and Our People," a lot of "unreadable 9th grade term papers about How People From Many Lands Are Working Together To Solve Problems In Our Neighborhoods."
Newspapers, said Keillor, must "depend on crime reporting, exposure of government scandal, and a few irreverent columnists: that's meat and potatoes."
Instead, in the Jewish community, we got sermons. Literally, Jewish journalism, and religion writing in the big city dailies, was reduced to repackaged sermons. In Jewish papers articles were afflicted with a garden-party tone reminiscent of polite synagogue bulletins in which, at every event, "a wonderful time was had by all." All that, even in the most tumultuous decades in Jewish history that saw us go from refugees and genocide to the attempted Zionist redemption and a Jewish return to history.
These were decades that also saw unparalleled social disruption, with bedrock religious traditions collapsing along with a sense of a common Jewish civilization. It was a remarkable Jewish story-there just wasn't a Jewish Week, or any other decent Jewish newspaper in those days, to tell the story, to frame it.
In the glory days of Yiddish papers there was passion, purpose and intimacy - so much so that readers said the magic words: This is "my paper." Not "a paper," but "my paper," not just read on the subways and discarded, but read on the sofa on Friday nights and brought to the table for Shabbos lunch. Jewish writers were accosted on the street, and some writers were even loved.
There was no "my paper" when I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s. When I started to write, in the late 1970s, there were good Jewish writers, like Paul Cowan and others, but they were working in non-Jewish publications. In 1979 I sold some pieces to The New Yorker and the Village Voice, Jewish pieces that non-Jewish publications thought were fine enough, even as there were no Jewish newspapers to write for.
At the same time, Yossi Klein Halevi was writing brilliantly in the Voice about the uniquely Jewish intersection of Borough Park and East Village streets. In 1980, Halevi had an idea for a new Jewish newspaper, New Jewish Times, and he recruited me and Israel Lemberg, now a CNN producer in Jerusalem, to edit it with him. The idea -- and it was shared elsewhere in Jewish newspapering, as in every good generation -- was to break the rules and start all over again.
"We looked for Jewish nightmares," remembers Halevi.
We looked for dreams, lost and found, Jews with stories to tell. Into the pages of New Jewish Times came coverage of Jewish murder cases; accounts from homeless chasids; Russian Jews who were beat up in Kiev; yeshiva dropouts; Satmar loan sharks; Yiddish characters who whiskey-spiked the coffee of pretty women in the Hungarian pastry shop. We wrote of Israelis conquering their new frontier, and old school paranoids (or so we thought then) who imagined a world of retro Jew-haters.
We did interviews not just with communal presidents but with underground fugitives, such as Abbie Hoffman (who was above-ground posing for our subscription ads). On the editorial staff were veterans of the publishing world, and young unknowns such as Candace Bushnell, who went on to create Sex In The City. To reach non-communal types, New Jewish Times worked up a radio program on WBAI, featuring editors and guests.
Halevi recalled that the office, a large loft on lower Fifth Avenue, became "a drop-in center for people with obscure obsessions," Jews who kept the passion if not the practice, outlaws and kabbalists, Jews with nowhere to go but who saw in the paper a hometown, the old neighborhood.
We were far from outlaws, ourselves. On the contrary, we saw Jewish journalism as something sacred, beyond profession. If in light of the last century it is our calling to see every Jew as of infinite value; if Israel, and making the world safe for Jews -- uniting Jews, and nourishing Jewish possibility -- is the defining challenge of this generation, if the media is the theater for how this story is told, then reporting that story in a uniquely Jewish newspaper, and making Jewish papers financially viable, is equally sacred, too.
New Jewish Times didn't last much more than a year, but around the country new newspapers, such as The Jewish Week (refashioned in 1979, but actually a descendent of several merged Jewish papers dating back to The American Hebrew in 1879) - began taking this cause to a higher level, and going higher beyond that still awaits us.
One challenge is telling the Jewish story in a way that is compelling as a story, as journalism, not just as a p.r. handout. For young Jewish writers coming out of yeshiva, the Torah itself was the model for how to write, even how to write subversively. Of course, much about God is a mystery. We don't know what He looks like. We don't know what He sounds like. But we know the way God writes. Imagine in the dark ages of Jewish journalism, assigning a profile on Father Abraham. How pompous and pious it would have been. But look how God, Himself, chooses to write the Abraham story. The very first quote attributed to Abraham in the Torah is him saying to Sarah, "Now look, I know you're beautiful. When the Egyptians see you, and know you're my wife, they'll kill me but keep you alive."
That was the first New Jewish Journalism. Some are offended by that kind of approach to writing -- but 70 nations rejected the Torah, too, before the Jewish people said yes.
In the Biblical spirit, newspapers have become the prophet speaking truth to the king or high priest, because without a prophet - or an editorial - not only is God voiceless but the people are, too.
The world these days can seem like the opening verses of Genesis, "unformed and void with darkness over the face of the deep." That fear always was right below the surface, even in better times. The first issue of New Jewish Times featured nothing but a nuclear mushroom cloud and the headline, "Next Year in Jerusalem." It's seems less crazy now than it was 20 years ago, but for Israeli children the Purim mask gave way to a gas mask.
What would you write about if the world was coming to an end? My inspiration was Emanuel Ringelblum and his band of brothers in the Warsaw Ghetto. They couldn't put out a Jewish paper, but they did the next best thing. Meeting once a week, and calling themselves "Oneg Shabbos" - with equal parts sarcasm and sentimentality - they took to amassing a weekly archive of the Jewish people. Oneg Shabbos collected everything, the ephemeral, the ethereal, Hebrew candy wrappers and chronicles of hunger; children's poems and dead men's paintings; ghetto theater programs and maps of Treblinka. It was essentially a Jewish newspaper delivered not to your mailbox but to the tin boxes and metal milk cans that they buried in the rubble. Who would find it? Who'd be their audience? Would there still be Jews in the world? For Oneg Shabbos, the act of gathering and telling the Jewish story was heroic enough.
At Ground Zero, in 2001, we had an "Oneg Shabbos" experience all our own. In the ruins, people found, and The Jewish Week wrote about, the fluttering papers that carried to earth a yeshiva's tuition bill; a letter from a summer camp; stories of people worth knowing -- more worth knowing than we might have supposed the day before. In the rubble, someone found a yarmulke inscribed from a wedding, Sept. 9. The ordinary is now extraordinary. In fact, it was extraordinary all along.
Our lives are fragile and fleeting. We are the generation that history will have to walk through to keep the Jewish story alive. These are the days in which Jews are looking to "my paper," a Jewish paper, to tell us who we are, where we're going, and what we have seen and loved.
I don't remember having anything to do with any of the JNF stories, outside of office conversations. I may have spoken to Yossi at the time, perhaps to explain my understanding of the paper's position, but it was never within the realm of my responsibilities to veto or authorize a major investigative piece, or these kind of news items. Those responsibilities strictly belong to the managing editor and the editor-publisher, alone. So I doubt I chewed anyone out, as I was peripheral to Yossi's interaction with the paper.
But the idea that one paper publishes what another paper won't is why I don't think of any Jewish paper as being "in competition" with another. I think of the Forward and anyone else, in blog or paper, as brothers-in-arms, each of us better because of the other, just different pieces on the chessboard, but the same color. The idea that someone else would print what another won't creates a pressure on editors that offsets the many other pressures that are at work. Federation or not, each of our papers, and blogs, too, has someone, or something they don't want to touch, or choose not to go with after honest journalistic deliberation. But the more of us that are writing, the more likely the Great Story of the Jewish People will be told, somewhere. I actually hate it when anyone, particularly in Jewish journalism, thinks of Jewish papers as rivals to be undermined. That kind of thinking is in the interests of businessmen, not Jewish writers and journalists. The competition, as far as I'm concerned, are only those that don't read, don't care, don't write, and don't encourage. I don't remember the details of Yossi's experience, but for all my loyalty to The Jewish Week and respect for its choices, I'm only glad that he had other places to go and other success along the way.
Who funded New Jewish Times?
New Jewish Times was funded by a cousin of Yossi's, and a scoundrel or two, for who else would publish us? Honestly, I forget their names of these assorted backers and they were forgettable to the process. We often went without pay, and Yossi, Izzy and I were actually shareholders in New Jewish Times, as well, so we stiffed ourselves to pay other writers and workers. We were like a garage band that made the music, pressed our own records, and did did our own distribution, or that's how it seemed, at least, since we would oversee the whole process from writing to printing to the newsstand. This was in the days before computers, and the magnitude of what that added to the editorial and production process, and to our limited manpower, was too much for us to keep going. Then, one of our backers wanted us to do a mainstream cooking column, or something like that, to mainstrem us into a typical Jewish paper of that era, and we said the hell with it. If we were going to do that, something that was outside the reason we went into Jewish journalism, there was no point. Such are the liberties of youth. We could walk away. As Gertrude Stein might have said, if we were going to work for someone else, we could work for someone else.
Two points. You can't bust Yossi for writing Lashon Hara about "Steinhartz" at New Jewish Times. Yossi was using a pseudonym for the real individual, who was every bit as sleazy as described. That Yossi doesn't use the person's real name can only testify to Yossi's discretion, a remarkable kindness in this instance. You can't "lashon hara" someone if you hide that someone's identity.
Second, not all "scoops" are the same, and it's meaningless to hold Yossi to an arbitrary standard for what a writer should be writing. Knocking Yossi for not having scoops is like busting DiMaggio for not dating redheads. Give the man credit for what the man's done.
Let's go way back in time, even aside from his work at the Village Voice and New Jewish Times. In the mid-1980s, when I was senior editor at the Long Island Jewish World and Yossi was sending in pieces there, I remember some of his essays that foretold the intifadah when most everyone in Jewish journalism was still writing about the West Bank like it was Willy Wonka's. Yossi, better than anyone else, gave a clue that the West Bank was about to blow. In the Jewish World, and elsewhere, he wrote essays from Europe that were startling, journeys through the end of the old Eastern bloc, and the Europe we knew, or thought we knew. Over the years, he's written about the Jewish Defense League and the Soviet Jewry movement in ways that were a revelation, and before anyone else. He's been able to explore the souls of Jews, Christians and Moslems in Israel in stunning prose and reporting that ought to be studied -- proof that no one can write, or interview, about the landscape of the soul as well as he can. His analytical pieces in this current war have been consistently wise -- free of rant, party or predictability. In each of these areas he was either first, or as good as anyone in the ring. Just because he doesn't look for front page stories on schemes and scams within Jewish organizations and Jewish leadership (I'm glad that others do) doesn't mean Yossi ought to be questioned on not "breaking stories" in the simplest sense of the term. Instead, Yossi has broken through and illuminated every key Jewish turning point of the last 40 years, with a clear, distinctive writing style, a voice all his own. It's a tremendous loss for this book not to have had a serious conversation with Yossi about what Jewish journalism ought to be about.
Yeah, I'm his friend, as I'm friends with a lot of people in this book, and a lot of them have inspired me, but when his collected works are published it would be the first book I'd hand out in journalism class, Jewish or otherwise.
Each of us has a special relationship with someone in the Jewish community, or a special respect for someone, and, like O'Henry's story of the cop who didn't want to arrest the old friend he met under a street light, we'd prefer that another journalist do what has to be done. There are limits to the benefit of being an outsider and an alien within the community. The best of us are in and of the community. That's where we get a lot of our stories and where we learn about the life and issues that our newspapers should be covering. You have to pick your spots about when and whom to jeopardize.
If in the big and tough world of Jewish journalism not one other journalist can do the story, if not a single publisher chooses to publish the story, if no members of an organization care about abuses of leadership or management, then Jewish community doesn't deserve to have the story done, and our community can die a corrupt and dull death.
We should be more in alliance as a journalistic community. If a story can't be published in New York it should be published in Philadelphia or Phoenix, with a byline or without a byline, or on a blog if that be the only venue. There's no reason any story shouldn't get out, somewhere. If a Jewish leader wants to pressure a journalist, fine. We ought to be able to be pressured and not give a damn. But if any one journalist, not backed up by his publisher, can't stand up under personal or financial pressure, also fine. I understand. Another newspaper or journalist surely can be found to step up and get the story out.
If we invested as much energy in figuring out how to share stories and support each other, we'd have more power than any Jewish leader.
And if we weren't so patronizing and condescending to the idea that we have of our readers, if all of us were instead the kind of newspapers that earned the love and devotion of our readers, and showed on a consistent basis that we love and are respectful and devoted to our readers in return, than no Jewish leader would dare pressure us because we'd have the Jewish people on our side and no leader could stand up to that.
But how many of us can say we really love, respect and are devoted to the Jewish people, both as journalists and in our private life? How many of us can use the word "love" in conjunction with Jewish journalism, and keep a straight face? How many of us can say we are loved by the people? When the readers believe that they are loved by us, and that we understand them, that we are them, then they'll trust us when we write about what's unpleasant because the reader will know, from years of trust, that what we're exposing or investigating is being done for the holiest of reasons. On the other hand, when so many of our week to week stories are silly and unsophisticated, we lose that essential trust and reservoir of good faith that we need to call upon in a tough spot, or when under pressure. We've convinced readers and leaders, who read us regularly, that our papers are silly and unsophisticated and alien, and therefore can be pushed around.
It reminds me of a story from some old Democratic convention. A rally had started on the floor for a candidate, with a marching band roving through the aisles and placards waving in the air. The chairman boss of the convention began to gavel the convention to order: "Will the guests of the convention please come to order!" Bangs the gavel. "Will the guests of the convention please come to order!" Everything quieted down. Then one guy in the balcony screamed into the quiet -- "Guests, hell! We're the people!" And the arena exploded with excitement and the boss with the gavel didn't stand a chance.
The trouble is, not enough Jewish journalists today are "the people," but are "guests" at the convention. Imagine walking into The Wall Street Journal and declaring yourself a journalist who doesn't understand or know anything about business, or doesn't care about the future of business. You'd be laughed at.
Imagine walking into The New Yorker and telling them, without shame, that you never heard of Fitzgerald because he wrote 70 years ago, or that you don't like reading. You'd be told, "Kid, this isn't your kind of job."
A sports reporter would be laughed at if he walked into The Sporting News and said he didn't like going to games, or didn't know who Bob Feller was, or about the Giants-Colts sudden death game in the 1950s. Imagine trying to cover any team and not being conversant with that team's history. Yet, aside from the Gary Rosenblatts, J.J. Goldbergs and some others out there, many Jewish journalists and editors, especially the younger ones who are often highly assimilated, couldn't tell you who Achad Ha'Am was, or who Jabotinsky was, or who Itzik Manger was. They don't go to shuls -- of any denomination -- and they don't send their kids to Jewish schools. They don't know Israel's landscape and they don't know Jewish neighborhoods, other than their own, if indeed they even live in one. They couldn't tell you anything about chassidus or the Lubavitcher rebbe except "outreach" and the messianic crap of the 1990s.
The rebbe was arguably among the most important rabbis in the last 500 years, let alone the last century. And yet these journalists couldn't write one paragraph, not one paragraph, on the Lubavitcher rebbe's ideas and policies in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s. They couldn't write or refer or understand the echo of most any Jewish idea that happened the day before they showed up for their first day of work in a Jewish newspaper.
But these same journalists walk in like the cock of the barnyard and want to write about the Jewish people, the rabbis, the Jewish arts. But they're like sportswriters who don't love the game, and it shows in their writing and in their editing.
People get into Jewish journalism because it's journalism, but they don't know the team, and they don't know the fans. They don't know where the bodies are buried and they don't know where the treasure is buried.
You look at the choice of stories, the absence of savvy, the absence of communal memory, the many writers who cover Jewish communities as if the writer just landed from Mars, and you tell me: Are we the guests or are we the people?
Answer that question honestly and you'll understand why many Jewish newspapers and Jewish journalists are insecure.
When all of us, not just a few of us, are as immersed in community and know as much about the community as Malcolm Hoenlein does, and have cared about the community as long as Malcolm has -- going back to his teenage days in the Soviet Jewry movement -- and are as sure of our place in the inner Jewish community as much as Malcolm is, and are as personally invested in our synagogues, in our neighborhoods and in our schools as Malcolm is, and if our readers knew that, and if Jewish leaders knew that, then we could deal with any Jewish leader with so much Jewish pride and dignity that pressure would be powerless.