Here are three stories I like to tell about my career in Jewish journalism:
• After a few years as a reporter and editor for Jewish weeklies, I was beginning to lament that I wasn’t getting any respect. Then, in 1992, I was on a Jewish press tour of South America. We spent a few days in Rio. The organizer had arranged for my colleagues and me to attend a samba concert, but at the last minute there was a snafu with the tickets.
Undaunted, she directed our bus to the gates of the arena and began a long and impassioned argument with the guard, which a guide translated for us. “Don’t you realize who these people are?” demanded our champion. “These are the Jewish journalists! From America!”
At that the gate flew open, and we were whisked inside. I almost felt like singing, “I’m Somebody!”
• In 2003, I explained to my kids that I was leaving the Forward newspaper, where I was managing editor, for a job as editor of a Jewish newspaper in New Jersey. My oldest, then 12, asked, “Does this mean you won’t be famous anymore?” I honestly did not know how to respond to that. Then he asked, “What’s it called?” I said, “New Jersey Jewish News.” He replied, “That’s not even a name — that’s what it is!”
• In 2004, my wife and I were in the audience for a Broadway revue starring Dame Edna Everage, the flamboyant talk-show diva created and played by Australian actor Barry Humphries. Audience participation is a signature of Dame Edna’s shows, and as luck would have it, we were called up on stage (of the Music Box Theater! Home of Irving Berlin and the Gershwins!). We spent the next 20 minutes as Edna’s willing foils.
It was shaping up as the greatest night of my life — until Dame Edna asked me what I did for a living. I took a deep breath and said, “I’m the editor of New Jersey Jewish News.”
And the audience laughed — laughed! Not titters, but guffaws. Apparently I had strung together at least three of the funniest words one can utter from a Broadway stage: “New Jersey” and “Jewish.” Dame Edna thought it hilarious that Jews need their own special paper.
Those of us who work for the ethnic media often have a chip on our shoulders. We suspect that we don’t get the same respect as people working in the “mainstream” media. Those who don’t read Jewish newspapers are surprised they even exist — that is, they are surprised they exist as a subset of what they assume is a Jewish industry to begin with. “A Jewish newspaper?” they’ll say. “You mean The New York Times?”
To such people, I’ll explain that we offer a rich mix of cultural, political, and social reporting; news about Israel; Jewish-themed op-eds; and stories celebrating local weddings and other happy events, all told from a distinctly Jewish perspective.
And then they’ll say, “Oh, like The New York Times?”
Our insecurity comes out in the jokes we tell — okay, that I tell. Here’s one: “I have to be the best journalist wherever I work. Unfortunately, I’m not very good, so I have to work in Jewish journalism.”
Here’s another: “Thank goodness there are Jewish newspapers. Where else is a Jew going to get a job in the media?”
In recent years, economic and structural changes have added injury to insult. Jewish papers have struggled or folded, the victims of declining ad sales, flat-lining fund-raising, and an aging readership — or should I say, a younger non-readership. We’re the victims of two converging trends: the decline in Jewish attachment and the decline of print journalism. A journalism professor recently told The Nation that of the 50 largest metropolitan papers in the country, between a third to a half are expected to go out of business in the next three years. And as someone is said to have said, The Jews are like everyone else, only more so.
And yet, whenever I find myself sounding like Rodney Dangerfield, I remember that I’m part of a long, proud tradition of Jewish journalism, from the Yiddish-language dailies that helped turn immigrants into Americans, to the local weeklies like the NJJN — nearly seven decades old — that tell newer stories about Jewish adaptation and integration. When I look back on my own 13 years at NJJN, in fact, I realize how blessed I have been to work in Jewish journalism, and with talented colleagues, indulgent supporters, and appreciative readers who made my tenure such a pleasure.
This week, I am moving to another job in what is still an essential field. In fact I am moving back, to the JTA, where I had my first full-time job in Jewish journalism, when it was still more commonly known as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Despite the challenges, people continue to make and read Jewish journalism. They include veterans who don’t regret a minute of their long careers chronicling the exploits, triumphs, and foibles of their coreligionists. And they include young talents for whom there are no major leagues and minor leagues — only big league efforts and bush league efforts. And as long as they keep swinging for the fences, they have nothing to apologize for.