What I’ve Learned about the Columnist Game

Since this column ends a wonderful first year of being associated with the Jewish Standard, I think a bit of introspection may be in order. Let me therefore share with you some of what I’ve learned, and am continuing to learn, from this experience.

I’ve learned that there are different types of readers. Some graciously compliment me, say they agree with my point, or tell me that something in an article was particularly meaningful to them. These readers obviously were brought up by parents who taught them that “you can always find something nice to say” (cf. Ketubot 17a).

Others never say anything to me, clearly brought up by parents who taught them that “if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.”

And still others tell me I’m wrong, disagree with what I wrote, or explain how I could have vastly improved the piece. Clearly, they were brought up as orphans.

More seriously, while I like the first group best — I’m only human — I’ve learned that in some ways I actually prefer the third group, as long as they express themselves civilly, to the second. You have to care to criticize; otherwise, why bother? That means that something I wrote touched them in some way, even if not as I intended. But I’ve learned that having some, any, impact on others is one of the reasons I love to write.

I’ve learned about angst. I have a very close longtime friend who writes a highly regarded, and deservedly so, weekly column for another Jewish paper. He’s often told me that whenever he submits a column he immediately begins to worry about what he will write next, or even worse, whether he’ll be able to find something to write about next.

I didn’t fully understand this until about my fourth column. Being new to the column business, I had a few ideas stored up. So at first, I simply felt satisfaction when I attached a column to an email to the editor and hit the send button. But once I had nothing left in the storage bin, any satisfaction I felt was almost immediately overwhelmed by the angst my friend had told me about. It’s not surprising — if this still happens to a pro who’s been writing successfully for decades, why should a newcomer like me get a pass? So I’ve learned that writing a monthly column means my angst can drag on a week or two or three until I get an idea and start putting pen to paper.

I’ve learned that walking to shul alone on a Shabbat morning is a wonderful time to think about topics, and then to begin to write in my mind, arranging ideas, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, and then adding, deleting, and moving them about. But I also learned that for someone like me, who doesn’t write or keyboard (ugh, make that type) on Shabbat, there’s a serious downside to this practice. I have to remember hours later when Shabbat ends (and many hours later on a summer Shabbat) all those ideas, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that sounded just right to me that long-ago morning. Not so easy when you’re 69.

I’ve learned even more about what really interests me. When I was offered the column, after the editor said there was no financial payment involved and I thought, and almost asked, “You mean I don’t have to pay you anything??,” I asked her what she wanted me to write about. Her answer was both liberating and frightening: “Anything you want.”

So with no guidelines as to substance, that left it up to me to make some general guidelines, like always including some Jewish reference — and almost always it’s more than just a reference. I also vowed (bli neder, of course) to stay away from partisan politics (which was especially difficult this past divisive, depressing, and frightening election cycle).

Once I made those decisions, however, I had to think seriously about what mattered to me, what I cared about, and what I wanted others to care about. They didn’t have to be “big” issues; writing about kindness or friendships both old and new turned out to resonate with many readers (though I perhaps use the word “many” liberally). Sometimes, though, they could be big, like the nature of debate, discussion, and disagreement in society today, or serious Jewish issues like theodicy, faith and doubt, and the role of women in liturgy.

I could be personal, writing (twice actually) about my 50th elementary school (yes, elementary) class reunion, or the bar mitzvah of my twin great-nephews. Or I could fondly and publically remember people who were important to me and had a share in making me who I am. I was able give publicity to programs I felt were special, and could even tell a joke or two (not large ha ha jokes but ones I hope could evoke a sweet smile).

Would I have said a year ago that I cared deeply about all of my column’s topics? Certainly some, but surely not all. But my driving through the angst to hit upon an idea, then spending some time Shabbat morning thinking about it, and finally putting pen to paper, helped, in some ways, clarify the ideas and issues that spoke to my soul.

I’ve learned that columnists think differently. Every time something unusual happens, every time one of my grandkids says something particularly brilliant or charming or amusing (which is VERY often), every time something angers or pleases me more than usual, I immediately think: is that columnworthy? (Seinfeld fans, yup.)

I’ve learned that I love being stopped at a wedding smorgasbord by someone I didn’t know and being asked if I was that writer for the Jewish newspaper. Made the wedding (and month) for me.

And yes, there’s one other thing I’ve learned: When you’ve said what you want to say, stop.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.