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Jewish Journal

First Rough Draft

Reflections on a journalistic journey that's taking a new turn.

June 29, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Over the next few months, Jewish life is going to get a lot more interesting than most of us would like. It's summer, and we're in for a hot one.

Last year around this time, alert readers recall, right-wing extremists were burning down synagogues in Sacramento. This year they're doing it in Jerusalem.

Then there's that looming deadline in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. They're supposed to conclude a framework agreement in September that defines their long-term relationship. Until then you can bet they'll be fighting like cats and dogs over every stone. They're playing for keeps now.

Making sense of this sturm und drang won't be easy. CNN and your local metropolitan daily will be feeding us one story after another, beginning with a crash and ending with a boom. By August we'll be ready to swear Israel and all of Jewish history are headed down the tubes. They aren't, of course, but where do you turn for a reality check?

Odds are, most of you will turn to the newspaper that's in your hands right now. Yes, to your humble, homely Jewish community journal. While other news organs flit fashionably from crisis to crisis, your hometown Jewish paper will be thinking through the issues of Jewish life in-depth. Here, threaded in among the synagogue announcements and Bar Mitzvah notices, is where you'll find the first rough draft of Jewish history. That's this paper's only job.

It's not an easy job, Jewish journalism. The pay is low. Resources are few. There's pressure from advertisers who want their products and causes to look good. Federations and Jewish agencies have an agenda they think should be yours. Toughest of all are the readers, who tend to want Jewish life depicted the way they think it ought to be.

Other newspapers are in business to depict the world of daily life. We depict the world of our faith and our dreams. That's a lot of pressure.

Newspapers have a duty, protected by no less than the U.S. Constitution, to expose the doings of the mighty and let the public know where their tax dollars are going. We're supposed to respect nothing but the truth.

This is a tall order when you're talking to a community that views its institutions as sacred. Most Jews want to feel good about their communities. Bad news we don't want. Not about our loved ones. Who would? In fact, Jewish journalism in America traditionally began with a very different assumption.

The first Jewish periodical, The Jew, launched in New York in 1823 by Solomon Henry Jackson, saw its mission as defending the good name of American Jews at a time when few others would do so. If there was wrongdoing to be exposed, it was the wrong done by the world to the Jews. Jackson's many successors took pretty much the same approach

In time, of course, the American Jewish community grew big enough and unruly enough to merit some muckraking of its own. By then, though, American Jews had found a way to talk privately among themselves: Yiddish newspapers. The first, Yiddish Tageblatt, was launched in New York in 1885. By World War I there were more than a dozen Yiddish papers with a combined circulation of 600,000. They were brash, gutsy and extremely rude to one another. It didn't matter, because nobody else could read them.Today, American Jews are in a curious position. We've become the biggest, most powerful community in Diaspora Jewish history, and yet we no longer have a common language - literally and figuratively - to thrash out our business. Now, when we need more than ever to understand one another, we find it harder than ever to talk to one another.

Here's the dilemma that English-language Jewish journalism struggles with, week after week. On one hand, we want to record the full range of Jewish experience as it's happening. On the other hand, we don't want to do harm. It's a delicate balancing act. None of us has it down perfectly, though we all try.

For the past three years, your faithful correspondent has had the rare privilege of thinking out these dilemmas with you on a national stage, through the vehicle of a syndicated column. Starting in a half-dozen weeklies, the column grew to two dozen papers in America and Israel. Their editors have given me an astounding freedom to cross boundaries and ask questions most journalists don't get to tackle.I've talked with folks from every walk of Jewish life - prime ministers and pop stars, cantors, cabdrivers and even a few cardinals - and shared what they had to say with the rest of you. My own point of view hasn't been a secret, but I've tried hard to let others talk for themselves. I wanted this to be a conversation among people who don't usually get to meet.

Alas, all things must end. Starting in July, I'm crossing one more boundary to start work as an editor, at the New York-based weekly Forward. It's a paper with a rich tradition, and the privilege of working there is humbling. In the news business, though, the paper keeps coming out. One writer leaves, another comes in. What remains is the conversation - between readers, writers, editors - that helps makes sense of the world out there. Thanks.

J.J. Goldberg has written a weekly column for The Jewish Journal several years now. This, alas, is his last column for us.

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