August 7, 2003
For one brief, shining moment this week, the Los Angeles Times achieved the impossible: it united the Jews. All across the region, we went out to get our Sunday paper, saw an 8,000-word, front-page, above-the-fold story on a minor brouhaha at a small Orthodox high school, and said, as if in unison, "Huh?"
The feature story by Barry Siegel became Topic A of conversation all week. Whether people liked it or reviled it (see Rabbi Dov Fischer's Op-Ed piece on page 8), they all wondered why they were reading so much of it. "They spent more ink on this than on why we went to Iraq," said Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
"Lessons in Division" looked at the controversy that arose when Alexander Maksik, a new, young English teacher at Shalhevet, a progressive Orthodox high school in the Fairfax district, sought to bring the Palestinian perspective on the Israeli-Arab conflict into his seventh-grade classroom.
Parents, fellow teachers and school administrators objected to Maksik presenting sympathetic -- and, they believed, inaccurate -- portraits of the Palestinians into the classroom. After several fierce exchanges, the school, which Jerry Friedman founded to encourage open debate and democracy, let Maksik go.
Siegel has carved a journalistic career out of examining the complex social and moral questions behind local conflicts. His 8,000-word piece, "A Father's Pain, a Judge's Duty and a Justice Beyond Their Reach," published Dec. 30, 2001, is a heart-wrenching and powerful account of a court case involving a father whose fleeting act of negligence led to the death of his 6-year-old son. Siegel won a Pulitzer Prize for it.
Shalhevet's journey to the Times' front page began on May 24, 2002, when The Jewish Journal published an Op-Ed piece by Maksik titled, "The Curse of Certainty."
Siegel happened to read the column and followed the angry letters to the editor we published in subsequent issues.
For such stories, the Times allocates Siegel several months, expenses, an editor, a photographer -- an investment that one source told me easily approaches
"If you decide to invest that kind of time and energy into a story," said an editor, "it's either going on Page A1 or it's not going to run."
Critics of the piece felt that the payoff was a slam at Orthodox Judaism. After all, the teacher, Maksik, was an adult who knew that even a progressive Orthodox school has certain norms and parameters. Would the Times have devoted such space to a newcomer at a Catholic school who tries to teach seventh graders the positive aspects of abortion?
"The story shows the Times is both hostile and prejudiced toward Orthodox Jews who do not conform to the Times' notions of what is right and what is wrong," attorney Nathan Wirtschafter said.
But non-Orthodox critics found plenty to fault as well.
"What I found disappointing in the piece," Jeffrey Brody, professor of journalism at Cal State Fullerton, said, "is that it's about a school that promotes freethinking and debate, but I found the characters were one-dimensional. There was the idealistic teacher; the rich, liberal school founder; the macho tank commander rabbi. The characters are wooden."
Brody found it hard to believe that Siegel couldn't find more nuance in his subjects.
Siegel's depiction of Shalhevet does tend to emphasize the extremes. To many familiar with the school, Maksik is not such a crusader, his opposing rabbis are not so hardline, and Friedman too is much more complex and savvy than the article suggests.
In fact, the article may give the impression that the Jewish community is more polarized than it is, even along religious lines. There are Orthodox Jews like Yitzhak Frankenthal who regularly seek out Palestinian perspectives. There are Jews of all denominations on all sides of the issues. There are Jews conflicted within themselves. The strength of Jews under attack to entertain nuance and delve into moral ambiguity is also part of this conflict, and one of the most encouraging.
But at least one of Siegel's subjects isn't complaining.
"On balance you have to give the guy credit," Friedman told me. "This is not a trivial piece. I don't think he had an ax to grind. Sure you could object to some parts, but the guy wrote an objective article, and, kol hakavod [congratulations], I'm proud that a Jewish institution got that much space."
In the end, he said, the strength of Shalhevet's vision came through: "We're not going to go to the right, we're not going to go to the left; we're centrist. Too many of us deal with the world in black and white, but there's a hell of a lot of gray kicking around."