Jewish Journal


January 26, 2009

Remembering a prophet of Jewish journalism


Fascinating story by the incomparable Samuel G. Freedman about the short-lived and long-defunct New Jewish Times. The editor was a young Yossi Klein Halevi and first cover was drawn by The Art Spiegelman; an associate editor was Israel Lemberg, senior producer of CNN’s Jerusalem bureau, and the office administrator was “Sex and the City” creator Candace Bushnell.

“With their very first issue, those opinionated slobs declared their independence from the norms of Jewish journalism, whether sober journals like Commentary and Dissent or the boosterish newspapers sponsored by local Jewish federations,” Freedman wrote. “The entire cover consisted of an illustration of a mushroom cloud with the deadpan headline asking, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem?’”

Freedman continues:

“We looked for dreams, lost and found, Jews with stories to tell,” Jonathan Mark, a former editor and now a columnist for The Jewish Week, put it in an online essay. “Into the pages of New Jewish Times came coverage of Jewish murder cases; accounts of 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.”

That kind of iconoclastic coverage never pushed the New Jewish Times’s circulation past several thousand, though it did earn a steady stream of bomb scares. On at least one occasion, the editors simply forgot to produce a new issue.

“Our sensibility was slightly insane,” Mr. Halevi recalled in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, “and that was its charm.”

Then eight months after it started, it ended. New Jewish Times published its last issue in April 1981, with its final page a Komar and Melamid graphic of the Manhattan skyline topped with Russian onion domes tinted Bolshevik red.

In its seeming failure, however, New Jewish Times had, in fact, anticipated a later generation of edgy and hip Jewish journalism. It was the wheel that magazines like Heeb and Zeek and Web sites like jewcy.com and jewlicious.com have reinvented in the 21st century.

“We didn’t know in the 1980s,” Mr. Mark said recently, “that someday you could’ve filled up Giants Stadium with an audience for this stuff.”

Of course, as Esther predicted, this story has been republished all over since Friday. But what’s even more interesting is that a search for “New Jewish Times” yields a 2004 interview Luke Ford, the consummate critic of Jewish journalism, conducted with Mark:

Ford: “Who funded New Jewish Times?”

Mark: “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.”

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