Billionaires Busy Praying?

October 23rd, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher

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I’ve long defended the New York Times against critics who insist the paper has an inherent bias in its coverage of the Middle East and the Jewish community. But an item in today’s City Room column in the New York section made me a bit queasy.

In seeking interviews with some of New York’s wealthiest citizens on how they feel about Mayor Bloomberg’s strong-arm tactics in seeking to change the law prohibiting him from running for a third term, reporter James Barron wrote: “Some of the 66 billionaires on the Forbes list who live in New York City were hard to reach. Some were traveling. Some were not working because of Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday.”

Hmmm. Does that assume that it’s a given that the majority of the mega-rich are not only Jewish but observant? And what are we to make of the fact that four of the five billionaires Barron mentions in the column are Jewish? (Leonard Stern, Ronald Lauder, Bruce Kovner and Stephen M. Ross; only Tom Golisano is not.) And of course the Mayor is Jewish as well.

Sometimes we take great pride in touting our successes, including the disproportionate percentage of Jews of means. But this case rubbed me the wrong way. Am I being too sensitive?

The Trickiest Job In Editing

October 17th, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher

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Would you publish information you know to be false?

Seems like a no-brainer, right? But when it comes to editing Letters to the Editor — one of the most challenging and delicate aspects of my job — the answer is not always so simple.

Take the daily barrage of letters we have received for months now, proclaiming some version of the view that Barack Obama is a Muslim with evil intentions toward Israel. Do you trash such mail because it is mean-spirited and based on unfounded rumors or do you consider publishing a sampling as representative of the kind of mail the newspaper receives, regardless of their veracity?

After all, aren’t Letters to the Editor supposed to reflect the views of the readership?

And if you get a dozen letters making a similar point about a given topic, how many do you print to indicate the volume of mail on the subject?

Over the last few weeks, in response to reports we published about alleged racism among Jews as a factor in the presidential campaign, we received a number of letters confirming that some people would not vote for Obama because he is black. But wouldn’t publishing them be irresponsible — not only embarrassing the community but probably reflecting an overly skewed view of the overall responses?

There are few guidelines for these and other decisions that have to be made each week. (The best advice I ever got on the Letters section, from a former editor of the Baltimore Sun, Joseph Sterne, was that “the more space you leave, the more letters you’ll get.” He was right.)

But as for the quality of the letters, the range is awfully wide, from thoughtful insights and perspectives, brief and to the point, to hand-scrawled ramblings that reveal more about the writer than the subject at hand.

In the 15 years at my post at The Jewish Week, we probably average about a dozen letters a week that would qualify for publication, meaning they are within our word limit (under 300 words) and have something enlightening to say about an article we have recently published, or offer a point of view that offers a fresh look at the topic. Many other letters we receive each week are either unrelated to articles we’ve published, too long and unfocused or off point, too nasty (bordering on libelous) and often unverifiable, or written by people who send us letters every week - or all of the above.

Consistently, the mail we receive regarding Israel and the Mideast tilts heavily to the right, regardless of whether the prime minister at the time was Rabin or Netanyahu, Peres or Sharon. Does that tell us how our community really feels, or is it more indicative of who writes Letters to the Editor?

People tend to write letters when they are upset, if not aggrieved. It’s only natural. I for one have never taken the time to sit down and compose a letter to The New York Times or Wall Street Journal to say, “thanks for that informative article,” or “you guys do a great job, day in and day out.” But if someone published an article about an issue I cared about and I felt they got it wrong, I’d be more likely to make the effort to respond.

What’s particularly fascinating, and not uncommon, is when a specific article or column evokes letters that draw the opposite conclusions about what it said, as in “that article proves you are biased for McCain” followed by a letter that accuses us of being pro-Obama. And so it goes.

The presidential campaign is winding down, finally, but I guarantee you our mailbags (or more accurately our [email protected] e-mail address) will still be filled with readers’ responses and rants on presidential politics and everything else we write about.

Our editors will still be making delicate judgment calls each week about which letters to publish and which not, but our advice to you is the same: keep `em coming.

Feeling The Fragility Of Sukkot

October 16th, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher

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Much has been made among the rabbis over the centuries as to why Sukkot takes place at this time of year. And the lesson is a particularly timely one now, in the face of an international economic crisis that has made each of us feel more vulnerable.

We are told that the eight-day festival was supposed to take place in the spring. But since it was common for people in ancient times to sit outside in temporary huts at that time of year, it wouldn’t be clear that the Jews were doing so to commemorate God’s protecting them during the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. So the holiday was moved to the fall, when most people returned indoors to the comfort of their homes.

We are supposed to build sukkot that are sturdy enough to withstand winds, but a solid roof is prohibited. It must be made of natural elements and fragile and temporary enough so that we can see the sky when we look up and feel the drops if it rains. The point is to remember that it was God’s caring for our ancestors during their long sojourn — with a pillar of clouds during the day to lead the way and a pillar of fire at night - that allowed them to survive the elements.

Sitting in our family Sukkah this year, surrounded by family and friends, I was reminded anew that for all of our attention during the year to doing our jobs and beautifying our houses, it is not the material aspects of our lives that are most permanent but the memories of special moments shared with loved ones that remains most precious and most lasting.

All of us feel the uncertainty now of making do with less. We confront the reality that we cannot take anything for granted, whether it is next week’s paycheck or being blessed to live another year, another day.

That’s why holidays like Sukkot, with its prayer of gratitude for “allowing us to reach this season,” resonate within us, especially in times like these.

Just Rewards

October 7th, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher

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The first question posed Monday by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of a Congressional hearing on the bank failures, to Richard Fuld, the Lehman Brothers’ chairman who made $480 million over the last eight years at the failed company, was “is this fair?”

It’s a question that hangs in the air at this particularly precarious moment in time, and we ask it not only of the incredible bonuses and over-the-top lifestyle associated with the Old Wall Street (translation: up to a month ago), but of the national bailout that seems to help big business more than the rest of us. And we’re asking if it’s fair for the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to stoop to name-calling and personal attacks, especially at a time when issues like the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, etc. are so important — and in light of the fact that both McCain and Obama pledged not to go that route.

And then there is Michael Bloomberg, the popular mayor of New York, seeking a third term, insisting that he is the ideal person for the job at a time of economic crisis. Only trouble is, term limits is the law, and he is completing his second and final term. Is it right to ignore, or at least skirt around, the will of the people?

We all know that life is unfair; it’s something we’re told, and made painfully aware of, from an early age. So is it naïve to kvetch about examples of inequity in the public sphere?

Raising these questions on the eve of Yom Kippur is especially dicey because while we praise God as Just, and call on the Creator to punish those who oppress us, we also put ourselves at God’s mercy throughout the 25-hour holy day, repeatedly appealing to God’s attributes of forgiveness.

We are unworthy sinners, we say as we beat our breasts, and do not deserve a break. But don’t judge us objectively, we plead, show us Your mercy instead.

We are created in God’s image and commanded to emulate God’s ways. But when are we to insist on retribution for wrongdoing and when should we offer forgiveness? It’s a question we should be asking ourselves not only on Yom Kippur but every time we face that inner struggle between competing impulses. And maybe the best approach when confronting these dilemmas is to think of ourselves in the other guy’s shoes.

After all, it’s only fair.

`New York Times Bias Hits Record High’

October 3rd, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher

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It started, of course, with Mideast coverage, which was upsetting enough. But now The New York Times bias in its reporting has gone too far. For those who have not yet participated in protests and boycotts, this is the time to act, before it spreads even further.

The frightening fact is that subjective words and phrases have now reached the most widely read spot of the world’s most famous newspaper: yes, the Weather Report in the top right-hand corner of Page 1, every day of the year.

Have you not noticed the recent reports that predict “ample sunshine” for the coming day? Who is The Times to define “ample”? Is it not true that one man’s “ample” is another’s “insufficient”?

Why was “sunny” replaced after years?

And then there are descriptions of “bitter cold,” “patchy fog” or “heavy rain.” How subjective can you be? And where will it end?

But do not despair. A rally will be held in front of The Times new headquarters in midtown at noon next Sunday (weather permitting, so check the forecast), sponsored by the newly-formed Whether Or Not You Believe Us (WONYBU), a group that promises to monitor Times coverage far more closely, and widely.

A spokesman said “no section of the paper of record is now protected from our watchful eye,” noting objections in recent Sports reports to phrases like “pathetic Mets” and “disappointing Yankees,” which he called “highly charged,” as well as disparaging descriptions in the Bridge column like “South opens with a flat hand.”

Not to be outdone, a new Web site, CLOUDY (Citizens for Lawful, Overt, Unbiased, Distilled Yammering), has already pledged to sponsor boycotts of a number of leading dailies around the country, as well as public radio and television stations, and then to undertake a study of the accuracy of their weather reporting.

“How can you be wrong half the time and maintain credibility?” she asked.

As for the upcoming rally, since WONYBU is a non-profit group, Barack Obama, who had been scheduled to address the predicted throng, was asked not to appear. Same for John McCain.

“It’s a shame they won’t be there,” said a spokesman for the Stop The Weather rally, “but we think the cause is a righteous one and people are outraged enough to show up. And bring your umbrellas, just in case.”

Obama had planned to demand “change” in the weather, saying that is what the country needs at this time — and he predicted that it is coming. McCain reportedly is hoping for at least four more years of the current climate.

Who’s Fasting Today and Why?

October 2nd, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, Editor and Publisher

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After feasting for two days on festive Rosh Hashanah meals, there no doubt are many of us who have sworn off food today. But there are others who are doing the same for religious rather than dietary reasons.

That’s because the day after Rosh Hashanah on the Jewish calendar is Tzom Gedaliah, the Fast of Gedaliah, a little-known minor fast (meaning it is “only” from dawn to dark, unlike Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, which start the night before).

The Gedaliah we refer to was Gedaliah ben Achicham, a Jew who was appointed governor of Judea by the conquering Babylonians after the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C.E. Some Jews criticized him as a puppet of the hated enemy, and he was assassinated by his fellow Jews, some say on Rosh Hashanah.

The prophet Jeremiah had hoped Gedaliah would permit the Temple to be rebuilt, and he considered his death a tragedy, particularly because it was at the hand of Jews.

When I was in high school, a friend told me he didn’t fast on Tzom Gedaliah because “if I died, would Gedaliah fast for me?”

But the truth is the day is a meaningful reminder of the dangers of Jewish violence against Jews as we prepare to mark the 13th yahrtzeit of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, killed by a modern-day Jewish zealot, and as we read of increasing incidents of hostility in Israel among a small group of militants opposed to territorial compromise.

As long as the land is seen by some as holier than the lives of fellow Jews, we need days like this for fasting and reflection.

Claiming Paul Newman

September 29th, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher

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Now that Paul Newman is gone, Jews obsessed with knowing whether celebrities are Jewish or not (which seems to account for everyone I’ve ever met), are noting with pride that the legendary actor and gentleman considered himself one of the tribe.

To women (and many men) of a certain generation - actually several generations - Newman was the coolest guy around. He was a leading actor with talent, good looks (yes, those Blue Eyes) and a self-deprecating sense of humor that indicated he never took himself too seriously. And that was before he became a director, leading racecar driver, businessman and major philanthropist - all done with low-key grace, well aware that he was blessed but striving to be a regular Joe.

According to halacha, Newman would not be considered one of us. His father, Arthur, was Jewish; his mother was a Roman Catholic who converted to Christian Science. Newman explained that he considered himself Jewish “because being Jewish is more demanding.”

It always strikes me as curious how Jewishly flexible many of us are in embracing those we like, like Newman, as one of us, no matter how big a stretch it takes, while denying the Jewishness of someone born of two Jewish parents but who led a life we don’t approve of, as in, “You mean Louis “Lepke” Buchalter [a mobster who ran Murder Incorporated] was Jewish? What a surprise!”

Endearing or annoying, depending on your point of view. But one thing is clear: we’d go a long way to be associated with the style, success and exemplary good works of Paul Newman, may he rest in peace.

Taking Anti-Semitism For Granted

September 28th, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, Editor and Publisher

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has come and gone, and while our community focused primarily on the Stop Iran rally outside the UN last week ­ and was caught up in a controversy over which, if any politicians to invite — it seems we have almost taken for granted how the Iranian president is treated with respect rather than disdain inside the halls of the UN, despite his anti-Semitic rantings.

He was greeted warmly by many at his General Assembly talk, and no one seemed to blink, much less object, when he railed against “the Zionist murderers” who he described as a ragtag collection of people from different parts of the world who detained, displaced and killed “the true owners of that land.”

And in interviews, he continued to assert that the Holocaust is a myth, a Zionist plot to gain sympathy for the post-war Jews.

I know I sound naïve if I express even mild surprise that such murderous, racist talk goes unchallenged at the United Nations, with its long history of and obsession with blaming Israel for much of the world’s problems.

But the UN did pass a resolution less than two years ago condemning Holocaust denial and asserting that such behavior was “tantamount to approval of genocide in all its forms.”

Each year Ahmadinejad succeeds in flaunting his hateful views in front of this world body, perhaps testing the waters for international reaction to the future fulfillment of his oft-repeated pledge to wipe Israel off the map.

Based on the lack of outrage this year, as in the past, we can only assume the Iranian leader has returned home convinced that there is insufficient international opposition to keep him and his country from completing its task of building a nuclear bomb.

If and when that happens ­ a dark day, indeed, not only for Israel but for America and the free world ­ we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Covering Obama

August 1st, 2008

Rob Goldblum, Managing Editor

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The Jewish Week has heard from some readers unhappy about what they see as an imbalance in  our coverage of this year’s presidential campaigns.  Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has been on the front page a lot in recent months; Sen. John McCain, his GOP rival, has not.

It’s a fair criticism because at least in terms of the number of stories, there has been an imbalance.

But that is the result not of a pro-Obama bias by editors or reporters, but the way the campaigns have spun out in recent months and in particular the campaigns for Jewish votes - the special interest of Jewish Week readers.

Sen. Obama’s campaign, surprisingly media savvy despite their champion’s relative inexperience, has kept their candidate in the spotlight throughout the summer months, when the usual election-year media frenzy slows down.

Obama has made some real news of interest to our community, including his surprise announcement that he will support a variation of the Bush administration’s faith based initiative, his clumsy remarks and subsequent “clarification” about an “undivided” Jerusalem and his recent trip to Israel.

The Obama campaign has a big and efficient Jewish outreach team; the McCain campaign’s effort, as the Jewish Week noted in a story this week, has yet to gel, which means the GOP contender is not generating the kind of focused news coverage of his rival.

John McCain is a known quantity to most Jewish voters, which is why he is doing better in the polls than recent Republican candidates. He isn’t working hard to introduce himself to a political segment that already knows who he is and what he stands for.  Obama is slick but elusive.  His followers believe his campaign is full of promise, but to reporters it’s also full of intriguing question marks.

The Jewish Week is not alone.  There has been an active discussion throughout the mainstream media of the difficulty of not seeming to take sides in the campaign when one candidate seems to be producing much more news than the other.

We can assure our readers of this: Jewish Week editors and reporters are aware of these concerns and will strive to avoid any hint of bias in our news coverage. But we will also continue to call the stories as we see them. If that produces more stories about one candidate than the other, well, that’s the news biz.

Mordechai Gafni Is Back

July 8th, 2008

Gary Rosenblatt, Editor and Publisher
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The last time Mordechai Gafni was in the news was two years ago, when the charismatic and controversial rabbi accused of sexual misconduct here and in Israel was dismissed as the rebbe of Bayit Chadash, a spiritual renewal community in Tel Aviv.

Faced with sexual abuse complaints filed with the police in Israel by several women who were former students or employees of Bayit Chadash, Gafni came to the U.S., issued a public statement apologizing to those he had hurt, said he was “sick” and needed treatment, and disappeared.

This was the conclusion of the column I wrote then (June 9, 2006): “In the past, when Gafni said he had made mistakes in his life but that he had done teshuva, some were ready to believe him; others were not. At some point in the future he is sure to reappear, eager to resume his role of spiritual guide and teacher, insisting he has gone through therapy and is cured.

“Will we believe him then?”

Well, Gafni has resurfaced in Salt Lake City, Utah and is insisting that he, not his female accusers, was the victim of the events of two years ago. He has an extensive web site (, which includes not only his teachings and writings on kabbalah and spirituality, but an aggressive defense of his previous actions, complete with a report on the results of a polygraph test he took and which he claims clears him of abuse.

The test indicates that Gafni was engaged in mutual and consensual relationships with the women, he says.

(Gafni, formerly known as Mordechai Winiarz, was ordained by Shlomo Riskin, an Orthodox rabbi, but later evolved into a spiritual guru who wrote and lectured on incorporating Eros into Judaism. At 47, he has been married and divorced three times, and surrounded by accusations of sexual misbehavior his entire adult life.)

Gafni appears to have been embraced by a New Age spiritual community (not Jewish) in Salt Lake City, as evidenced by a lengthy and sympathetic profile in Catalyst, a local magazine focused on “the world’s ecological, social and spiritual crises,” and to which he has contributed a column called “Spiritually Incorrect.”

The profile, written by editor and publisher Greta deJong, portrays him as having saintly qualities but hounded by accusers — as often happens with “charismatic spiritual leaders,” she notes.

Gafni now says that he wrote his public apology for his behavior two years ago under stress, and that the women accusers banded together to destroy his career. He also argues that his chief critics are bloggers who are irresponsible and untrue in their accusations.

On his web site, where he describes himself as “a cutting edge spiritual teacher, author, television personality, mediator, corporate consultant, iconoclast and gentle provocateur,” as well as a “Heart Servant,” he writes that his primary motto is “Do No Harm.”

He has done plenty, though, based on interviews I have had with those once close to him, including two of his former wives, and rabbis and Jewish educators who feel he misrepresented himself to them.

Gafni has always been best at re-inventing himself, and no doubt he will continue to charm, if not seduce, others with his ideas and personality. But with the attention he has received in The Jewish Week and elsewhere, people can no longer say they were unaware of his past.