Forward Thinking

In his Aug. 29 editorial, J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward, warned his readers not to be "startled" by that week’s front-page op-ed. He knew he was playing jump rope with raw nerves. After all, American Jews, the paper’s prime audience, could never have expected such heresy in a mainstream Jewish publication: "Israel, having ceased to care about the children of Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism."

Surely this was an anti-Semite, head wrapped in a kaffiyah, holding a match to the Israeli flag. But he wasn’t. The writer was Avraham Burg, a respected former speaker of the Israeli parliament. Goldberg simply had the gall to translate his words from Hebrew and put them on the Forward’s front page.

Burg’s piece, a rage-filled lament for an Israeli society "already collapsing like a cheap Jerusalem wedding hall," first appeared in a major Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot, and, although shocking, joined the debate that thunders continuously through the Israeli public arena. In the U.S., however, it’s hard to imagine a Jewish newspaper other than the English-language Forward even touching it. Not only is much of the Jewish press in America lamely local -- asking little more than the hard-hitting question, Who was bar-mitzvahed this week? -- but, for the most part, their editorial line is filtered through one parochial prism: Is it good for the Jews? Bankrolled by local Jewish federations, the community weeklies lack the independence to report critically on the charities and institutions that make up Jewish organizational life. Dissent or even debate over Israeli policy is off limits. Like the American Jewish establishment, these papers swung left-of-center during the Oslo peace process in the 1990s and, for the three years since the start of the current Intifada, have swung right, staunchly defending the policies of Ariel Sharon.

Under two very different editors, as it happens, the Forward, during both periods, has gone counterclockwise.

Of the prominent American Jewish publications, the Forward alone, now in its thirteenth year, is truly independent. As a result, its op-ed page is a rare and influential forum (albeit an elite one, read by no more than 30,000) where the contentious ideological battles of the Jewish world are duked out -- pro-peace vs. anti-negotiation, Orthodox vs. Reform, assimilationist vs. isolationist. And with the war on terror turning any critic of Israel into a suspected traitor, it has not recoiled from running pieces like Burg’s that undermine the image of communal unity peddled by the American Jewish establishment.

On its news pages, meanwhile, the Forward covers the Jewish story as a story, seriously and dispassionately. Recent front-page articles have looked at a study claiming that 22 percent of Israeli households are malnourished, exposed the role of an Orthodox Jewish organization in supporting a conservative U.S. judicial nominee, and examined the unstable and insecure character of Jack Ruby (known to his Yiddish-speaking mother as Jacob Rubenstein). Its mandate is wide, taking on issues as international as the reemergence of opium-growing in Afghanistan and as local as the conflict between Hasidic Jews and blacks in Brooklyn. And the Forward is one of the few publications keeping a close journalistic eye on the American Jewish establishment, ready to pounce when incompetence or corruption is uncovered.

So harshly scrutinizing is it at times that its critics fret that it allows anyone to peer at the community’s often ugly internal disputes. But Steven Bayme, National Director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee, says that the Forward "gives you independent journalism, hard-hitting journalism, and it has become important precisely because it is willing to tackle sacred cows. The general sense is that a healthy community is one which can confront its weaknesses as well as its strengths. And the Forward forces us to look at those things."

Goldberg is fifty-four and has edited the paper for the last three years. He is a compact and fidgety man who, with owlish glasses and hair split down the middle, looks like a grown-up Harry Potter. He wants the Forward, journalistically, to "reinvent a language that has been lost for seventy years." By this, he means finding a way to look at anything, economics or dance, from a uniquely Jewish perspective -- but one that, rather than narrowing the world, widens to include as much of it as possible.

In this, Goldberg has stayed true to the initial idea of the paper as dreamt up by its charismatic founding editor, Seth Lipsky, formerly of The Wall Street Journal. In the spring of 2000, when Lipsky left the Forward in bitterness, a decade into its existence, editorials in The New Republic and the Journal declared the death of independent Jewish journalism. Over a thousand subscriptions were canceled. No one, it seemed, was worthy of following the irreverent and visionary Lipsky. Certainly not Goldberg, with a background in the Jewish press. The Forward, which had been taken so seriously and produced journalists who went on to work at The New Yorker and The New York Times, under Goldberg would turn amateurish and provincial.

There was no way, it was thought, that Goldberg could correct the perceived errors that had got Lipsky ousted and be true to the long, distinguished tradition of the Forward name.

The original Forward (or Forverts), has existed in Yiddish for over a hundred years. For the millions of Eastern European Jews who emigrated to America (and mostly to the Lower East Side of New York) at the turn of the last century, the Forward, a mix of tabloid and literary journal, was a reflection of the working-class, green, striving, brash, and overwhelmingly socialist community that was settling in this country.

In its prime, the Yiddish Forward had a circulation of a quarter million (not to mention all those it was passed along to in stuffy sweatshops and on crowded street corners) and was the first national newspaper with multiple editions, long before USA Today. If the Jewish community had a voice, this was it, where socialists and communists fought it out, labor laws were explained, lonely young women had their questions about love answered, the proper use of a handkerchief was illustrated, and confused greenhorn fathers learned why their sons wanted to hit balls with a round wooden bat.

Part of the Forward’s mission, as pursued by its founding editor, Abraham Cahan, was to help Jews assimilate into American society, get them to lose their Yiddish and take on English. "For that kind of paper to be successful was to put itself out of business," said Samuel Norich, executive director since 1998 of the Forward Association, the group that owns and runs the Forward franchise. And indeed, the Yiddish Forward, founded in 1897, is on its dying breath. Although lovingly sustained, it wheezes on with a mere 5,000 geriatric readers.

By the '80s, the Forward, as influential as it had once been, was headed toward the attic of Jewish nostalgia (to be tucked away with the schnorrers and schlimazels, the yentas and meshugennas of yore). Then the idea of a Forward in English was born in the most unlikely of minds. Lipsky, an editor at The Wall Street Journal, highly secular and an outsider to the Jewish world, first conceived of a modern-day successor to the Yiddish Forward. Like the original Forward, the new paper would serve the needs of American Jews. But instead of teaching them how to assimilate into America, something they had already done quite successfully, it would teach secular Jews, long cut off from the sense of community engendered on the Lower East Side, to feel part of a living, kicking, dynamic culture. The Forward, as Lipsky envisioned it, would inform American Jews about the organizations that speak and lobby (and wield millions) in their name. And it would analyze local politics, the Middle East, the economy, immigration, and a range of other "secular" topics from a sophisticated and uniquely Jewish perspective.

It took Lipsky most of the 1980s to convince the Forward Association to give him a shot. As the guardians of the Forward’s tradition, they were concerned about Lipsky’s politics. The Yiddish Forward was, after all, a socialist paper of the working class. Before World War II, it was allied closely with trade unions, strongly supported socialist candidates like Eugene V. Debs, and even looked kindly at first on the Russian Revolution. Lipsky, on the other hand, is a self-proclaimed neoconservative who, although fairly liberal on social issues like abortion and gay rights, is a fiscal conservative and an unabashed geopolitical hawk.

As he made clear in a 1997 Commentary essay, Lipsky thought he could reconcile these polarities. He did this by arguing that the socialists of the 1920s would have naturally evolved into the neoconservatives of today. To make his point, he referred to the Yiddish Forward’s increasing anti-Communism over the decades and its sympathetic 1940 obituary of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the grandfather of revisionist or right-wing Zionism. Lipsky wrote, "In fact, every time I have dipped into the files of the Forward, I have found editorials on Zionism and Israel rippling with verve and strength and hewing to what, in the contemporary context, can only be called a hard line."

Anyone wanting to be editor of the Forward would have to contend with the overwhelming memory of Abraham Cahan, independent, opinionated, and daring, who ran the Yiddish paper for more than fifty years. And in this capacity Lipsky fit the bill. A lifelong journalist, he had reported for Stars and Stripes during Vietnam, and had spent years as an editor at Time and then the Journal. By all accounts, Lipsky could be described best in one word: newspaperman. Not the modern antiseptic version of the creature, but the old-fashioned, stir-the-pot, hard-headed incarnation. "Curious, direct, oblivious to protocol, always provocative," was the way Albert R. Hunt of the Journal summed him up in an elegiac 2000 column.

In 1990 the Forward Association finally agreed to create the new Forward and give Lipsky editorial control. He took it and ran. On the news pages, the Forward tackled a mixture of local and national news, stories like the Crown Heights riots and Patrick Buchanan’s victory in the New Hampshire primary; international stories about Russian Jews and Hezbollah; and stories that turned a laser beam on the Jewish establishment, skewering its leaders and scrutinizing its charities. The arts and letters pages became a space for irreverent creativity, serializing Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip, Maus. The design was bold -- large photos and drawings -- and the reviews and idea pieces meandered through subjects as diverse as sex in Israeli cinema and a new opera about the Dreyfus Affair.

Lipsky won’t talk about his time at the Forward (testament to the bitterness of his eventual break-up with the Forward Association), but the accounts of the young writers he groomed during his time there are filled with romance and nostalgia, dominated by the eccentric figure of their former editor. Lipsky wore hats, they say. He painted portraits of his heroes, like Menachem Begin, which he hung in his office. He told the writers that their era was akin to Paris in the twenties. A decade later, they still have Lipsky stories in which their former editor sounds like a combination of W.C. Fields and William Randolph Hearst. Philip Gourevitch, now at The New Yorker, remembers Lipsky offering him the job of New York bureau chief. "Do you own a necktie?" Lipsky barked at him. When Gourevitch answered yes, Lipsky inquired if he had any reporting experience. No, Gourevitch answered. "Good, no bad habits." E.J. Kessler, still at the paper and now its deputy managing editor, recalls Lipsky walking into the newsroom and asking her for her front-page news story. She didn’t have one. She had written the lead art piece that week. "That’s just chat," he answered. "I want scoops."

Lipsky did indeed want scoops. And he wanted them plastered on the front page in giant headlines like JEWISH DAY SCHOOL PUPILS FLUNK READING TEST AT RATES THAT DISCLOSE POCKETS OF WEAKNESS, or HIGH HOLIDAY TICKETS ARE PRICEY AND SCARCE/A RABBI EXPLAINS: 'I HAVE TO EAT AND MY CHILDREN HAVE TO EAT'. He loved controversy. When a Jewish charity was contemplating awarding Yasir Arafat a peace prize in 1999, Lipsky put a picture of the Palestinian leader on the front page with the headline, YOUR CHARITY DOLLARS AT WORK? He ran stories that Jews did not want to see about themselves, like one about a Jewish stripper -- "I would dance topless but not on Shabbat" -- or one about a protest in Israel in which secular Jews handed out ham-and-cheese sandwiches to protest new rules privileging the religious -- IN JERUSALEM, HAM N'CHEESE, ON WRY.

On the editorial page, Lipsky’s neo-conservative views managed to consistently upset many people. Not necessarily a bad move, except that those he seemed to prick most were his benefactors, the left-leaning Forward Association. And, according to Samuel Norich, Lipsky’s political sensibility "manifested itself not only on the editorial page, but also in the headlines, on the front page, in the spin of news articles." On economic issues, Norich says, Lipsky "consistently called for lower marginal tax rates -- what we felt was the shredding of the social safety net." On Israel, Norich says, Lipsky was constantly to the right of the Israeli government, "never between the Israeli government and the Arabs."

Lipsky had started as an employee of the Forward Association. But in 1995 he and three partners bought half of the paper. This further emboldened his editorial independence. Norich insists that Lipsky continued to ignore an "unwritten understanding that he would take our views into account."

In 2000 the association finally decided to assert some editorial oversight and Lipsky, predictably, resisted. There was no easy solution. Although circulation had stagnated after 1997, losing the Forward vast sums of money (an average of $2 million a year), it was Lipsky who had put the paper on the map. When the impasse seemed too great, Lipsky and his financial backers, most prominently the philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, proposed buying the whole paper. But as half-owners, the Forward Association could block the deal. And that is what its leaders did, telling Lipsky he could either leave the paper or they would kill it. Lipsky chose to quit.

To the Lipsky loyalists, the parting was bitter and acrimonious. "They made it out like an octogenarian politburo had offed a bright young star of independent thinking," said Norich. In fact, Lipsky’s staff saw it mostly for what it was -- a conflict of ideology and personality. Ira Stoll, an editor at the paper for five years who has since followed Lipsky to his new venture, the year-and-a-half-old daily, The New York Sun, put it this way: "You had a newspaper that had two fifty-percent owners, the Forward Association and Lipsky-Steinhardt LLC -- rough shorthand: the socialists and the capitalists -- and they couldn’t agree on how to go forward. The capitalist side wanted to put more money in and take majority control. The socialist side didn’t want to sell. So basically, the capitalists sold their half to the socialists. And the socialists got a new editor."

When Lipsky left, so did all but three of the entire editorial staff. The Forward would be worthless without Lipsky, they thought. It would turn into just another Jewish community weekly, without nerve or pluck. Jonathan Mahler, at one point the editorial page editor at the Forward, wrote in The New Republic, "Seth Lipsky arrived at a desert and built a beautiful garden. Now the land’s owners want it back. What they don’t realize is that, without Lipsky, the garden will die anyway."

We don’t deride. We don’t scandalize. We fundamentally expect that people of good will are doing their best," J.J. Goldberg says, sitting in his midtown Manhattan office. "And when they screw up, we say so. And we are looking for that stuff. But it is not our job to play gotcha. We start with a basic respect for the job of doing the community’s work."

Goldberg was the Forward Association’s antidote to Lipsky. The son of a union lawyer, he grew up with a strong background in Labor Zionism. He also speaks fluent Hebrew, having lived on a kibbutz for a few years in the seventies, and has spent his life invested in and involved with the Jewish world. Unlike Lipsky, he had a strong grounding in Jewish history and culture. His political beliefs lined up more directly with the Yiddish paper’s. But the very background that recommended him for the job in the Forward Association’s eyes also created an "image problem," as Goldberg himself put it. Lipsky’s achievement, it was thought, stemmed from his outsider status and long experience in the mainstream press. Goldberg was coming from the inside. He knew the players personally, had lifelong relationships with them, and had mostly worked for Jewish publications like The Jewish Week. When he arrived at an empty newsroom, he began filling it with Jewish-press colleagues. "One of the Lipsky people came in to tell me he was leaving," Goldberg remembered. "And he said, ‘You’ve confirmed my fear that this is going to become another mediocre, sycophantic Jewish community weekly.’"

But it hasn’t. The garden has not died. Goldberg has not run away from Lipsky’s model of using the Jewish story to tell a wider story. He just wants to do "what Lipsky did but in a liberal way."

"He published a paper that, more than any other Jewish weekly, covered issues like the economy and social and cultural debates in a deep kind of way," says Goldberg. "Now and again, he would have an article that would have no obvious Jewish connection about tax rates or the international monetary system which was deeply conservative. I want to do the same thing, but liberal."

Lipsky, Goldberg says, would "want to do an exposé on who was threatening to divide Jerusalem. I would want to do an exposé on who was threatening to disrupt efforts to make peace."

Editorially, the greatest difference between the two is Goldberg’s belief in the paper’s traditional liberalism and the need to connect stories to their Jewish roots. "To me, the values of Judaism, the culture and tradition that evolve from the bible through the Talmud, through the rabbinic era to modern Yiddish literature is a seamless line," Goldberg says, drawing a difference between himself and Lipsky. "And if you don’t know that, then none of it makes sense."

But Goldberg, although he doesn’t aim to be as needling (some would say, mean) as Lipsky, still wants to take a magnifying glass to the Jewish establishment. In fact, in 1996, he published a book, provocatively titled Jewish Power, which was the first real deconstruction of the American Jewish organizational world. Goldberg is no apologist for the Jewish establishment. Besides running the Burg piece, in recent months he has also published a controversial op-ed by Natan Sharansky, an Israeli government minister, which hammered American Jewish organizations for not inspiring Jewish college students to fight campus anti-Zionism. Also recently, Goldberg loudly disputed the findings of a Jewish population survey. The study forecast the imminent disappearance of the American Jew, because of intermarriage and assimilation. Goldberg thought the numbers were manipulated to create a bleak and pessimistic outlook useful for fundraising. He said so, in his pages and in a New York Times op-ed, and it didn’t make him any friends in the Jewish establishment.

On Israel, Goldberg’s liberal tendencies have acted as a counterbalance to the general rightward shift of the American Jewish community. Like Lipsky in the 1990s, prophetically skeptical about Oslo when it was embraced by most American Jews, Goldberg seems to be "the appropriate contrarian for his time," says Ami Eden, the Forward’s current national editor.

Comparing Lipsky and Goldberg’s Forward, you see a paper that is now considerably less operatic (and therefore, maybe, less provoking). But it is still the most serious source of Jewish news around. This remains true, because Goldberg, like Lipsky, doesn’t care if Jews don’t see the best of themselves reflected in its pages, or if they don’t agree or are shocked or offended by pieces, like Burg’s, that make Jews feel self-conscious. If there is one thing that connects Goldberg and Lipsky, it is a confidence that the community is mature and strong enough to take it, that dissent is in fact the most Jewish practice they could be engaged in.

"The genius of the Talmud is that it created an atmosphere of dissent," says Jonathan Rosen, who, under Lipsky, conceived of and edited the Forward’s Arts and Letters pages. "It’s not that the individual things debated don’t matter. But the culture of the Talmud is its greatest contribution. And that’s a culture in which dissent and dispute and skepticism are in themselves godly activities."

Gal Beckerman is an assistant editor at CJR.

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