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Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Questions You Ask When You Are Jewish

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I am often asked whether I’m Jewish — even as reporters, not religion. Jews have been asking the same question for a while. “I’m not Jewish, I’m Jewish!” I often reply, acknowledging that there are many Jews. The corollary is probably true. So even though I do not believe that I was set on this earth to write about two kinds of Jews (religious, ethical or secular), I would love to know which ones there are, which they are, what brings them together, why they need a news media. Such are the questions surrounding The Forward, a Jewish weekly newspaper founded in 1896 but lately dealing with big changes, including the departure of its editor. The Forward is the last remnant of what it is called, in a quaint flourish, “The Sun of the North,” a paper founded in the year of the great Hasidic riots in Brooklyn. In its heyday, the paper—whose archives you can view here—was so exciting that many Jewish reporters decided they had to hang up their pen and go work for it, especially since their newspaper was also so amazing. Like all great great newspapers of the pre-Internet age, it cared for itself and its audience. Its advertisers were people who adhered to a specific creed or worldview — strong Jews who meant business. It had journalists who usually cared about themselves. It had also made business plans that would sustain it in the longer term. Sure, the paper experienced tumult and the advent of the Internet. As the Forward’s editors told me, before the Internet even had a word for “front page,” the paper’s paper was almost non-existent. But then came the Internet and one example of how other papers have handled the change: Today, its news day includes a weekend section, including a Politics section. And thus some of what I’m talking about applies to the Jewish press. (The Forward told me that, besides web journalism, it has been adapting by re-evaluating its traffic-driving strategy. The paper was revenue-positive as recently as six years ago, but so far this year, it has become unprofitable.) Still, in certain ways, it’s different than The Daily Beast, yet another grand old-line newspaper that I mentioned yesterday. There is a name that is unfamiliar to me, not so to you: Ajami. The Ajami newspaper, which at its height was distributed on the second floor of the World Trade Center, was a rare bright spot of white paper papers in the decidedly post-classical, post-Internet New York. It was inspired by the Ethiopian Jews I had interviewed during my coverage of Ethiopia in the early 1980s and their demand that they be treated with respect and dignity in the big media. In the 1980s, I wrote the book “Nefesh B’Nefesh,” which you might have come to know from the 1987 movie, of the same name starring Danny Glover and Ben Kingsley.

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