August 23, 2004

by Reb Yudel
When the preacher dressed with twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest

Jonathan Mark encounters that alien probe of Jewish journalism know as Luke Ford and, characteristically, produces holy poetry:
We saw Jewish journalism as something sacred, beyond profession. If in light of the last century it is our calling to see every Jew as of infinite value; if Israel, and making the world safe for Jews -- uniting Jews, and nourishing Jewish possibility -- is the defining challenge of this generation, if the media is the theater for how this story is told, then reporting that story in a uniquely Jewish newspaper, and making Jewish papers financially viable, is equally sacred, too....

One challenge is telling the Jewish story in a way that is compelling as a story, as journalism, not just as a p.r. handout. For young Jewish writers coming out of yeshiva, the Torah itself was the model for how to write, even how to write subversively. Of course, much about God is a mystery. We don't know what He looks like. We don't know what He sounds like. But we know the way God writes. Imagine in the dark ages of Jewish journalism, assigning a profile on Father Abraham. How pompous and pious it would have been. But look how God, Himself, chooses to write the Abraham story. The very first quote attributed to Abraham in the Torah is him saying to Sarah, "Now look, I know you're beautiful. When the Egyptians see you, and know you're my wife, they'll kill me but keep you alive."

That was the first New Jewish Journalism. Some are offended by that kind of approach to writing -- but 70 nations rejected the Torah, too, before the Jewish people said yes.

In the Biblical spirit, newspapers have become the prophet speaking truth to the king or high priest, because without a prophet - or an editorial - not only is God voiceless but the people are, too.

The world these days can seem like the opening verses of Genesis, "unformed and void with darkness over the face of the deep." That fear always was right below the surface, even in better times. The first issue of New Jewish Times featured nothing but a nuclear mushroom cloud and the headline, "Next Year in Jerusalem." It's seems less crazy now than it was 20 years ago, but for Israeli children the Purim mask gave way to a gas mask.

What would you write about if the world was coming to an end? My inspiration was Emanuel Ringelblum and his band of brothers in the Warsaw Ghetto. They couldn't put out a Jewish paper, but they did the next best thing. Meeting once a week, and calling themselves "Oneg Shabbos" - with equal parts sarcasm and sentimentality - they took to amassing a weekly archive of the Jewish people. Oneg Shabbos collected everything, the ephemeral, the ethereal, Hebrew candy wrappers and chronicles of hunger; children's poems and dead men's paintings; ghetto theater programs and maps of Treblinka. It was essentially a Jewish newspaper delivered not to your mailbox but to the tin boxes and metal milk cans that they buried in the rubble. Who would find it? Who'd be their audience? Would there still be Jews in the world? For Oneg Shabbos, the act of gathering and telling the Jewish story was heroic enough.

At Ground Zero, in 2001, we had an "Oneg Shabbos" experience all our own. In the ruins, people found, and The Jewish Week wrote about, the fluttering papers that carried to earth a yeshiva's tuition bill; a letter from a summer camp; stories of people worth knowing -- more worth knowing than we might have supposed the day before. In the rubble, someone found a yarmulke inscribed from a wedding, Sept. 9. The ordinary is now extraordinary. In fact, it was extraordinary all along.

Our lives are fragile and fleeting. We are the generation that history will have to walk through to keep the Jewish story alive. These are the days in which Jews are looking to "my paper," a Jewish paper, to tell us who we are, where we're going, and what we have seen and loved.