March 9, 2006

by Andrew Silow-Carroll
Fill-in-the-blank Jewish journalism

My Purim gift to you, a column I'd been wanting to write for years -- a fill-in-the-blank guide to writing for Jewish newspapers. Here's a taste:

The last Jews of [Blank]

It’s Friday evening, and the sun is going down in this [mountain / desert / jungle] village in the far reaches of [Europe / Asia / Arkansas]. In the pews sit [nine elderly men / three elderly men and six Peace Corps volunteers / eight elderly men and a reporter with a severe head cold]. They are waiting for a 10th man to complete the minyan, the prayer quorum.

“You should have been here 20 years ago,” says [Isaac / Yitzchok / Ygplyx] Cohen, the aging gabbai. “On a Friday night, we had 500 people. Even the [king / imam / local sheriff] would pay his respects.”

But that was before [insert global tragedy]. After that, most of the community moved to [Israel / America / the suburbs]. Those who remained are now led by [a Lubavitcher emissary / a Greek Orthodox plumber who speaks broken Hebrew / a Reform rabbinical student who lost her Eurail pass].

But this week there is hope, and the once grand synagogue will host its first bar mitzva in decades. The bar mitzva boy is [Ethan / Josh / Ari] [family name of prominent philanthropist], whose parents have come to the place where [his great-grandfather grew up / his grandparents owned the local butcher shop / his father’s company is now outsourcing its customer-service department].

“It’s a mitzva to remember the past,” said [Ethan / Josh / Ari]. “And as part of my bar mitzva project, I have collected [prayer books / warm socks / one-way airfare] for the community members.”


Didn't a former [boss / colleague / mistress] of mine win a Rockower for this in [1993/1994/1996]?

Tellingly, you neglected to mention that the trip was financed by the [JDC / AJC / totalitarian regime hoping for Jewish tourism], but then, who expects full disclosure from [community Jewish weeklies / papers published by megalomaniacs / the New York Times]?

Posted by: Reb Yudel at March 9, 2006 4:42 PM

Andrew --

Don't knock Business as Usual.

The premise of your Purim piece is that coverage of Jewish stories is trite and uninspired, paint it by numbers and phone it in. But as one editor of a local newspaper to another, I know you know the value of the predictable, harmless article. It has a vital role in our overall editorial strategy, and I suspect it endears us to more readers than the rest of our material.

As our readership’s second and even third newspaper – the first one being the NYT, second being the New Yorker, or whatever they consider a classy read on the other side of the GWB – we do not provide news so much as a connection and a sense of feelgood. They don’t have to actually read our paper for it to fulfill their need for it.

In my judgment, if you run a year’s worth of your paper without a single hard-hitting story, it won’t harm your circulation one bit. But if you dare cut out the very stories you were having fun with, the schmaltz and tsholent stories, they won’t renew. Because they don’t need you for their hard hitting stuff, they need you to feel part of something meaningful.

As a parent you must have been driven mad by your children’s insistence on being read to the same stories, with the same inflection, night after night. I believe this phenomenon – which may turn some parents suicidal – is similar to what you’re describing. There’s safety in the familiar, and the job of a community paper is not necessarily to expose stuff and innovate stuff. It’s real, fundamental job is to help a community feel like one – and repetition of familiar stories is one of the major ways how this gets done.

Sure, it’s can boring to be that kind of a reporter, just as it’s boring to be that kind of a story-reading parent, but that’s the job description. As creative people, we provide a service to our community, and it better be the service they want and need, or they’d look for it elsewhere.

To submit this piece for a Pulitzer review click here.

Posted by: Yori yanover at March 10, 2006 7:49 AM

“Reading your favourite newspaper is like taking a warm bath.” -- Marshall McLuhan

Posted by: Silow-Carroll at March 10, 2006 9:34 AM

“Reading your [once] favourite newspaper while [knowing what is going / reading a fuller perspective on the Internet / actually caring about what it covers] is like taking a warm bath and [listening to talk radio / dropping the radio in the tub] .” -- [Marshall McLuhan / Reb Yudel / Moshe, the Metaphor Maven]

Posted by: Reb Yudel at March 10, 2006 10:16 AM

Anybody here ever took a warm bath with Marshall McLuhan?

Posted by: Yori yanover at March 10, 2006 5:10 PM

lovely, funny, sad piece.
well done!

Dry Bones

Israel's Political Comic Strip Since 1973

Posted by: yaakov kirschen at March 20, 2006 4:45 PM

I think we need a psychologist to explain to us whether the need for children to be read the same book the same way over and over again comes from the same source that spawns these boilerplate, all-is-not-lost (barely) Jewish stories.

What is clear to me is that "Goodnight Moon," "Where the Wild Things Are," and "The Cat in the Hat" are works of art. Whereas the above-mentioned Jewish journalpieces are not. They may not even be journalism.

Trite, sentimental, shallow, dull... and what's that word meaning sleep-inducing? Oh yeah, soporific. What a great word!

Good work, Andy!

Posted by: David H. at March 20, 2006 10:31 PM

I think Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, actually are meant to be soporific...

Posted by: eve at March 31, 2006 4:02 PM
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