In the Diaspora: Abe Rosenthal, American Jew
The Jerusalem Post, April 15, 2006
by Samuel G. Freedman
Early in 1975, A.M. Rosenthal, the top editor of The New York Times, needed to hire a clerk. By the ostensible job description, the clerk would attend to the dross of taking messages, running errands and greeting visitors. Unofficially, the clerking position served as prelude to a reporting position. And by Times custom, the coveted apprenticeship invariably went to a polished product of the Ivy League.
This time, however, Rosenthal selected a copy boy named Ari Goldman, a graduate of Yeshiva University and probably the only Orthodox Jew in the Times newsroom. Even from his lofty station Rosenthal knew Goldman's uncommon resume, for he had joked with him a year or two earlier about getting special dispensation from the pope if the young man ever got assigned a Saturday shift.
Years later, as Goldman relates in his memoir The Search for God At Harvard, he asked Rosenthal if he had been hired specifically because he was an observant Jew. Rosenthal denied it. Yet this was surely one instance when a journalist fiercely devoted to the pursuit of truth chose to lie.
The hiring of Ari Goldman as his clerk pales beside the most obvious achievements of A.M. Rosenthal's 17 years leading the Times - publishing the Pentagon Papers against the opposition of the Nixon Administration; infusing vivid, stylish writing into the dully authoritative pages of the Good Gray Lady; rescuing the paper from financial peril through the creation of new sections covering topics from science to home decor, all of them sources of major advertising revenue.
THEN AGAIN, Rosenthal's selection of Goldman helps attest to another significant, if overlooked, element of his legacy. By the time he died last week at the age of 84, Rosenthal had done more than any one individual to reconcile the Times to its Jewish identity. He made being a Jew on the Times, or being a Jew of the Times, unashamedly, unexceptionally normal.
In saying so, I realize that I invite the cynical amens of conspiracy theorists who have long believed that a paper owned by the Ochs and Sulzberger families should be called The Jew York Times. I recognize, too, that for a certain segment of Jewry, unwilling to hear any criticism of Israel, Rosenthal's Times will always be seen as Jewish in the worst ways, filled with self-denial, if not self-disgust. I cannot guess how many times Rosenthal must have been called a kapo.
The extreme views of Rosenthal and the newspaper do get, in their warped way, at an essential point. Precisely because of its Jewish ownership, the Times was for much of its history deeply conflicted. As Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones make clear in The Trust, their definitive history of the Ochs-Sulzberger dynasty, those families deeply feared the perception that their Times was a "Jewish newspaper."
The publisher Adolph Ochs was attacked in precisely that way for what was actually one of the newspaper's proudest moments: its public defense in the 1910s of Leo Frank, the Jewish man wrongly accused, falsely convicted and ultimately lynched for the murder of a Christian girl who had worked in his Atlanta pencil factory. Amid a wave of public criticism, Ochs suffered a nervous breakdown.
THE TIMES made certain not to repeat his putative mistake in later years. It gave scant or belated attention to reliable accounts of the German extermination of European Jews. It opposed Zionism. Even at a personal level, the Sulzbergers manifested discomfort with their heritage.
Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the publisher in the mid-20th century, "probably would just as soon not have been Jewish," his daughter Judith told Tifft and Jones. The next publisher, Arthur Ochs ("Punch") Sulzberger, married an Episcopalian and had their children baptized and confirmed. One of them is the current publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., nicknamed "Pinch."
As for the newspaper that Rosenthal entered in 1944 as a 21-year-old cub reporter, it preemptively assigned him the byline of A.M. Rosenthal, as it had similarly imposed initials on two other Abrahams, A.H. Raskin and A.H. Weiler. There were some identifiably Jewish names in the Times's pages, particularly that of the columnist Meyer Berger, but Abraham was considered somehow too Semitic, or perhaps too closely linked to its diminutive Abie, which could be an endearment or an ethnic slur, depending on whose mouth uttered it.
During Rosenthal's formative years on the paper, the leading editors included two Southern patricians, Turner Catledge and Clifton Daniel. The so-called "bullpen" of supervising editors tended to be mostly Roman Catholic.
Some of the Jews in the newsroom (or their parents) had Anglicized their names, Shapiro becoming Shepard, Topolsky becoming Topping. The foreign correspondent who would become Punch Sulzberger's closest friend, Sydney Gruson, succeeded in expunging the vestiges of an impoverished childhood in the Jewish slums of Dublin and Montreal until he exuded the fine breeding of a British gentleman. He is reputed to have said that his goal in life was to be the consummate weekend guest.
AMID SUCH company, Rosenthal stuck out for reasons that only began with his name. During his childhood in the Bronx he lost four of his five sisters to illness and his father to an accident on his housepainter's job. Rosenthal himself, stricken with osteomyelitis, lost use of his legs for a year and was cured only as the charity patient of a hospital. His life, suffused with tragedy and want, gave the lie to every nostalgic clich about Jewish immigration.
Even generations later, when I first met Rosenthal in the course of being hired as a reporter, there was nothing smooth about him. Nor was he the least bit apologetic about the rough edges. Rosenthal had been formed by the Amalgamated Houses, an apartment complex subsidized by the garment workers' union, and by City College, "the poor man's Harvard."
His brain was as restless as his clothes were rumpled. He hugged and he cursed, he inspired and he punished, he held grudges and sometimes he forgave. He was not A.M. He was Abe.
In his tempestuous nature, in his indifference to appearance, in his ravenous appetite for ideas and argumentation, he was a Jew from the Bronx. He could not have passed for a Gentile if it would have saved him from the Spanish Inquisition.
LIKE MANY American Jews of his generation, Rosenthal combined pride in his heritage with ambivalence about Judaism. He did not have a bar mitzva ceremony. He married and had children with an Irish Catholic, Anne Burke. He worked on the High Holy Days. He kept none of the dietary laws. Yet he also had an intimate acquaintance with the consequences of Jewish identity in an often-hostile world.
It was understood, during Rosenthal's early years as a reporter, that no Jew could represent the Times as a foreign correspondent. When the edict relaxed a bit, Rosenthal appealed for an open position in the Paris bureau. The answer came back from Cyrus Sulzberger, the publisher's nephew who was then serving as bureau chief, that Paris already had one Jew. Sulzberger meant Henry Giniger, the number-two man in the bureau. He did not even count himself as a member of the tribe. When Rosenthal finally went abroad, serving stints in India, Poland and Japan, the most enduring and influential article he wrote was about Auschwitz. He wrote it in 1958 - before Elie Weisel's Night, before the Eichmann trial, before the English translation of Primo Levi, before most Holocaust museums, memorials, and curricula.
Indeed, Rosenthal's editors on the foreign desk initially rejected the piece. Only through the admiring intervention of one particular editor did the dispatch wind up at the Times magazine. Words such as these have lost none of their power: And so there is no news to report about Auschwitz.
There is merely the compulsion to write something about it, a compulsion that grows out of a restless feeling that to have visited Auschwitz and then have turned away without having said or written anything would somehow be a most grievous act of discourtesy to those who died here.
WHEN ROSENTHAL returned from his foreign postings in 1963 to become the metropolitan editor, he chose as his deputy Arthur Gelb, another child of the Jewish Bronx. Their partnership remained intact until Rosenthal retired as executive editor 23 years later, and it very much included the ease with which both wore their Jewishness, if not necessarily their Judaism. While overseeing coverage first of the city and then of the nation and world, "Abe" and "Arthur" (as they were invariably known in the newsroom) never lost track of where to get the best egg cream. They shared a certain sensibility born of their common past - an affinity for immigrants and the working class, a belief in the uplifting power of art, a revulsion at radical politics and urban violence.
It seems appropriate that the greatest articles of the Rosenthal-Gelb era of city editing were cautionary tales about New York's descent into social chaos in the 1960s and 1970s - the revelation that 38 witnesses saw a Queens woman being slowly stabbed to death and did not call the cops; J. Anthony Lukas's prize-winning profile of a Greenwich debutante's hidden life as a hippie, which ended with her death; the discovery of a neo-Nazi's Jewish background, a disclosure that led to his suicide. Rosenthal and Gelb wrote a book about that last incident, entitling it One More Victim.
AS MANAGING editor and then executive editor, the posts he occupied from 1969 until 1986, Rosenthal undid one of the Times's final, unspoken limitations on Jews. This one held that no Jew could report on Israel, lest the bloody flag of dual loyalties be raised.
He installed David Shipler as bureau chief in Jerusalem, assuming, based on the reporter's surname and coarse black beard, that he was Jewish. Learning only after the appointment that Shipler was actually Gentile, Rosenthal waited several more years until the correspondent finished his tenure and then awarded the Jerusalem post to Thomas L. Friedman.
Far from ensuring favorable coverage of Israel, the combination of Rosenthal as editor and Friedman as correspondent resulted in tough, penetrating, controversial stories. Rosenthal had to be secure enough in his own Jewish identity to shrug off the innumerable attacks on him as being a "self-hating Jew."
This was the same Rosenthal who was an American patriot, and essentially a Cold Warrior, and yet had no hesitation about publishing the Pentagon Papers as well as Seymour Hersh's exposes of CIA dirty tricks. (After being pushed out as executive editor at the mandatory retirement age of 65, Rosenthal took on an op-ed column, and there he did give full-throated vent to his views on Israel, reliably espousing the Likud line through the 1990s.)
IN SOME personal ways, though, Rosenthal did change the nature of his Jewishness as he grew older. During the High Holy Days one year in the late 1960s, Gelb bought a pair of tickets to the Kol Nidre service at Central Synagogue in midtown Manhattan.
No longer observant himself, Gelb still held tender memories of the Kol Nidre liturgy from his childhood. He asked Rosenthal if he had ever been to the service. Rosenthal said no. So Gelb offered the spare ticket and Rosenthal took it, and the experience, as Gelb recalled the other day, "was an epiphany."
Midway through his 70s, Rosenthal returned to Central Synagogue to finally become a bar mitzva. I tend to think he did so less as evidence of a spiritual awakening than as confirmation of a soul that had been Jewish all along. On Sunday, May 15 his funeral was held there.
Central Synagogue is a grand, turreted place, and it is a symbol of a certain time and state of mind. Very much like Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue, to which some of the Sulzbergers belonged, Central Synagogue embodied classical Reform Judaism with its odd mixture of haughtiness and insecurity. Its sanctuary is a lavish, even arrogant setting for a denomination that shed the rituals and laws of Jewish tradition, in part to make a show of fitting in to its adopted land.
Rude, noisy, opinionated, earthy, sentimental, mercurial, stubbornly unreconstructed no matter how his second wife made him over with designer suits and bow ties, Abe Rosenthal in death as in life barged through the doors as himself, a journalist nonpareil and an American Jew.<