Why We Love Jewspotting


Jack Shafer has a smart piece in Slate about The New York Times penchant for writing "last Jews" stories. 

One would think that Jews, toughened by 4,000 years of hardship, would get a little more respect for their tenacity from the New York Times. Yet time and again the newspaper goes popeyed whenever it finds members of the tribe living outside the five boroughs and environs, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, and Chicago. …

Pseudo-exotic Jewspotting has become so common in the Times that the paper might as well turn the genre into a standing feature. …When the paper isn’t writing about small numbers of Jews living in what it considers to be unexpected places, it’s stumbling onto a forgotten Jewish cemetery (Tombstone, Ariz.[$]) or writing sad pieces about the last synagogue in Dushanbe, Alphabet City, Baghdad, Hartford, Bombay, or Corona. …

The impetus was the Times story about the Israeli bomb sniffing dog and the rabbi in Montana that I linked to on Sunday. That story happened to be a fascinating one, and extremely well told. 

But Shafer’s larger point has merit. Why exactly is it news that there are Jews in out of the way places? 

As someone who has written a few last Jews stories, and is in the process of writing another as we speak, I’ll throw out a few possible answers. For one, Jewish migration often suggests wider trends (Shafer notes this, and them lambastes the Times for not pointing it out). Second, like the Montana dog story, they are often inherently interesting.

Shafer seems to find it inexplicable that the Times marvels at finding Jews in places like Montana. But we all do, especially those of us who live in places like New York (where most Times writers live, which might explain a thing or two). Every time I’d tell someone I was going to write about Jews in Arkansas, I got the same response: There are Jews in Arkansas?!? 

Yes, I’d tell them, but only a handful. Clearly, this was news and I was reporting it. 

We might ask, of course, why that seems so surprising. Jews are a pretty well dispersed people (although considerably less so as time goes on). And ultimately my standard for news is different than the Times’. I write for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, so what’s happening with the Jews of Arkansas, or Montana, or wherever, is intrinsically newsworthy to us. 

But if Shafer is really in need of a news flash, he might try this one: The New York Times really likes writing about Jew-y stuff.

UPDATE: Shafer provides plenty of examples. But in case you needed any more proof, the Times just ran this piece on a Chanukah festival in Budapest by JTA regular Ruth Ellen Gruber.

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