Note: The coronavirus pandemic, a five-month-long gut punch and counting, wreaked havoc with our business model and forced us to let go of our Times Square offices.
The Art Deco, wedding-cake-shaped building The Jewish Week has occupied since 1993, the year Gary Rosenblatt took over as editor and publisher, has storytelling in its bones. 1501 Broadway, an iconic edifice like the nearby Brill Building, home to the pop music hit makers of the early 1960s, was the headquarters of Paramount Pictures. And it housed the Paramount Theatre, where in the late 1940s smitten bobby-soxers used to line up and scream for Ol’ Blue Eyes.
A few generations later, beginning in 1997, MTV began broadcasting from 1515 Broadway, just across 44th Street from our offices. Every afternoon around 4 p.m., “Total Recall Live” with host Carson Daly, began filming. A gaggle of preteen and teenage girls would squeeze together on Times Square under MTV’s window. When a boy band like N’Sync would appear, the high-pitched shrieks would pierce our offices. There were similar screams of “We love you, Carson” on a regular basis, prompting one of our editors to ask, “Since when do young girls get so excited about Johnny Carson?”
They were only-in-New York sightings and the squeals provided a new and distracting soundtrack as we rushed to get the paper out on Tuesday nights.
A year after MTV opened its studio, Times Square provided more drama — and threw our newsroom into a panic, on deadline day. New York City was in the middle of a building boom in the rah-rah ’90s. On the morning of Tuesday, July 21, part of the 48-story elevator tower of the Conde Nast building tore loose from the 700-foot structure and crashed into the Woodstock Hotel on 43rd Street, killing an elderly woman resident. Businesses in Times Square were evacuated and the Square was closed off. The New York Times, located around the corner, saved us; they were generous enough to give us access to a spare room on one of their lower floors and supplied us with computers. We moved our production operation there and somehow — miraculously — we got the paper out that night.
We’ve had our fair share of politicians come to the office and sit for interviews. Gov. Mario Cuomo arrived with an aide who was carrying an unexpected object: a wooden plank, something more suited to a strict tutor at a 19th-century boarding school than a legendary politician. This one, though, had the insignia of the State of New York on it. Turned out the governor was having chronic back problems and the plank was placed on the seat for support; he sat ramrod straight on the board throughout the interview. He must have had other boards because at the end of the interview he handed it to Rosenblatt, who held onto it for years in his office as a souvenir.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani was in for an interview in the late 1990s. He was taken into Rosenblatt’s office, which had windows facing the Square. He surveyed all the new construction taking place in Times Square — economic development flourished in his years as mayor and cranes, people would say, were the official birds of New York City. Then Rudy quipped to the editor, “Do you want to trade offices?”
Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, impressed some of us as extremely sharp and well briefed when she came to the office in 2000 during her U.S. Senate race against Rep. Rick Lazio (she spoke knowledgeably about the ambulance service Hatzalah, of all things). But it was her demeanor after the interview that caught the attention of the paper’s non-editorial department employees who waited around to catch a glimpse of her. Like a star athlete signing autographs long after the game was over, Clinton posed for photographs for everyone who wanted one — and there was a pretty long line.
The Sept. 11 attack fell on a Tuesday, our deadline day. In our corner of the journalism world, it was as if the terrorism that long plagued Israel had hit home here — a gut punch that staggered a nation. We watched the heartbreaking images repeated on an endless loop on television. We could see the black smoke billowing over the city from our windows. An image stays with me: A freelance photographer who had been near the towers when the planes hit came to our office to show us some pictures. His face and white shirt were smudged with soot, his shoes covered in an ash-like dust. He slumped in a chair in my cubicle, staring straight ahead, and handed me the photos. I don’t remember the words we spoke, but his expression — blank, drained, dead-eyed — was the face every New Yorker wore in the days and weeks after the attack. The gripping pictures made it into the paper. The ripped-up front page made it to the printer on time. Some of us couldn’t get home that night.
The Jewish Week did some hard-hitting reporting over the years but it could be a very heimish place. Whenever someone in the editorial department needed a Yiddish phrase defined, they’d head right over to the desk of our beloved longtime receptionist and den mother, Helen Gertz. Helen, who died in 2006, was an inveterate craftswoman with the crochet hook, and most of the children of Jewish Week staffers have a sweater or bootie or scarf she lovingly created. And she had a deep knowledge of Yiddish and always gave us just the right translation, with just the right inflection. But only after giving us a look that said, You didn’t know that?
After the Great Recession of 2008, a new phrase began to be heard around The Jewish Week offices, a corporate-seeming buzz phrase we probably would have edited out of a story as a vague euphemism: “revenue stream.” And so in a bid to bolster sagging ad sales, associate publisher Rich Waloff came up with The Jewish Week Kosher Wine Guide and The Jewish Week’s Grand Kosher Wine Tasting at City Winery. (Both rode the wave of an industry garnering critical notice.) Starting in 2009 (and continuing until this year), a panel of wine experts would descend on the paper’s offices in the early spring and set up shop in our conference room, where hundreds of bottles of kosher wines from all over the world were carefully wrapped in shiny silver paper with numbers affixed for the blind tasting. The swirling, sniffing and spitting of the oenophile judges (the spit buckets were emptied by staffers) were odd sights, to be sure, in a newsroom.
A final memory: Jews being the People of the Book, the office was flooded with a torrent of titles from publishers large and small. Week after week, the piles near my desk would grow. Many of the books (maybe most) related to the Holocaust — a seemingly endless stream of memoirs, histories, novels, graphic novels, photo books, academic and scholarly works. William Faulkner said about the history-haunted American South, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” The Holocaust books in our office were a constant reminder of that. If a Jewish newspaper is anything, it’s a continual dialogue, week after week in its pages, of the Jewish past talking to the Jewish present, the beauty and the burden of Jewish history leaning its weight on us today. For most of three decades we carried out that dialogue from our stage on Broadway, which seems only fitting.