For some months, I wore the glittering large ring passed along by author Bel Kaufman, the grand-daughter of Sholem Aleichem, to her friend, novelist Ann Birstein, who shared it with me. The three of us would
meet for lunch from time to time, and it was so much fun to watch them laugh together.
Wearing the ring tied me to generations of great writers and Jewish humor.
Now, it almost feels like the most appropriate way to reflect back on 27 years of covering culture for The Jewish Week would involve long lists and gratitude — the names of the many creative types who shared their back stories with me and spoke of their hopes, their inspiration, their sense of how some aspect of Judaism, however defined, was expressed through their work. I so appreciate the candor, the originality, the passion for fine work and, in many cases, the friendships that ensued.
In this great city, the culture beat is vast; everyone has a story. I got to ride around with one of the last Jewish cabbies and watch the world’s most celebrated Bukharian dancers perform in a Queens public library. The Jewish Week has been an amazing calling card to extraordinary encounters.
I had a first-row seat to watch careers evolve and take off, like those of novelists Julie Orringer, Dara Horn and Nathan Englander, and artist Hanan Harchol. Gary Shteyngart gave his first public reading in advance of the publication of “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” at a Jewish Week event honoring New York writers soon after 9/11.
In the early years, I both chaired and attended many panels of (then) young Jewish writers talking about what characterizes Jewish writing. Now those writers are mostly middle aged and older, and still the questions about borders and identity linger. The best definition I’ve heard was offered by novelist Rebecca Goldstein, who said that something about being Jewish has to matter on the page.
For several years, I had the privilege of editing a monthly magazine of ideas for the paper called Text/Context, where we offered a mix of scholarship and journalism, and we sought out original art to fit themes like Community, Leadership, The Other and Prayer. The cover of the issue focused on Books featured a striking sculpture made out of books by Israeli artist Jack Vano, alongside a quote from 15th-century philosopher Abravanel, “What is written lasts forever.”
In addition to my affection for New York City, I became something of a specialist (and admirer) of Jews of the South, an unexpected detour as the only thing Southern about my own heritage is having grown up on the South Shore of Long Island. The Jewish Week hosted a conversation between Eli Evans, the great historian and poet laureate of Southern Jewry (“The Provincials: A Personal History of the Jews of the South”) and the Academy Award-winning screenwriter and playwright Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”), where 700 Southern transplants to New York City (both real and honorary) showed up. I then went on to travel with Evans and Uhry — both New Yorkers now — to Atlanta, Kansas City and other cities to tell true tales of the Jewish South.
Always preferring to meet people face-to-face, I’ve done interviews in cafés all over city, other people’s kitchens, the backstages of theaters, the diamond exchange, dance studios, Central Park, newsrooms at other papers, Jerusalem gardens and at least one mikvah. In person, there’s greater opportunity for revelation — and the unexpected.
And I was a witness to beloved writers and artists in their final years. I miss conversations with Elie Wiesel, Sherwin Nuland, Lucette Lagnado, Aharon Appelfeld, the painter Nathan Hilu and most recently, and very sadly, William Helmreich, who died of Covid. Helmreich walked every block of New York City and brought me to parts of New York City I had never seen before. I think often of photographer Leni Sonnenfeld, who worked until her death at 96 and told me, “Life doesn’t end at a certain age. I don’t want to leave this early. Not yet. I always think of what I want to do next.”
There’s a blogger who once wrote that the only book I didn’t like was “Mein Kampf,” and while he didn’t mean it as a compliment, I took it as such. I chose to write about books I liked, that I wanted to share with readers. Even if I didn’t love everything, I found things to praise and always respected how much goes into the creative process. Close readers of my column would tell me that they detected my lesser enthusiasms.
I often write in the quiet of very late night, and I have had the good fortune of a great editor in the mornings. I’m grateful too to our readers, many of whom I’ve been pleased to meet at book events, concerts and in line at Fairway. There are regrets too: for all the great books we had no space to cover in The Jewish Week, for the performances missed and exhibits unseen, and especially for not hearing the voices behind them.
If there is a connecting thread between the novels, memoirs, poetry, works of history, paintings, photography, theater and the people I have found compelling, it’s an attentive-ness to the moment, in some works a taste of the holy. Culture is about storytelling, and I savor the role of listener and reporter.
The last time I saw Grace Paley, she said, “I have always liked this being Jewish business. It’s meant something to me.” I’d say the same about the business of writing about talented Jews.