Murray Zuckoff, a longtime JTA editor in chief, died Sunday in New York of lung cancer at age 79, after a long illness. Zuckoff served as JTA’s chief editor from 1969 to 1987. Those were important years for JTA and for Israel, as they spanned the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the Lebanon War.
In his own columns, Zuckoff wrote about a wide range of topics, including Israel, black-Jewish relations and the way Jewish issues are covered in the general media.
He also shed light on the issue of Jewish poverty at a time when it was a hushed topic in the Jewish community.
Zuckoff publicized the case of Jacobo Timerman, an Argentine Jewish journalist arrested and jailed during Argentina’s military dictatorship in the late 1970s and 1980s, at a time when Timerman’s credibility was questioned by some in the Jewish community, Zuckoff’s wife, Aviva Cantor, said.
"He was not afraid of controversy, not afraid of printing the truth," she said. "He was an old-fashioned journalist, except he didn’t drink."
But Zuckoff also believed that discretion was part of his role as a Jewish journalist, as he explained in an essay published in a book commemorating JTA’s 80th anniversary in 1997.
He had been told by Argentine Jewish community leaders, during a 1972 visit to South America, that they had decided to split the Jewish community’s vote during an election. Half would support the fascist regime of Juan Peron, while half would support the opposition, in order to ensure that the Jewish community would have a friend in office.
"Of course, I could not print that story at the time. I did at a much later date," he wrote, explaining that as a journalist for the Jewish press he felt he had to consider the safety of the Jewish community when making editorial decisions.
"Murray made an important contribution to world Jewry’s understanding of the tumultuous events rocking Israel and the Diaspora during the ’70s and ’80s," said Mark Joffe, who succeeded Zuckoff as editor and now serves as JTA’s executive editor and publisher. "He accomplished a lot, with very limited resources."
In addition to Cantor, Zuckoff is survived by three sons from his two previous marriages, and two grandchildren.
Born on New York City’s Lower East Side in 1925, Zuckoff was a reporter on the Morning Call in Paterson, N.J., before coming to JTA.
He taught English at Lehman College, now affiliated with the City University of New York, for a dozen years, and later served as editor of Midstream magazine.
Zuckoff, who in pictures from the 1970s has the shaggy hair and beard popular among intellectuals of the era, had wide-ranging interests. He loved books, jazz and folk art, and struck up friendships with Native American artists during trips to New Mexico and Arizona, Cantor said.
He also was an opinionated man, unafraid to share his thoughts in public or private. Once, when he and Cantor were traveling home from Israel, they had a layover in France. It was in the wee hours of the morning, Cantor remembers, and they and the other passengers were tired.
Zuckoff jumped out of line and accused French officials of anti-Semitism and of holding up the passengers only because the flight had originated in Israel.
"Soon after that, they started to process the passengers," she said.
He also nurtured numerous young journalists who worked as interns at JTA.
Adena Berkowitz, who was a high-school intern with JTA in the late 1970s, remembers Zuckoff as a mentor. On one occasion, she remembers receiving a flier with her morning newspaper advertising an evangelical Christian effort that was targeting the Jewish community.
She suggested — "meekly," she remembers — a story on the topic. Zuckoff gave her the go-ahead.
The next day, Berkowitz’s story was the lead in JTA’s Daily News Bulletin. When a newsroom staffer complained that Berkowitz had stepped on his turf, Zuckoff supported her.
"That’s what Murray was about," said Berkowitz, now a leading Orthodox Jewish feminist. "He had a gruff exterior, but he had the nicest interior."
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.