On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review June 12, 2000/ 9 Sivan, 5760

Robert Leiter

A Jewish journalist bids adieu

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- JONATHAN ROSEN’S loving farewell to a decade’s worth of work at the English-language Forward (May 26 issue) offers an honest and revealing look into the thinking of artistic-minded young Jews as the 20th century wound its way to a close.

Rosen was with the Forward project from the start. He notes that founder and editor-in-chief Seth Lipsky engaged him in 1990 to create the Arts & Letters section of the paper. Rosen’s departure is tied — for those who don’t read the media gossip — to Lipsky’s own leavetaking.

But a decade ago, Rosen writes, he was filled with ideas and anxiety about what to make of the Forward’s arts section. He opens his piece with an anecdote about how he approached the respected editor and critic, Irving Howe, one of his literary heroes, for some advice. It made impeccable sense to Rosen, since Howe’s massive history of the immigrant experience in America, World of Our Fathers, first introduced him to the workings of Abe Cahan’s original Yiddish Forward.

It turned out, however, that Howe was in no way eager to meet with the fledgling editor. “The notion of a reborn Jewish Forward did not excite him,” Rosen writes. “Nevertheless, I noodged [sic] him into it. ‘Who if not you?’ I asked on the phone. ‘You taught a whole generation to care about Yiddish culture.’ I was in my 20s and had been, not long before, a graduate student in English literature with plans to write a dissertation on Milton’s Paradise Lost. I wasn’t even sure that I cared about a reborn Forward. But somehow, it had become my job to care, and the more I talked about it the more I believed in it.”

Howe eventually gave in, and the two met at a coffee shop on the Upper East Side. Rosen spoke of his plans.

“Here was an opportunity for a renaissance of Jewish American culture,” he told the older man. “The paper could build a bridge between the past and the future. Between popular culture and high culture. Between Israeli letters and American Jewish letters. The journey into American assimilation was complete. The time had come for the journey back.”

Though Rosen writes that Howe listened respectfully, he wasn’t convinced and was bluntly honest about how dismal he thought the prospects were for the paper.

But Rosen forged ahead anyway.

He writes: “In the 10 years I have worked at the Forward I have gone from feeling that nothing was stranger than my new career at a Jewish newspaper to feeling that nothing could be more obvious, even inevitable. It took me a long time to stop pining for the time Jewish writers made their escape from the smothering embrace of their immigrant origins and fled into the open arms of America. I was born into the accepting America to which these writers fled, and my story would have to be different. What I discovered is that there is romance and urgency to life in every generation and that every generation has its own story to tell.”

What is most touching about the piece is Rosen’s admission that he himself had not been sure of the efficacy of a reborn Forward, and that he had almost gone in the other direction, to the “Christian” embrace of English literature. Added to that was the further admission that Lipsky, who fought to get the paper on its feet, had his own ambivalence about leading so obvious a Jewish life.

It only proves once again that the Jewish journey is an astonishing one, and that all hope is not lost. If two such near “misses,” such “committed secularists,” could make their way back to Jewish life — and make such a deep, powerful contribution — then many more can do even more modest “returns.”

Rosen and Lipsky will be missed.

JWR contributor Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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