Ruminations on Writing
“New Project.docx” on my computer screen has enabled me to become the writer — if not the sportswriter — that I yearned to be as a teenager. Ever since I warily ventured into the computer world two decades ago, it has served as my gateway to writing. It was not an easy transition. By then I had written the first draft of five books and dozens of articles in scrawling script before transferring final copy to my venerable Remington typewriter.
I warily confronted the perils of modern “writing.” No longer were there pages to turn, only a battery of ominous commands: Edit, File, Format, and a list of Tools whose utility I could not begin to comprehend. Touch the wrong key, as I often did, and what I had written suddenly vanished. I had no clue how to find it. In time, with emergency guidance from family members and friends, I managed (more or less competently) the basic requirements of the relationship with my new electronic companion. But it was obvious which of us was truly in command.
Never was it more frustratingly evident than when I confronted the necessity of transferring 700 typed footnotes into their electronic twins (a six-step process for each footnote) to comply with my publisher’s requirement. After a week of numbing repetition, guided by my computer-savvy son, I sent the completed manuscript to my editor and succumbed to ten-hour night sleeps to restore my mental equilibrium.
I had been researching, writing, and rewriting this book for five years. It required seemingly endless days, weeks, months, and eventually years of on-line scrolling, trolling, and (by hand) note-taking. There were dozens of books to explore and archives in New York and Jerusalem for research. To be sure, I had already spent decades reading its daily print pages, ever since the October morning in 1945 when my father, pointing to the New York Times photo of an exultant baseball player greeted by jubilant teammates after hitting the game-winning grand-slam home run that clinched the pennant for his team, excitedly told me: “He’s our cousin!” So Hank Greenberg was — and so I became a daily reader of the Times.
I long ago realized, albeit reluctantly, that there was more to life than baseball. And to be sure, there was far more to the Times than its sports coverage. After living in Jerusalem for two years, many visits to Israel, and decades of breakfast encounters with Thomas Friedman, Anthony Lewis, and a bevy of editors, columnists, and op-ed contributors united in their disapproval of Israel, I realized that the Times had a Jewish problem worth exploring. So I became the explorer.
The Times provides on-line access to every article it has ever published. I needed only to enter two words: Zionism (between 1896 and 1948) and Israel (from 1948 to 2016). Why those years? Because Adolph Ochs purchased the newspaper in 1896, launching the enduring Ochs-Sulzberger dynasty that gave the Times its distinctive Reform Jewish identity, comprising anti-Zionism and relentless criticism of Israel. And 2016 marked its biblical life span: 120 years (Genesis 6:3). To be sure, it was intended for people, not newspapers.
There were tedious moments when I imagined that I might need to live to 120 to finish my project. I was mercifully spared, but I confronted an unexpected obstacle. As the author of 11 previous books (one of which, with pleasing irony, had received front-page praise in the Times Sunday Book Review and was selected that year as a “Noteworthy” book), I was reasonably familiar with the mysterious ways of publishers. But encountering unresponsive silence, occasionally punctuated by explicit rejection of my manuscript, I began to wonder.
Was my manuscript unworthy? Or were publishers unwilling to publish a book critical of the Times lest they earn its bad graces and lose coveted review attention? Only one editor (out of twenty-eight recipients) sent my manuscript to readers, one of whom suggested that I do a comparative study with other newspapers. That would have taken at least another decade.
Finally rescued by a responsive and enthusiastic editor at a small academic press, I launched on my delayed journey into print. My reward came when Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016 was selected by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer for Mosaic as a Best Book for 2019.
I knew that my book writing had ended. Scanning 11 titles atop my majestic 19th century oak roll-top desk, I can trace my protracted journey between covers. Their subjects included unequal justice in the legal profession; the leadership of rabbis and lawyers in American Jewish life; Hebron Jews; the Jewish refugee ship Altalena; The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel; and — in my memoir Jacob’s Voice — myself. I was the explorer, the discoverer, the judge of who and what would be remembered and why.
I continue to enjoy the perverse pleasure of breakfast reading the New York Times for its innovative ways to express relentless fault-finding with Israel. (I read the Wall Street Journal for journalistic sanity.) My mornings are for writing, with eager anticipation of online appearance a day or two later on Jewish opinion sites. So the journey of discovery continues.
Jerold S. Auerbach is a frequent contributor to The Algemeiner.