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September 10, 2020 4:57 am

Celebrate the High Holidays New York Times Style — by Pretending Orthodox Jews Do Not Exist

avatar by Ira Stoll


The blowing of the shofar, traditionally done on Rosh Hashanah. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A New York Times article on how to “Celebrate the Jewish High Holy Days, Pandemic Style” mentions seven rabbis but includes not a single Orthodox one.

The article appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday “At Home” section, which offers practical news-you-can-use to readers on the pandemic. It reports, “Good news: Because of the pandemic, conservative, reform and nontraditional synagogues are streaming services — available free, and to nonmembers — from their mostly empty sanctuaries. But if formal prayer isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways, some of them virus-inspired, to celebrate safely.”

As for Orthodox synagogues, the Times apparently thinks its readers aren’t interested. I say, “apparently,” because I emailed the author of the Times article, Courtney Rubin, to ask her why the article did not include any Orthodox voices, and she did not reply.

The entire “At Home” section adopts an instructional, verging on bossy, tone, with headlines ordering readers around: “Schedule Flu Shots for Children,” “Tune in to Tennis,” “Avoid ‘Text Neck’ and ‘Selfie Elbow.’” When it comes to Judaism, though, the Times’ advice is downright permissive: “Keep in mind that ‘observance’ is relative — anything goes if it feels right to you.”

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“Anything goes if it feels right to you” is a pretty good encapsulation of the religion of the New York Times, but it wanders pretty far afield from the Torah God gave the Jews at Sinai. That is a point that an Orthodox rabbi might have made, had the Times bothered to quote any in its article.

A Times article published in April about the new section reported that “Amy Virshup, the Travel editor, leads the At Home team.” Ms. Virshup has years of experience supervising one-sided Times articles in which the perspective of religious Jews is ignored. Back in 2016, she surfaced in Algemeiner coverage of a Times article that quoted four critics of Jewish religious schools but not a single defender of the schools. “The New York Times Tries Explaining Its Flawed Crusade Against Yeshivas,” the Algemeiner article was headlined.

It’s ironic, because earlier this month another senior Times editor, Marc Lacey, took to the pages of a journalism watchdog publication, Neiman Reports, to insist (there goes that instructional tone again) “Journalists Need to Remember That Not All News Readers Are White.” Not all news readers are non-Orthodox either. Lacey’s article concludes: “One of my former colleagues used to encourage Times correspondents to write their articles in the same voice they would use at a dinner party full of intellectually curious guests. He meant that we should be engaging and concise in our writing and that we should use language that is both conversational and highbrow. I found that advice useful but I’m going to add an addendum: imagine that your dinner party guests are a diverse lot.”

That diversity, when it comes to the Jewish community, includes readers who are Orthodox Jews, or who are curious about them. Such Jews are, after all, a growing segment of the population of the New York metropolitan area — nearly half a million of them, by one estimate. For whatever reason, the Times sometimes seems to pretend those readers do not exist, as if it could wish them away or scare them off by ignoring them or insulting them. Hiring more Orthodox Jewish reporters and editors might help, but this doesn’t appear to be a priority for the Times.

Instead, Orthodox Jews find themselves insulted, written out of Times coverage of the Jewish holidays, carted out for news coverage purposes periodically to be accused of spreading measles or Covid-19. One Chabad rabbi, Mordechai Lightstone, took to Twitter to express frustration: “An entire piece on High Holiday services during coronavirus in @nytimes and @courtneybrubin quotes zero Orthodox rabbis. This is total erasure of not just traditionally observant Jews, but also of the many Jews of all backgrounds that worship with them.”

A journalist at Tablet, Yair Rosenberg, commented on Twitter, “This is bad religion reporting and the NY Times should do better. I’m a big fan of some of the non-Orthodox rabbis and prayer leaders interviewed in this piece, but you can’t just ignore the Orthodox ones while claiming to cover ‘how to observe the High Holidays in a pandemic.’”

And a journalist at the Forward, Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, lamented: “A glaring erasure. Many Orthodox communities will be gathering in person — and some investing a lot of work & resources to make that as safe as possible. That might be slightly more complicated than ‘just go on Zoom!’, but journalists should…do that work.”

Some speculated that the Times has a separate piece in the works focused on Orthodox plans for the High Holy Days, perhaps by the paper’s new religion reporter, Ruth Graham, who is sharp and hardworking. The discussion of the whole situation disclosed that the Times actually does have at least a few perceptive and loyal traditionally observant Jewish readers. “No obligatory Heilman quote?” one said, referring to the Times practice of including, in virtually every article about Orthodox Jews, a quote from Samuel Heilman, a professor at Queens College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “No Orthodox. No Heilman,” replied another.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of the Forward and North American editor of the Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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