Jill Abramson, the just-annouced new editor of The New York Times, got a tattoo when she was 49. It was of a subway token and Abramson said she got it to re-affirm her roots as a lifelong New Yorker. And perhaps needless to say, a Jewish New Yorker. She spoke with New York magazine last year in a prophetic profile written when she was then the No. 2 editor at the paper, under Bill Keller’s one-spot. He announced his retirement today and Abramson as his successor.
Abramson’s promotion isn’t being celebrated as a victory for Jews. Hardly: the paper’s had more Jewish editors than any other I can think of. But it most certainly is a milestone for women. In The Times’ 160-year history, a woman has never had the highest spot, so Abramson has a lot to be proud of. As a young male reporter, I can say that women seem entirely commonplace in the newsroom, though in the lowly reportorial ranks. Very few are visible higher up. (An exception goes to Jewish Week competitors, The Forward and Tablet, both of which have women in charge.) Perhaps that’ll change now as the young women reporting make their way, and Abramson provides a inspiring example.
Equally significant about Abramson’s appointment is where she comes from: the digital side of newspaper-hood. True, she was born in the same print world as her parents, and as New York magazine wrote, in a very Jewish way: "She grew up on the Upper West Side in a family of rabid Times readers. ‘When I was pretty little, my mom was a consummate Times puzzler and she was very neurotic and she would not tear the puzzle out,’ Abramson recalled, ‘so everyone in my family had to wait till she finished the puzzle to read the magazine.’"
Over the past few years, however, she’s made the digital arm of the Times her baby, trying to make the Times’ website as big a player in new media as HuffPo and Politico before it. No doubt the New York journalism world will have a field day reading the tea leaves of Abramson’s past and what it will mean for the paper’s future. (Already, I am sure, The New Yorker has assigned someone to do a full length feature.)
For my part, I can only suggest caution as for what it might mean for Jews. Since Abramson is a high school alum of the Riverdale elite — and very Jewish — private school, Fieldston, many will probably read Freudian psycho-dramas into all those persnickety Jewish stories. But I was reminded of something Joseph Lelyveld, Keller’s predecessor, wrote in his 2005 memoir after he stepped down. I recently interviewed Lelyved for a profile about his new book on Gandhi and asked how his Jewish-ness affected the public perception of his paper’s coverage of Jewish issues, from Israel to Crown Heights.
As the son of Arthur Lelyveld, a revered rabbi, Zionist, and civil rights icon, Lelyveld faced that question a lot. When The Times wrote critical pieces of Israel, he rememberd being accused of covertly reacting against his father; and when the paper’s coverage of the Arab world was skeptical, he was, they said, simply regurgitating the views of his youth. So a word to the wise: Abramson’s paper will probably continue covering a lot of Jewish news, but don’t go reading her own Jewish identity into it.
By the way, the same advice goes for the subway token tattoo.